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Paul Graham

Singing Josquin

Henry James wrote that every writer is a reader moved to emulation, and so it seems to be with all things. Hopeful cooks learn to wield knives and flip skillets by watching the Food Network; golfers measure their backswing against a PGA favorite; in the lobby of the local hockey rink, boys slide empty soda cans across the floor, making sprawling saves. We appear to be hardwired for that sincerest form of flattery, imitation. Or perhaps imitation is more than flattery; perhaps it's a kind of inspiration, if carried by a less auspicious god.

I did not attempt to sing until I was finished with my formal schooling because I did not know what I wanted to sing. I hadn't heard the right music yet. Had I had not heard the Tallis Scholars singing a Mass by the Flemish composer Josquin Desprez shortly after I had finished graduate school, but instead at the impressionable age of twelve or thirteen, I might have been inspired to follow a musical path rather than a literary one. The night I heard Desprez I froze in the act of washing my dinner dishes, spellbound by the tumbling notes and cadences, the depth and power of the twelve voices. Though I did not know what the singers were saying-they sang in Latin, a-capella, a piece that fell between chant and hymn-it seemed I had never heard such lovely, calming music. Until that moment, I hadn't thought the human voice capable of such things.

But in fact, I think I had heard Renaissance chapel choir music once before. I grew up around mostly good music, my parents often playing the Baltimore classical station. I have a memory of riding in the car with my mother one evening when a choral piece came on. I was maybe thirteen years old. The voices, unaccompanied, filled the car with longing and mystery, and for the duration of the piece I was unable to move or speak. The notes, it seemed to me, had the same bright, somber coloration as the sunset; the final cadences described the balmy Maryland dusk. Then too I responded as if I already knew this music somehow, the yearning in my chest so strong I still sometimes wonder if when I was an infant choirs sang me sacred lullabies, even though I know that can't be true. Inexplicably, I forgot the music and the composer almost immediately. Perhaps the experience seemed so detached from reality I thought it a dream.

That second encounter, a decade later, lit the fires of obsession. I bought a CD of the Cambridge Singers the next day and then borrowed some more composers from the library: Orlando di Lasso, Thomas Tallis, Robert White, William Byrd. For the next few months the dissonant word-painting of motets, Masses, magnificats, and lamentations flowed from my speakers and slipped through the gap beneath my door, flowing out into the apartment's hallway like incense. The attraction was not religious; it was purely aesthetic. I wanted to live inside the music, wanted to be born up on the currents of harmony and chant. My neighbors, though they must have heard, never commented or complained. Until I got married later that year, they probably expected me to join a monastery.

Instead of seeking a vocation I did what many writers would do: I worked the music into my fiction as a way of living with it more intimately, imitatively. I planned a novel partially around it and began researching and drafting. Then, when my wife and I moved to upstate New York, I discovered that the Music Department at the college where I taught had among its many groups one called the Early Music Singers, an ensemble of a dozen or so voices who sang period pieces in the chapel. I called up the director and asked if he would mind my dropping by a few rehearsals to listen in. I started to explain that I was doing research, but he cut me off.

"Are you a tenor?" he asked.

Surprised at his perceptiveness, I told him I was. He replied that his group needed tenors, and invited me to his office for an audition.

I had always liked singing, and had considered joining groups at several points, inevitably deciding against it for some reason or another. I remember being approached for a special choir by my junior high school teacher, Mrs. Haskins, and ignoring her because I didn't want to stand on a set of risers one Saturday night, embarrassing myself with show tunes. My family were not performers. We gardened and read and flew model airplanes, but we didn't perform.

When I stopped by the Director's office later that afternoon and found it vacant, I thought I'd lucked out. I walked home and told my wife what I appeared to have gotten myself into and then out of, but I went back. This time Barry Torres, the Director, was there. Warm and affectionate, with black hair and a thin beard, Barry could tell I was nervous, and he did not make me sing right away, though I sensed him sizing up my voice, its promises and limitations, the minute I began to speak. He tricked me into lowering my guard by asking me to make simple nonsense sounds, first off-pitch and then on pitch. Next he had me sing scales. The whole time he appraised my voice like I appraise my students' writing: attentively, hopefully, waiting for that one natural, instinctive formulation-it can be a bright flash or the slightest glimmer, but it is undeniable and it tells of more than desire, which could only get you so far. Whatever Barry was listening for, he heard it. Judging by the way things turned out, I'd guess it was probably the slightest glimmer, but it was enough to get me started. Within twenty minutes I was a student again-of the bel canto vocal method and Renaissance music.

