They came as if they were a tidal movement and for the first time in a long while the church began to hum with steady ebb and flow of congregation. A token of a devout past and a different people who came before us, most of the week the building stood proud and empty but was filled to bursting one evening a week. First a steady rise of bodies, then a plague. It wasn’t the service they came for – Sunday mass was as scantly populated as ever – it was the Singing.
In the beginning it appeared to be the result of the promotional work the choirmaster had done in local papers and church groups. Of course he was pleased and saw the increased attendance as both a quantifiable affirmation of the value of his work and the result of it. People were looking for answers, he had told himself, and they seemed finally to know where to find them. Each session’s new members – the early adopters were the students and artists, those outsiders open to suggestions – were met with an earnest handshake, issued a Sacred Harp hymnbook and shown how to follow the simple shapes of the notes on the board.
They arrived as spectators, listeners and witnesses, but within the first hour they had taken up their positions in the uniform ranks of the Singing. Four pew sections facing the empty space in the centre. They take it in turns to stand, move to the front and centre of the room and count out the song. They speak first the page number, which is called louder by another so all can hear, then there is the hustle of pages being turned and then the counter begins to count. The work of each counter was pure in its simplicity: To count nothing, to mean everything. Each movement of the hand was an imperative. To stay temporal momentum by announcing its origin with the practiced looped pacing of the hand in a circular motion. The first round is sung in sounds only for the melody as depicted by the shape of the notes on the page, triangles, squares, circles. These signs summon the presence of the purest, most primal of sounds in the singers. These signs and the counter are in reflexive harmony and banish everything but themselves. The counter keeps on raising and dropping their hand, plucking the beat with the pulse of a flat palm in the air, rise and fall. The newcomers saw a childlike authenticity to all this. This was work in and for itself, labour and emotions they were not used to.
But then after some weeks of this the pews in their rank and file could no longer contain the bodies that wanted to attend and they were full before the session had even started. The choirmaster had to arrive earlier and earlier to maintain some semblance of order and was required to lead the Singing later into the night at the demands of the impatient singers, the new counters that stood time and again to take their turn. These were ill at ease people with a desperate look about them and hungry, expectant faces. What could he offer such a solemn display of enthusiasm? Nothing more than any other choir could, which was a body of voices to swallow you whole into the vivid blur of sound and the commitment to tradition and its revival.
The after-work crowd started to arrive in small, solemn groups, in suits and loafers with their neckties loosened or stowed in an inside pocket. They brought with them the quickening responsibilities of the real-world, their careers and trends and these seemed to willingly radiate from them, a detoxification and release in the echoing vocal space they had sought out and created. Without movement in its structure, the choir’s former congregation of earnest souls wearing mismatched charity shop patterns and home-knit cardigans had been replaced. They now talked about themselves in abstract tones and earnest forthright intentions. I do yoga on Tuesdays but I’ve never tried this before. It’s a dream coming here, I’m so glad you talked me into it! I need this, you’ll never know how I need this. They sat straight-backed and flat-footed, believing in posture and that the diaphragm was better served this way.
It was a zealous conversion. Their only concern now was voice, all other things were a trace of their vanishing past compressed into the space of the present moment. It was an energy converted into the immediacy of the choir and presence of the here-and-now of the Singing. The choir inhabited them and replaced them for these shorts hours.
That intensity in their eyes must mean something, the choirmaster thought. Perhaps it still did mean only that a need was being fulfilled and the Singing was achieving what it had always promised to; an active choral community. Or maybe, it was the equilibrium of genuine emotional resonance that they sought out in these meetings. To find refuge from the all the demanding tomorrows of the everyday life beyond the church doors, to celebrate the intangible future of the unknown. When does this become a habit? When does habit become an addiction? Yet, on more disquieting meetings, where one woman openly wept with a raw shuddering cry at the end of her song, he had thought there was a more sinister purpose at work. He entertained the idea, often when alone, that perhaps they were there in a blunt and knowing capacity, going through the motions and playing the part which the event dictated, a role outside of their control as extras are on a film set. Singing, he had always believed, was the weakening of the borders of the individual, a stretching out of the collective soul that was found only at the top of the voice and in the depth of the heart. The hymns, which he had known as vessels of Godly praise since childhood, sought both to capture and to release some human part of His holiness.
He could not deny he was enthused by these newbies, even if he was more than a little weary of their intentions. With this new membership, it seemed was there an ulterior motive always present, lying dormant in the body of the choir itself, something he not noticed in a long time, or had else he had known it all along and it was dulled to his sense through. To sing was not to praise, was it? It was to describe shared time and its spending, its passing and to register its movement, which, in renewed clarity, is two-fold. With every song reborn, with every page of the hymnbook a new leaf forward into a better tomorrow built entirely of voice, timbre, warmth, rhythm and pace. And yet, always the same numbers, the same sounds and the folks pattern they could master without context or relevance in the world beyond. Such sincerity and commitment to the power of shape, colour and tone and – he was vigilant now – a sincere belief in the purity of these things if only in their nothingness. They follow someone else’s faith as if it was an art form. This was art they could believe in.
Why had they come? They came in quest of the real. Why did they sing? Not for God, that was a relic, but for themselves for each and every one in the room. It was a cry for individualism, a requiem to the invisible quality of the singular as it dissolved into the plural. One voice in many and the coming moment when the many voices spoke only of one truth.
They sang. They sang with lumps in their throat and tears in the their eyes. Their voices described the perfect harmony above the congregation, banks of tenor, baritone and they fulfilled their part and grew stronger with each round. They sang loudly and true, keeping pace with the pendulum hand of the song-leader and it was the rhythm of an older sensibility, a new vision. And nothing mattered more in the everlasting of the Singing than the climbing echo that found out the corners of the vaulted ceilings.
John Laurence Dunn lives and works in London and is a PhD candidate at Queen Mary, University of London.