In and out of God’s ear

St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne on a warm Sunday evening in Lent: the setting sun pours through the yellow-paned clerestory windows and along the tall stone transept. The aureal glow trickles over the heads of a few dozen faithful attendants, tiny motionless figures far down in the dark valley of the nave. Up here on the choir platform twelve of us are singing the offertory motet, Ecce quomodo, moritur justus. It reverberates and swells down the building and eddies back toward us heavily. Gesualdo’s music is a dark sky through which opposing armies of moist air, one warmed by grace, the other chilled in mortal fear, meet above the field. The collision drags the cold under. A spiral of cloud plunges earthward, as, though inverted on different scales of time and weight, the edge of one continent is said to plunge under the other, melting into the black heat of the earth as the other rears up to form ice-catching mountains above it. Et erit in pace, memoria ejus. A chord of light spears Gesualdo’s turbulent, imploring gloom. The hell-heaven of that murdering, penitent prince is made still for as long as the twelve of us can sustain our slow, controlled exhalation.

*****

It’s good to be singing again, and such deliciously difficult music too, after a long absence from that odd little universe made up of church choir people. Nearly every strange country, nearly every new town has found me a choir to orient head-above-feet. It hasn’t always worked, but more often than not singing has been a foundation stone to reorient a wayward direction.

I heard choral music during the first year away from home at the Hostel for Boys, run by the Anglican cathedral (alluded to in a previous hallucino-realist article as the Cathedral of St Lucifer Before The Fall) in Wangaratta, a tobacco town in northeast Victoria. I went through a self-protective fat phase after we emigrated to Australia, and by the age of twelve had transmogrified into someone like Piggy in William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies. During the first hostel years my un-sexy pre-pubescent plushness kept the roving eye and hairy muscular body of the hostel warden off me, (if not the hands of those rude bullyboys) but it also housed an inner playground on which a world evolved out of bits of books remembered, myths absorbed, poured out on piles of butcher’s paper, charcoal-drawn or water coloured with snow-capped volcanoes and piratical galleons. We hostel boys were compelled to go to Church on Sunday, and to put, at minimum, a twenty-cent coin in the plate. So, every Sabbath morning between ten and eleven I’d hear the pipe organ rumble and the choir soar. Would I be allowed to sing up there?

One Sunday afternoon I summoned the nerve, auditioned with Father Harvie and sailed in to his domain on my high C. Gothic arches, spires and organ pipes were added to my day-dreamy storehouse of motifs. The late Father Harvie (who is worth a story of his own) was a tall, waspish priest of a high-Edwardian cast. He was a fine musician who — with withering sarcasm, the threat of, and boxing of ears, and when he really let go, an ascension in the manner of a grande-dame upon rhetorical flights of aesthetic encouragement (which often involved an allusion to the satisfied ears of no less a person than Her Majesty The Queen) — wrung and wrought musical gold from the lungs and mouths of his little tribe of sniggering boys, doltish altos and snidely whispering tenors and basses. We did the Messiah every year with soloists hired from Melbourne. We did the usual Anglican cycle of masses and Magnificats, and anthems such as Mendelssohn’s O for the Wings of a Dove and Allegri’s Miserere. I got my turn at soloing both: the former is on a cassette tape somewhere in the closet, but the latter, only a blow to my adolescent pride. My turn came at the end of my treble days, on a morning when I could no longer manage the high C. One of the basses had to do the ultimate note each time on his flute, with me coming back in on the run down. The shame was worse than sexual shame.

Father Harvie was, under his peculiar mask, decent and patient enough with children, and I ended up boarding with him in the grand Old Rectory on weekends rather than be driven the sixty-five miles home. I suppose he was my father figure (as he was to other boys from messed-up families). I got my love of gilded things, marble floors, antiques and an elegant turn of phrase from my time residing with him. The Wangaratta choir ended up being (as it might not have been for Piggy) a refuge as well as a relatively healthy direction during adolescence. It’s turned out to be not such a bad foundation.