At an early age I was singled out for musical promise, though what augured this promise I still don't know. Likely I was simply an alert and curious child. When I was in the second grade my teacher, Mrs. Raffé, put my mother in contact with Mr. Wilson, a tall man with a huge Adam's apple and a face and hands that appeared to have been carved from birch. Once a week I went to Mr. Wilson's office and listened while he broke down rhythm and sound, tapping out quarter- and eighth-notes with two thick wooden dowels. Ta-ta-tee-tee-ta, Mr. Wilson would play on the wood, and I was supposed to play the sequence back. I hated those sessions; Mr. Wilson was quiet and awkward, and I was embarrassed to say such dumb words. From all I could see, banging a pair of sticks together wasn't making music.

Next my mother sought out Mrs Tedesco, a violin teacher who gave private lessons from her house and group lessons at the Andover United Methodist Church. Her model seemed similar to Mr. Wilson's: twenty students stood in orderly rows facing the altar, their tiny fiddles tucked under their chins. When Mrs. Tedesco played a resonant sequence, we attempted to play it back, squeaking and grating our bows across the strings as our mothers listened from the back pews. I graduated to private lessons and worked my way through six Suzuki books, from "Lightly Row" and "Minuet in G" to concertos by Vivaldi. I tapped out with a piece by a notoriously difficult Russian composer, perhaps Shostakovitch, for the Sussex County Youth Orchestra. In the SCYO I anchored down exile land, last stand, second chair, with a kid named Michael Verzi. We sat as far from Kathleen Missile, our concert-mistress, as you could get without being in the audience, and talked about the Giants. The leveling-off of my abilities roughly coincided with my discovery of a deeper loves for fielding ground balls and reading books. For two more years I endured the violin before I was allowed to quit.

It must have disappointed my parents. Music runs in my family, at least on my father's side. My father considered a career as a music teacher when a guidance counselor told him his deplorable performance in algebra made engineering a dream. He went to college for engineering but continued to play several instruments, including trumpet and guitar. If he'd grown up in my time, Skaa might have been his scene. Somewhere exists a reel-to-reel cassette of his band, my father belting out the trumpet solos on Chicago covers. When I was in high school I found his guitar case and music he'd written, Methodist spirituals that stole phrases from the Letters of Paul. The abandoned musician in my father intrigued and troubled me; his experience with disappointment made his skepticism about my own pursuits in the arts appear well-informed. An electrical engineer now, he doesn't play his own music anymore. That ended when my family moved from New Jersey and my mother succeeded in dumping the old electric organ on the curb. As late as ten years old, I have memories of my father playing Barry Manilow's "I Can't Smile Without You," on that organ, a churchy rendition which is even scarier than the original.

Despite my previous training and my lineage, I was, by far, the weakest singer in Barry Torres's group. The other voices, culled from the community and campus, included amateur musicians, music teachers, people who had studied music in college and now by necessity did other things. The ensemble included a German immigrant farmer who came to rehearsal in a pair of rubber irrigators, a racoon-eyed man who worked nights in the nearby psychiatric hospital, a computer programmer, faculty colleagues, some students. All were more experienced than I.

Though we sang sacred music, not all of us were Catholic, or even religious. Barry, the director, is a Christian Scientist. Marilyn, an alto, is a Presbyterian minister. But most I gathered were what my family called C&Es, Christmas-and-Easter Christians. Some of us were probably ardent non-believers. One of our sopranos was a priestess or something in the local pagan church. She led the solstice celebrations on campus. I often wondered what the Pope would have to say about this group of pagans singing Masses that had been composed in accordance with strict Papal law. It was a time of fierce ideological and spiritual division in the country, and that such different people could come together to sing this music, and that we all found something beautiful in it for different reasons, seemed to offer some hope.

We rehearsed in the Gothic-styled chapel on campus, a beautiful building with a cathedral ceiling, stone walls, and hardwood floors, and stained glass windows that depicted, because its heritage was Unitarian-Universalist, heros of the mind: Soren Kierkegaard, Emily Dickinson, Dar Hammerskjold.. The acoustics were so good that we tended to sound better than we really were, as I well know from singing in my house. In the right kind of chapel, the conditions for which the music had originally been written, your voice hangs in the air like a wisp of smoke, nuzzling the stone and glass. When we sang scales in warmups, or reached a five-part cadence, our voices painted a bright rainbow of sound across the shadows and lingered in the ambient air after Barry had cut us off. Sometimes, admiring our sound, I lost my place in the music. I wanted to be in the pews listening and up front singing at the same time.

