• strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/robnoll/wunderkammermag.com/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 838.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_display::options_validate() should be compatible with views_plugin::options_validate(&$form, &$form_state) in /home/robnoll/wunderkammermag.com/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_display.inc on line 1707.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_display_block::options_submit() should be compatible with views_plugin_display::options_submit(&$form, &$form_state) in /home/robnoll/wunderkammermag.com/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_display_block.inc on line 184.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_field_broken::ui_name() should be compatible with views_handler::ui_name($short = false) in /home/robnoll/wunderkammermag.com/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_field.inc on line 590.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_field_user::init() should be compatible with views_handler_field::init(&$view, $options) in /home/robnoll/wunderkammermag.com/sites/all/modules/views/modules/user/views_handler_field_user.inc on line 48.
  • strict warning: Declaration of content_handler_field::options() should be compatible with views_object::options() in /home/robnoll/wunderkammermag.com/sites/all/modules/cck/includes/views/handlers/content_handler_field.inc on line 170.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_sort_broken::ui_name() should be compatible with views_handler::ui_name($short = false) in /home/robnoll/wunderkammermag.com/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_sort.inc on line 82.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter::options_validate() should be compatible with views_handler::options_validate($form, &$form_state) in /home/robnoll/wunderkammermag.com/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_filter.inc on line 584.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter::options_submit() should be compatible with views_handler::options_submit($form, &$form_state) in /home/robnoll/wunderkammermag.com/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_filter.inc on line 584.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter_broken::ui_name() should be compatible with views_handler::ui_name($short = false) in /home/robnoll/wunderkammermag.com/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_filter.inc on line 608.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter_many_to_one::init() should be compatible with views_handler_filter::init(&$view, $options) in /home/robnoll/wunderkammermag.com/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_filter_many_to_one.inc on line 61.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter_term_node_tid::value_validate() should be compatible with views_handler_filter::value_validate($form, &$form_state) in /home/robnoll/wunderkammermag.com/sites/all/modules/views/modules/taxonomy/views_handler_filter_term_node_tid.inc on line 288.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_style_default::options() should be compatible with views_object::options() in /home/robnoll/wunderkammermag.com/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_style_default.inc on line 25.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_row::options_validate() should be compatible with views_plugin::options_validate(&$form, &$form_state) in /home/robnoll/wunderkammermag.com/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_row.inc on line 61.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_row::options_submit() should be compatible with views_plugin::options_submit(&$form, &$form_state) in /home/robnoll/wunderkammermag.com/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_row.inc on line 61.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/robnoll/wunderkammermag.com/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 838.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/robnoll/wunderkammermag.com/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 838.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/robnoll/wunderkammermag.com/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 838.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/robnoll/wunderkammermag.com/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 838.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/robnoll/wunderkammermag.com/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 838.

Every time I lead singing at my church, I signal the pianist to drop out during a verse of one of the hymns. This is a selfish act. Our congregation sings well, and I need to hear them sing unaccompanied, to be held up by and be part of their voices, offered up bare and together in our plain Mennonite Church.

And as each of us sing our part, however imperfectly, I am reminded again how much I believe that the human voice is sacred.

All my life, I think, I’ve been shaped by voices singing. Growing up in school and church, I sang in choirs and quartets. The pleasures of blending my changing voice with the girls and boys around me, of responding to a leader’s direction, taught me all my most important lessons about community and hard work. To learn a simple hymn or to sing a polyphonic madrigal required that I give up a bit of myself to the composer and to others in the choir. We became intimate, sharing breath, voice, text in a way different from any other experience I’ve ever had.

But I also knew that my individual voice mattered. I had to stay on pitch, to sing in rhythm, and, most importantly, to listen. Singing in parts helped me to learn what poet Jean Janzen calls “the world's secret . . . to enter and be close, yet separate.”

I hear this secret not only in traditional choral or church music. The high harmonies of Appalachian folk songs, the guttural loveliness of Tuvan throat singers, the call and response of the Jewish cantor or Muslim Imam, these also show what it is like to sing in relation to others, to have bare human voices responding to each other in time.

And as much as I love singing with others, I also love the separate, lonesome a cappella voice. In an age of recorded and reproduced and amplified sound, nothing marks an individual like her own voice lifted in a simple, familiar melody.

When I remember my father, I think most often of his voice, of him singing, not especially well, old hymns—“Tell Me Why” or “The Old Rugged Cross.” I have a video of him, one I cannot bring myself to watch, rocking my newborn daughter as he sings, “Count your blessings, name them one by one.”

As a writer, I have had to learn to admit that nothing I’ve written can approach the beauty I experience in the unaccompanied human voice in song. Still, all my writing aspires to this aesthetic. I always find myself, then, in communities familiar and far away, hoping and listening for those moments when the accompaniment drops away and I hear (and perhaps join in) to this most basic and sacred of things—the human voice riding on nothing but breath, offering up the mystery of song.

David Wright’s poems, essays, and reviews have appeared widely in print and online, including forthcoming work in Image, Books and Culture, and Poetry East. He is the author of the poetry collection A Liturgy for Stones (Cascadia, 2003) and writes a bi-weekly column for Smile Politely.

Comments

Beautifully written.

You might not think your writing can "approach the beauty experienced in the unaccompanied human voice in song," but know that there are others (like me) who can't identify pitch or understand harmony. For us, music may never approach the beauty of perfectly-constructed prose. When composed just so, words—written or spoken—speak to some of us in a more elegant and understandable way than music ever will.

As one of those people, I might not get anything out of those a cappella moments at your church. But this essay was music to me.

Lovely thoughts, beautifully written. I share your wonder at the unaccompanied human voice and did the same thing when I led singing at various times in the past. The big city neo-gothic structure in which we worship now, with its thunderous pipe organ and world-class choir will never, alas, afford the same opportunity for great unaccompanied singing as the dumpy (but wonderfully resonant) gym in which we had chapel in college (every fricking day of the week).

Not that I'm planning for it anytime soon, but I want nothing more at my memorial service than for the congregation to sing at least one verse of 'I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art' a cappella. That will be enough to send me on my way.

Beautifully put. I've been singing in choirs all my life, and the only times I have ever reached something resembling a "religious experience" are during my times singing sacred music. You capture the experience of singing.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

CAPTCHA
Prove your humanity.
10 + 1 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.