I wandered off onto other paths, steep, sharp and primrose strewn, and didn’t sing again until university years in Western Australia, when the main social outlet for music students was the Perth Undergraduate Choral Society. We chorused for a university production of Purcell’s King Arthur. We did Gabrieli Cori Spezzati with trombones in the university hall, David Fanshawe’s African Sanctus with rock group, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the youth orchestra. We had a blast. On more than one early morning after the all-night parties that followed big concerts, we’d end up at Swanbourne beach on the Indian Ocean, skinny-dipping, the eldest seventy and the youngest seventeen. We sang hard and drank — probationers received, as standard issue, a medicine bottle of ‘Lurgie Linctus,’ a mix of port and brandy to be sipped as needed during rehearsal. Some of us smoked a lot of weed and, mindlessly lucky, ploughed and sowed our way through the choir in diverse ways hetero, homo, and both. I vaguely remember relishing the conviction that life was a bitter, meaningless tragedy, but it wasn’t, was it?

After that, another escape from Down-Under, first to London, for a stint as the Cantor in an archly-conservative, cryptically gay “ritualist” church in Pimlico, then a quick exploratory trip to New York, which became, on and off, home for nearly fifteen years.

Trinity Church Wall Street paid its singers the best rates in Manhattan. A mid-week rehearsal and a Sunday morning service covered a modest Brooklyn rent. I got in, not on vocal technique but on sight-reading ability (a fragment of Anton Webern, so my diary says). It was a thrill to be vocally out of my depth and yet fit in as a musician. It was a socially active group too, some of us were loud and queenily, blue-stockingly clever. The thrill was almost too much. I spent sleepless adrenalin-filled nights composing limericks for each one of my comrades, a way of letting off nocturnal steam.

Here are a few samples:

With a leer, Signor Urreiztieta
Once fondled a Spanish Pieta.
Mary took him to tasque
Crying, “Impious Basque,
You’ve polluted our Mystical Thieta!”

Miss Harrison once played a male
In Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
Her vital statistics
And vocal gymnastics
Brought opera buffs off, without fail!

A serial composer is Joel
But his soul has its opposite pole
His id’s a gorilla
A soprano killer
With dodecaphonic control

Sex games in the choir loft bored Ana
When cruised she sighed “Maybe Mañana”
When a bisexual fruit
Once tried to recruit
Her, she scoffed “I don’t go for bañana”

We were New York ‘professionals,’ and as such, when not drinking coffee and eating bagels, or reading the Village Voice, or smoking Dunhill Extra Milds or Sobranie Black Russians on Trinity’s Broadway steps during those tiresome interludes not requiring song, some of us got up to mischief.

The Trinity organ, an imposing Aeolian-Skinner machine, has a smooth, worldly, American Empire sound. If one were to compare the cascades of brilliance produced by its ranks of brass and mixtures with the soul-shattering blasts produced by the organ of Notre Dame in Paris, for example, the effect produced by the Trinity organ is not so much the mysterious shiver of light through flaws in the ancient glass, than a splay of laser beams through prisms of Perspex. Now, up in the organ/choir loft sat a huge orchestral tam-tam. During the presentation of the gifts, when the priest raises the glinting stack of collection plates over the altar, Owen Burdick, organist and music director, would work the sound up to a big, bad, Trompetto Stupendoso Battaglio Imperiale orchestral fortissimo appropriate for a 1950s biblical movie-orgy of pagan abasement before the golden calf. And we (the naughty ones) would chorus, “the monnneeeeeyyyy!” as someone struck that tam-tam in a muscular, reverberating crash worthy of the Rank Organization’s mighty gongman. If we got bored with that, then during the prayers intoned by the priest during the Eucharist we’d croon the line along with him in a mellow, barely audible jazzy major seventh parallel organum.