I loved singing warmups because I did not have to worry about reading music. I sang the alto line on chromatic and diatonic scales for the pure joy of it. Singing the pieces themselves was a different matter. Dawn Tedesco had tried to teach me to read music as well as some music theory, but I had proved lazy and unteachable. In some ways it wasn't my fault. The Suzuki method does not teach sight-reading initially; it's based in recognizing patterns around the major scale. Though effective for teaching young students, the method can lead to habits against reading music, which is what happened with me. Once I heard that Suzuki was invented after World War II, when the Japanese infrastructure was destroyed and instructors needed to maximize the student-to-teacher ratio. Thus someone played "Goody-Goody Gumdrops" on his violin and a gymnasium full of Japanese children parroted the notes back. To this day I can plink out a radio jingle on the piano after hearing it once, but if you put a piece of music in front of me I become a functional illiterate. I've never been intoxicated enough to give kareoke a whirl but I've always imagined I'd be quite good at it.

The Early Music Singers weren't doing kareoke, though; we sang Josquin Desprez, Guillome Dufay, Orlando di Lasso, Giovanni Pallestrina. Perhaps the best way to understand what this is like is to imagine sitting down to paint, stroke for stroke, Cezanne's still-lifes or Matisse's dancers. Barry could have chosen easier pieces, but Renaissance and early music were his true loves, and over the years he had become increasingly ambitious with his programmes. He was not blind to the technical challenges of singing a full Mass by Dufay; he just didn't care. Whenever a rehearsal fell apart into trailing voices and murmurs, he cheerfully reminded us that we were sight-reading music that was five hundred years old, and thus written according to harmonic and rhythmic principles that were completely foreign to the modern ear. Furthermore, we were doing this in five-part harmony, reading-cold, a-capella, in Latin. We weren't nuts for doing this for two hours every Thursday evening, but we were close. We got credit just for showing up.

Hearing this as I floundered was not a relief. I was the only male alto, there to give texture and firmness to the bottom of the women's range. I had no place to hide. Nobody, did, really, but the other singers seemed to need the cover less. In church, I'd been a chronic lip-syncher, a technique I learned by watching my mother. I was pleased to pick out the harmony and know I could sing it if I wanted to. Lip-synch with the Early Music Singers and you deserved an elbow in the ribs. The best of us floundered in rehearsal. I often tasted true despair.

It very quickly got so I didn't want to go. I still loved the warm-ups, but the moment we turned to the Kyrie from the Mass, or started a motet or chanson, I was overcome with nervousness and apprehension. I felt as I had in high school before a math exam: the notes on the page were a foreign language, and I was completely inept. I feared letting my partners down. Depending upon whether I sang tenor or countertenor, I was always leaning on David or Sarah, clinging to their voice like a rope leading me through a cave. It would have been nice, now and then, for them to know that I would continue singing the proper notes, holding down the fort, as it were, until two or three measures later we met up again. Because I feared singing the wrong notes, which anyone would be able to hear and might inadvertently follow, taking the whole piece off track, I also sang softly. Sometimes I didn't sing at all; I stood in the swirling voices and scowled at my music, marking it as if I had identified the gremlin sharp or flat that had ambushed me. Really I hadn't identified anything: I had no idea what the hell I was looking at.

When I told my colleagues what I was putting myself through each Thursday night, they automatically assumed that I was singing because I was good at it, that it relaxed me, like Asian cooking or playing squash. And I was a good singer, in a sense, but each week my ego took a beating, and generally speaking, one does not seek out any kind of beating, whether physical, emotional, or intellectual. I could chalk the whole experiment up to research (the singer in my novel would be my alter-ego, however: better voice, better comprehension, better at reading, better at everything) but soon I found myself saying something different. Rather than lament the troubles I was having, I cheerfully stated that anyone who teaches beginners to do anything should seek out the experience of learning something totally foreign. Should try, should fail, should have to drag themselves back in over and over again, even though they don't want to.

I hadn't expected to discover this, but I believed it as soon as I said it. Until the rehearsals when I became a student again myself, I don't think I understood what some of my own students went through in my creative writing classes. I mean the students who were not natural writers but people who wanted to get the credit and make it out with minimal uncertainty, frustration, and embarrassment. I liked to think I understood what those students felt. My pedagogical methods presupposed their inexperience, even their ignorance, but I didn't know what it felt like to walk into my classroom each day. I couldn't have known. We teach the things we're good at, the things we know. The mind-set of the frightened neophyte is one the expert teaching the class has most likely not recently experienced. High school with its embarrassments in pre-calculus or English or physical education is, thankfully, eons past.

