Of all the fundamentals I practice on flute, my favorite to play are long tones with diminuendos. For those unfamiliar with the term, diminuendos are when you gradually get softer and softer in volume until the sound disappears entirely. It is a difficult skill to master on the flute because the tuning becomes very unstable without a lot of work on the part of the player – feels a bit like walking on a tightrope. But, when it’s done well, it’s sublime and it’s something that has motivated me strongly ever since I was about 14 or so. I’ve never been as interested in playing louder – it’s the softer end of the spectrum that has always intrigued me more. At first, it was simply a point of personal pride (you say all flutists get flat on diminuendos? Not me, I’ll show you!!), but as the years went by, I realized there was something achingly beautiful about the dying away of a sound, about the ephemeral quality to this artform that we devote our lives to.
I am not particularly educated on choral music and the choral tradition, but I do know when I hear excellence. I have never heard singing quite like what Tenebrae gifted to the lucky audience that was present last Friday night. Here, in this particular space and time, lived a palpable magic that reverberated throughout the hall and flowed between performer and audience, soul to soul. It was thrilling and unbelievably moving. Half of the program was unfamiliar to me so I was hearing those pieces for the first time. One in particular made me wipe tears from my eyes – I was just overwhelmed by a completely unexpected surge of emotion and I couldn’t hold it in.
I did hope, very early on, that this concert was being recorded. But as the performance went on, I questioned my wish. It’s natural to want to capture something beautiful, to enjoy it more than once. But, in so many ways, what made the elements of this musical performance so beautiful to experience was the fact that everything was finite and meant to be enjoyed live. The soaring notes and chords from the choir wouldn’t be more beautiful if they were longer. The fact that they are meant to end, and the way that they end, is what makes them so touching to me. Hearing the capability, the strength, the fragility of the human voice, and what these talented singers can do with a single breath, it is inspiration for all of us to make the most of every breath we have, to create something and share with the world what we can share, before our lives come to their (hopefully) natural and inevitable end.
A common maxim I have heard many times throughout my life is that music is what happens between the notes. It’s not the notes themselves that are so meaningful – the meaning is in how we get from one note to another, and how the notes relate to one another. Human beings are notes. Our relationships with other people are the music humanity creates together. We begin, we develop, we clash and intertwine, we grow in complexity, and in time, we all end. Unlike art music, we can’t know exactly how our lives will end; we don’t necessarily have faith that everything will resolve neatly into a glorious and satisfying recapitulation. Perhaps this is what attracts me so much to the endings of notes, the endings of pieces. Not necessarily because I’m concerned about “how will it all end?” but more that I can feel the reassurance of “it’s going to end, and everything will be okay.” Listening to this wonderful choir allowed me, however briefly, to live in a world where everything was how I wished it could be.
Thank you to Nigel Short and the Tenebrae Choir, soloists David Allsopp (countertenor) and Martha McLorinan (mezzo-soprano), and instrumentalists Barnaby Archer (percussion), Sally Price (harp), and James Sherlock (organ), for crystallizing for me what I value in music, and what it is I want to be able to express in my own work. I will never forget the impression your performance made on my heart.