I have read the New York Times every morning for much of my adult life, although lately there have been mornings when I have put this activity off until later in the day…there just hasn’t been much good news. It’s difficult to find articles that aren’t directly or indirectly related to our current shared situation.
It’s been difficult to write something useful here – something that will be helpful to choral directors in particular, during this uncertain time. Many know more than I do about how to run rehearsals via Zoom, or how to stitch together virtual performances from individual videos, although I am learning about things like this, and live streaming, and recording: more than I expected to find myself doing right now. Still, I do not feel I am very qualified to help others learn these new skills quickly.
The truth is, although my personal situation is fortunate – I have not taken sick nor has anyone in my family, we have more than adequate food supplies and are able to work and attend classes from home, my wife and I remain employed for the time being – despite our good fortune, emotionally it has been up and down for me.
Times like this test everyone.
Like everything else, this too shall pass – the most constant aspect of existence is impermanence, after all. Change. I know this, yet I am not always able to find the calm and serenity I need to be able to lead others in this time – at least, I am not always able to find the reserve of serenity that I know exists within myself without outside assistance.
So here are a couple of suggestions that have helped me, in case you have experienced a similar need for a little help in finding a peaceful place within yourself from which to move through your days.
Music as medicine:
Spiegel im Spiegel & Für Alina
For about a week now I have been listening to this album every day. Sometimes I put it on in the background while I am engaged in a quiet task, sometimes I put it on and just lie down and listen. If you have this album just put it on already! There is nothing else like it.
Arvo Pärt‘s music is familiar to many choral directors by now, and several of his (many) choral works are already regarded as masterpieces. These two pieces are spare, quiet instrumental works. The album Alina was released on ECM in 1999; these are the only two pieces on the album. Spiegel im Spiegel is played three times, interspersed with two performances of Für Alina.
If you don’t have the album, here are performances of these pieces available on Youtube:
If, like me, you are in need of a little serenity these days, trust me: this music helps.
Hearing Solar WInds
This remarkable recording is the most profound essay in solo and choral overtone singing I have ever heard.
I’ve heard and practiced a fair amount of this kind of singing over the years. I first experienced it in person in March 1984 at a new music festival held by California Institute of the Arts. The event was held in conjunction with the 1984 Summer Olympics, and the headliner was the emperor of new music at that time, the one and only Karlheinz Stockhausen. I couldn’t stay away and attended the entire festival: I was 18. Highlights of the festival included a once-in-a-lifetime performance of Sternklang, several performances of music from Licht, and a performance of Stimmung which changed the way I listened to the human voice forever.
Over the next few years I encountered overtone singing in the music of the Gyoto Multiphonic Choir courtesy of Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and eventually in the work of David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir, whose pioneering exploration of the technique I became acquainted with through the Gurdjieff Work. Inspired by the possibilities and by this album in particular, for nearly two years in the early 1990s I gave a pastor’s son in downtown Nyack, New York free piano lessons in exchange for a key to the sanctuary of his old stone church so that I could practice overtone singing (or harmonic chant, as David Hykes calls it) there in the early morning several days a week before I went to my teaching job.
This is Rainbow Voice, the first track on Hearing Solar Winds. To listen to the entire album on Youtube, click “Watch on Youtube” in the bottom right corner of the imbedded screen above.
Hearing Solar Winds is Hykes’ first album, recorded in 1982 with six other singers: an hour of wordless, unaccompanied overtone singing. It is at once artistic statement, pedagogic demonstration, and spiritual journey. Set aside an hour for this one: lay down, and quietly listen while doing nothing else.
©2020 Walter Bitner
Walter Bitner is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, conductor, and teacher, and serves as Director of Education & Community Engagement for the Richmond Symphony in Richmond, Virginia. His column Off The Podium is featured in Choral Director magazine, and he writes about music and education on his website Off The Podium at walterbitner.com.