The humbling period with the Early Music Ensemble may have been my best, most responsive time as a teacher. Cut adrift from comfort and familiarity, forced to live in the beginner's mind, I brought my experiences-and inexperience-with Barry Torres's group into the classroom with me each meeting. I was more patient; I broke concepts down more than I usually do; I responded more sympathetically to manuscripts with their chronic clichés, commonplaces, and stereotypes. In describing point-of-view shifts, I told my students about suddenly switching to the bass line during a rehearsal, because when I glanced down at my music I suddenly had no idea where I was. Whether their writing was better or not I don't know; chances are that those who could write well did so and those who could not tried. The atmosphere of the classroom, however, was better; the waters in the well from which we drank were sweeter.

On the day of the first Early Music Singers performance, a Saturday in December, I dressed in black pants and a black shirt, like a singer in a professional ensemble, and, after assuring my wife that she need not interrupt her afternoon to hear us, I glumly went to my office to play the midi file of my part. Barry had provided the electronic files like a set of training wheels a few weeks ago to help us "hear" the piece better. We were supposed to be well beyond needing such assistance now, but the music still confused me. I listened and followed along, hopelessly cramming. If only my students could have seen me then! After an hour I walked over to the chapel for call.

Something happened a few measures into the last rehearsal. I reconciled with my limitations, my frustrations, and somehow that set me free: free to sing, to concentrate on the passages I knew and loved, and free to ride out those sections where I was less sure. I knew I would not sing perfectly; I resigned myself to it. And for this reason, perhaps, I began to enjoy myself.

To learn to sing, this music: how much like building a house it is: first the pouring of a good foundation of sound with the basics of musical understanding, then the framing of phrases one by one, frail outlines of melody joining each to the last like rooms, up and up and back and back. At first you wander through a phrase and find nothing but the hint of structure; you find only air, possibility. Every note and rhythm is raw, unpolished, though sometimes you will hear, in the middle of a measure, the hint of the promise of beauty. You work hard, always returning to the same rooms with the other builders on your line, over and over, adding something else: the ceiling, shoring up the walls, windows facing the light. You shape, you detail. Wire for brightness and warmth. And then, suddenly, one night two weeks after you first stumbled through the measures, there it is: Domine quid accrederit intuere et respice opporbium nostrum, every word in the phrase languid and flowing, no longer in fact words at all but something between word and sound. It seems as if you stand within a great mansion of sound, and you see that all of it has come together just as the blueprint in the music has promised, if every cutoff is measured to specifications, every note hung in the air in exactly the right way.

A group of musicians who performed with us listened to us as we rehearsed. Afterward, one of them, a violinist and colleague in the philosophy department, declared, "What a treat to sit in front of you guys."

When I left the Early Music Singers after three seasons, I pleaded lack of time, but the real reason was that I was not improving. This of course was unbearable, and it was connected to a second reason for my leaving, which was that I disliked performing in public. I have never liked performance, going back to violin recitals and concerts with the Sussex County Youth Orchestra. In a similar way, I dreaded stepping up to the plate in the last inning of a high school ball game, dreaded even more coming up as the potential last out. I dislike the pressure; I loathe being on display. If we could have run the Early Music Singers like a drum-circle I probably would have stayed, but most of the others would have called it a waste to rehearse for two hours each week never to perform. They're entitled to their opinions, but for my part I got plenty from the diminishments and renewals of weekly rehearsals.

Many of my friends and family, including my wife, had no idea that I could sing until I fell in with Barry. I liked it that way. To this day my wife has never heard me sing solo, unless she's overheard me. I've joked that I am like the Singing Frog from Looney Toons: I'll only sing for certain people under certain conditions; most of the time I'll just sit there, blinking. But when I am at home alone, pushing the vacuum or pacing the hallways as I take a break from writing, I will still let loose with fragments of songs I know, plainchant, psalms, improvisations. I pick out Nigel Short, the countertenor on the Tallis Scholars recordings I own, and fix my voice to his through sections of pieces that I have memorized, without the music, quite effortlessly. My voice travels up the register and finds its happy place between tenor and alto. Though sometimes I think I sound good, I will not sing for other people to impress them. If we have a child, though, I'll sing lullabies, softly. I've promised that much.

©2008 by Paul Graham

Paul Graham lives in Canton, New York, where he teaches English at St. Lawrence University. He writes both creative nonfiction and fiction.

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