We sang some devastatingly good music: Durufle’s four motets on Gregorian themes, Palestrina’s Surge Illuminare, Herbert Howells’ Nunc Dimittis from the St Paul’s service, imperial music, but with oceanic deeps of heart and soul. We sang this at the Trinity Institute service one January; a big, splashy evening full of priests swanning around urbanely, networking, enjoying the fruits of their small, exclusive civilization. We sang Josquin, Bach, lush Samuel Wesley and clean Richard Dering; simple, starched, creamy white lavender-scented sheets of sound. The high point in my recollection of Trinity: Take Him, Earth, For Cherishing, which Herbert Howells wrote for John F Kennedy’s memorial service. It begins in unison, before the line branches out in rich tributaries of harmony between paths that wind high and low. The emotion intensifies, peaks and does not break (this is the key to its potency), and dies back until the final bass notes rumble into silence.

We sang some duds: Behold Now Praise the Lord, a gemütlich, Eisenhower-era chorus by one Everett Titcomb, like a Presbyterian palm court waltz. At the first run through we hooted and threw the music into the middle of the choir room. In revenge, Burdick made us wade through a never-before-performed Trinity commission by one Charles Wuorinen, with organ accompaniment containing unplayable notes scored below the instrument’s range. We yowled our way through that too and it was put away. No one had ever touched the copies before, and maybe no one since.

Burdick (brilliant improviser, himself quite fun in a cynical, sottish schoolboy way) fired the whole choir one year after the Easter season was done, except for a couple of mild mannered stalwarts who had no place else to go.

I wandered off to the Pacific North West for a while. As for choral music and its related social world, New York had spoiled me rotten. Not being patient enough to make the adjustments that needed to be made, I spent brief periods with various ensembles, a couple of fine ones among them, and sank into a dark stew. Seattle society was, to my hot-headed, moody and perfectionist self, unnervingly polite and chilly (rather like Melbourne). I reached my nadir one evening, having got recklessly drunk at a St Mark’s Compline Choir party, declaiming in lonesome frustration to a very pleasant and talented young conductor; “God, Seattle’s full of such one dimensional people!

I fled to the mountains every weekend after that, warming up in the foothills of the Cascades and eventually burning the crap away in delicious solitude, cooking it up the imperturbable, ice-capped crests of Baker, Adams, Rainier and Hood.

I ended up back on the West Coast a decade later, ten tears older, to Oregon this time, and while in Portland I got to sing with the ensemble Cantores in Ecclesia, in one of the second-tenor chairs right next to our mellow and friendly Black Lamb editor. My first week with the group we did Victoria’s Requiem of 1605 in the enormous chapel of The Grotto, a sanctuary in a grove of pines a few miles out of the city. Ah, swimming those currents again, the slow, sombre river of Spanish Catholic heaven. The Grotto chapel is a concrete and marble Art Deco cave with watery murals, huge bronze doors, and ponderous resonance — like the swimming pool on the SS Normandie, I thought. I was settling into Portland, thanks again to that odd human universe made up of church choir people, and Portland was getting accustomed to me, but family matters necessitated a hasty return to Australia after a busy six months.

*****

Sunday evening’s proceedings are almost done here at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The sun has set. The Dean has delivered one of his fulsome ‘fireside chats’, with morsels of spiritual and social wisdom doled out to each and every one of us as though from a plate of friendship cookies, or poured into our waiting cups from a nice warm pot of tea. Down in the nave, the crisp lines of the hammerbeam roof have dissolved into a tenebrous cavern above the candles and lamps. The corporeal, sanguineous mysteries have been revealed and consumed. The wafers have been tucked backed into their box, the wine flask stoppered. We sing the golden vessels back to the tabernacle with the communion chant. The line of chant pulses, rising and falling. The spirit within each note and syllable intensifies along every crest and valley of sound. It peaks several times but does not break, held in peace by a steady metrical pace (the key to its potency) before descending to rest around the heads of those few dozen faithful attendants, tiny motionless figures far down in the dark valley of the nave. Passer invenit sibi domum, et turtur nidum, ubi reponat pullos suos: Even the sparrow finds a home, the swallow finds a nest wherein to place her young.

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org.

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