What is it about choral music that makes me feel like a ball of sound-light is breaking out of my chest, piercing my loneliness with the pure power of its melodic force? Why does a soprano's voice seem to clean the air of impurities? How do I explain the visceral thrill I experience when I hear a tenor's high F note ripple through a soprano's steel-beam E as the whole chorus joins for the first time in the Voices of Ascension's version of Josquin des Prez's "Ave Maria"? The overflowing tenor, the power of all four vocal ranges straining to sing the Latin word for "solemn" in the most joyous, melodic way possible, seems to acknowledge the intensity of the struggle to enjoy life despite the fact that every ounce of joy obscures a pound of pain.
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I'm not religious, I don't read Latin, I didn't grow up with a love of group singing, but, for some reason, as an adult, whenever I hear classical choral music, my senses feel sharpened and soothed at the same time. When I confessed my newfound love of choral music to one of my friends, she told me about the Compline Service at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral, a performance she occasionally attends, which happens every Sunday evening. We went together one Sunday—admittedly a little stoned—and lay out on a blanket near the altar (a surprising but common practice among regulars) and looked up at the spare concrete walls.
St. Mark's looks the way it does because the original construction is technically unfinished. Early drawings of the church reveal plans for a neo-Gothic cathedral crowned with pinnacles, but budget slashes related to the Great Depression forced the team to use bare concrete instead, before financial issues halted construction altogether in 1931. When they finally got the space back, the church added a few administrative buildings and, later on, a glass and steel screen (called a reredos) behind the altar, but basically kept the minimalist look.
"People like it," said Maria Coldwell of St. Mark's Canon for Operations.
My friend and I got there around 9 p.m., and at precisely 9:30 p.m. the all-male chorus shuffled into the room quietly, their robes ruffling behind them, and opened their books and began to sing. In that moment I discovered the singular pleasure of imagining the sound waves of interwoven human voices soaring up the timber pillars that support the church's vaulted ceilings and bouncing around the reredos and the rose window as all that glass blushed pink, then orange, and then dark blue as the sun sank behind the Olympics. It was the first time I'd ever accessed the spiritual by way of some religious practice. Something about the combination of the architecture, the fellowship, and the music gave me a little peek into the ineffable.
But, like all things I automatically like, I began to question my affection. Why would a heathen like me find such pleasure in music that seems so firmly rooted in a Christian tradition? To get the most out of it, do I need to buy into that tradition, or is there a secular out? Was I actually having a spiritual moment in St. Mark's, or can sweet science reaffirm my faith in the one true god of entropy and nothingness? I called an academic to find out.
I brought my concerns to Dr. Heather MacLaughlin Garbes, founder and artistic director of Mägi Ensemble, a choral group in Seattle, and she, like many academics, enlarged my world.
In August of 1989, she says, two million people in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania formed a 420-mile-long human chain—from Tallinn to Riga to Vilnius—and opened their mouths in song. It was part of a movement called the Singing Revolution. The event was a nonviolent protest against the Soviet regime, which had, among other attempts at destroying the culture of the Baltic people, censored the folk and popular songs that they often sang at public rallies. The Singing Revolution received lots of media attention and ultimately helped to end the Cold War in that region.
The history of folk choral music in that area runs deep. Citing pagan traditions, people believe that the impulse to sing in groups was inspired by birdsong. Many of the songs sung in concert concern the harvesting of stuff, the planting of stuff, and other aspects of daily life. Choral music in this tradition, then, has, in part, developed outside of the context of Christianity, and so can be enjoyed in a secular, albeit kinda woo-woo way.
But that's folk stuff. The "Ave Maria"–type classical choral music began as Gregorian chant, which was the foundation of the Roman church service, Garbes says. Later on, the composers Léonin and Pérotin at Notre Dame Cathedral took the one-line Gregorian chant and added additional parts, which developed into what we now consider "choral" music. Garbes argues that though the sources of the songs are sacred, they're meant to be "performed in concert and outside of the church setting, so there is not a worshipping connection to those pieces." Given the ubiquity of choral music in popular culture (think movies and video games), "the connection of this music to the church and belief is no longer required," as it would have been back when the church was the center of public life in the West.
And while growing up in Western culture does guide my musical tastes—if I'd grown up in Japan, for example, my soul would have been trained to come at the twangy call of the samisen—that's not the whole story. There's definitely a biochemical reason for my enjoyment of the music. Referencing a recent study in Nature Neuroscience, Garbes says that your body releases dopamine when you hear music that you connect with emotionally. She also mentioned initial, nonconclusive studies that show some choral members fall into the same breathing patterns, heart rates, and even emotional states as other choral members, which audience members can pick up on, too.
This is all excellent and welcome news for me. Choral music's roots stretch beyond the spiritual and into the political, the everyday toil of people simply going about their lives. And the effect that I described as spiritual might just be a squirt of dopamine and the feeling of experiencing a deep, animal connection with another human being whom I don't know, the feeling of the song unlocking channels of empathy between us. This possibility reminds me of a phrase that Garbes says she heard a lot when visiting the Baltic region to research the Singing Revolution: "We may be strangers when the song starts, but we'll be friends when the song ends."