In effect, the weather was Scandinavian that night. At the Nordic Heritage Museum, the Norwegian Male Chorus were warming up: 60 men in alarmingly bright red ties and navy jackets shuffling on creaking risers, shifting, unsmiling. One chunky boy, about 10, was lost in the men's midst. The group filled the little stage to its edges, making the proscenium look tiny.
The men of the Norwegian Chorus are almost all silver-haired, large of forehead, and clean shaven (except for the choral leader, Alf L. Knudsen, who sports a bear-beard). In other words, retirees. At the rear of the auditorium, women moved about a kitchen speaking soft Norwegian, heating urns of coffee. Perhaps the evening's purpose was music, but it seemed more about that delicious and animal desire people have to congregate.
The Norwegian Male Chorus (NMC) is a long-standing tradition in both the States and Scandinavia, originally linked with Masonic-type orders in the early part of the century. There's an all-female Norwegian version, and Swedish versions, too. The purpose of these choirs, according to NMC veteran member Harry Solheim, is to "keep the spirit of the old country alive." The concert was a benefit and crowded with folks, about 150--more audience than lots of bands get downtown.
"Welcome to February!" Director Knudsen proclaimed to the audience, who laughed politely. Then the pack of singing men launched into a vaguely martial-sounding tune, "Skona Maj" (May Song).
A friend of mine had a chemistry-based theory about elderly men: As the body ages, testosterone diminishes and a sweet quality in formerly gruff, type-A guys emerges and prevails. That idea seemed true as I watched the NMC. These singing men were positively sweet. Sweetness is necessary, in part, to sustain community. And sweetness is mysterious: It comes and goes, and even the most abused, cheated-out-of-life people can be authentically sweet. What slimy brain chemicals cause someone to care platonically about someone else? Is it anything beyond self interest?
Before the show, passing among the white-haired men in their uniform suits with service medals dangling from their coats, I could not avoid the scent of their ruddy cheeks, chill-metallic with scents of aftershave and cologne that were, in fact, sweet.
But not too cloying. The room contained that warm ambience of community that is certainly momentary and thus causes a sensation of lack. Folks called out to each other: "Hey, they speak better English over there [in Norway] than they do over here!" Laughter. "Hey! Is there polka dancing afterwards?" Laughter.
"Okay, fine! Me and Rudy will go over here and talk fish talk!"
After each chorus number, among the onstage singers there was a great wiping of foreheads and eyes with handkerchiefs. Soon, the guest soprano, Lisa Knudsen Ganung (daughter of Alf), swirled onstage in a national costume, singing three pieces by Grieg. Before she began, all 60 chorus men hunkered down on the bleachers as cheerfully as if they were waiting for lunch. In the rear of the crowded auditorium, a little boy made continuous farting noises.
In 30 years, if you are old, what else will there be to do on a Saturday night but go and hear music with your friends, chat, and laugh? It's deadly predictable, but you could certainly do worse. The folks at the Norwegian Chorus were chiefly male/female married couples, with some old bachelors about. Everyone wore suits and the kinds of dresses women buy at Lerner's. Some sported walking sticks. And, like teenagers, they listened to this music as if they'd never heard it before, as if this Saturday night were new, each song something fresh to consider. It's strange, this native faith that life will surprise and be new again and again; just like the human propensity for generosity is strange, given that we're a violent species, rageful and Neanderthal in groups, and prone even to hurt those we love best.
Sometimes the warmth of community is all you have, even though it's changeable, fragile, given to dissolution. Beckett talks about the "wilderness" that exists beyond the deadening social motions we go through every day. But if you are sweet enough to be afraid of the wilderness, you might be strong and even non-melancholic.
Then the performance was over and someone said it was raining outside.
They cleared away the chairs and made room for an accordion player and dancing, and the ladies spread out napkins. Everyone stayed and chatted, eating homemade buttery-yellow pastries and drinking scalding coffee. Tarts topped with shards of sharp Gjestost cheese were weirdly delicious. The room grew warm and the atmosphere tonic, to the point that it seemed this friendliness and absence of threat must exist at the roots of life everywhere. The boy who had been making farting sounds now ran around like a freed chicken, ducking behind the small portable bar, where a volunteer Chorus member cheerfully passed out Diet Coke and Sprite.
I approached the soprano in her "Bunad" (traditional dress) and asked her how the Norwegian Male Chorus has impacted her life. "How do I put it?" she said. "It's always been part of me. I've grown up with this group of guys who came here tonight, and singing with them is like coming home. I don't know what life would be like if they didn't exist."
Outside, the night-silence of residential Ballard was huge. Market Street was quiet too, a stringy street in a little city made of hills. Every night of the year the hills are embedded with yellow lights--sure evidence of homes, community, treachery, warmth.
Back on Capitol Hill, a 30-ish longhaired rocker boy at the Broadway & John bus stop reached his arms around a rocker girl about the same age; the oily, nappy scent of their collective hairspray and leather jackets was reminiscent of bug repellent. The boy's hands were loaded with silver rings. She was trying to bring him in gently, seduce him, maybe just for a while, or maybe she was trying to keep him. "Angel," she said. "We're gonna do something really different tonight. You'll see."