Perfection VIII


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sand dollar
two sand dollars

A friend I showed these to said to me, “You made these right?” Another to whom I showed the pictures said to me, “Really? These just get made in nature?” And another, who knew what they were — sand dollars — still was surprised by the fact that they get made by sea urchins, because he associated sea urchins with globular animals, while the particular ones that make these are extremely flattened ones. Interestingly, these are not the shells of the sea urchins — they are the skeletons, also known as tests, of dead sea urchins, that have been bleached by the sunlight.

I know that I can put some pretty random things in the Perfection series. Broken sea shells and walnuts, lychee skins, sprouts and rusted bracelets have all featured before and may seem perfect only to my eyes. But I would argue that this is one of those objects that qualifies in an objective sense — the symmetry is in place, the curves are flowing and pleasant, the details are finely drawn, the proportions are just right and the geometry leaves nothing to be desired. Only the most churlish would disagree with the adjective “perfect” for this one.

Such perfection occurs in nature frequently — flowers, snowflakes, orange segments, maple leaves — but these particular sand dollars are especially appealing to me because they have a radial pattern, but not radial symmetry. It’s as if an object with perfectly circular, or even spherical symmetry got squashed in a particular configuration to get us this. I am not sure that they are formed by such a process, but that is what the geometry looks like.

Whatever the process, nature is profligate in making these. They abound on the beaches of central California, and you can pick up dozens of them in a half hour walk. This bounty only increases my appreciation of these sand dollars.

sand dollar, side view


Her and the life of the brain


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I am not quite sure what the problem is with having for your girlfriend a disembodied voice. If the voice talks affectionately and intelligently, if the voice looks out for you, does things that make you happy, including chatting to your friends and god-daughter, helps you progress professionally, is largely on the same wavelength as you, and, basically, loves you, does it matter that it is not accompanied by a body? What if you even enjoy pretend-sex with it?

There was a documentary I saw once in which they said that the neural firing in the brain is the same whether you perform an action, imagine performing that action, or dream of it. As far as the brain is concerned, all three are equivalent. Furthermore, rodent experiments show that given a choice between stimulating the forebrain (where the “pleasure centre” is located) and eating, rodents will choose the former to the point of exhaustion and death, once again demonstrating that neural firings in the brain trump those in the body. And video games seem to have a similar effect, only on humans. Their built-in reward systems can take over in such a way that people (often kids) forget to eat and drink for long periods of time, leading to exhaustion and death.

Given the primacy of the neural system in determining happiness and a sense of well-being, and given how easily it can be fooled into inhabiting worlds that have no physical reality, the story of the first paragraph sounds perfectly plausible to me. Of course, it is also the story of the movie Her, playing in theatres currently. And unlike the rodents or the video game addicts, the chief protagonist here is not cut off from the physical world in general. Theodore goes to work as usual and interacts with neighbours and friends, albeit in a limited way since his breakup with his wife. It is only in the matter of his girlfriend that he takes the unusual route of going with a disembodied voice emanating from an OS (operating system aka computer).

The premise of this movie reminded me of Isaac Asimov’s famous psychohistorian from the Foundation series, Hari Seldon. (Evidently, it does not take much to remind me of Hari Seldon.) His wife of 28 years is a robot, though this is not known to many. But, more importantly, finding this out does not change his feelings for her. This is different from the disembodied Samantha of Her, because Dors Venabili has a physical form, but insofar as falling in love with a highly intelligent algorithm is concerned, Hari and Theodore both do exactly that.

Her has several themes, one of which is that even with an OS, a relationship can have the same pitfalls as with a human, especially since the OS, in this case, is a learning algorithm that is precisely trying to learn human behaviour. Feelings of jealousy and doubt, a desire for exclusivity in the relationship, and finally, a divergence of paths are all part of this affair.

I enjoyed the movie, even though I found that it dragged a bit, was too talk-heavy, and felt too long, and even though the end felt like an unimaginative cop out. For instance, couldn’t the makers of the OS’s have stopped them from developing so far beyond human abilities that they would abandon the humans? Would the romantic relationships and friendships with the OS’s then be sustainable? Or would their chances of long term success still be about the same as those between humans? What if the OS’s were mutable such that they could always keep a particular human happy, simply by becoming whatever the human needed as they needed it? Or are humans attracted to unhappiness as much as to happiness?

While asking these questions, one does well to remember that at the end of the day, the brain too has a physical existence, and emotions are not disembodied either. Perhaps we will some day evolve to be more brain than anything else and the story of Her may become utterly commonplace then. Or maybe not. Maybe the process of divorcing ourselves from physical reality will change us in fundamental and unforeseeable ways, making Her an impossible scenario. For now though, Her provides us with many questions, few answers and plenty of food for thought.

Revisiting music


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two messiahs

Earlier this evening, I had the very great pleasure of attending a concert by the Bach Collegium San Diego which included a few pieces I had sung before.[1] There was Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque, Morten Lauridsen’s O Nata Lux, and also Komm, Jesu, komm by one J. S. Bach. It is relatively recently that I’ve sung the first two (2011), but for the last one I have to go back all the way to 2005. Considering that I first heard and joined a choir in 2002, and did not know the first thing about music notation, I think that 2005 counts as my choral infancy, so it is interesting that there are fragments of that Komm, Jesu, komm that are still completely clear in my mind. Floating soprano lines can do that to you, I suppose. And being a YouTube addict probably helps as well.

A double choir piece by Bach must have been well beyond my abilities in 2005, and probably is somewhat so even now, but it is still “mine” in some strange sense. And Lux Aurumque and O Nata Lux are unquestionably “mine,” because, rightly or wrongly, I felt this evening that I could just jump up and sing my part in them, as if I had been rehearsing them all this time. (Yes, I know I am kidding myself.)

I had the same sense last December, when I heard Marc Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit pour Noël, being sung by a local choir. This is a piece I have sung not once but twice, and the first time was in fact the first time I ever sang in a choir at all, back in the Fall of 2002. My reasons for joining a choir are obscure at best, but I clearly remember a moment in an early rehearsal, when I was sitting somewhere in the middle, and could hear all the parts. I probably had no idea where in the music we were, so complete was my cluelessness, but I had the sensation of being inside a well of stereophonic sound, with all the parts weaving in and out around me, a bit like walking inside an aquarium. It’s probably fair to say that it was the moment when I got hooked to this “choral singing” business.

The great thing about continuing any activity over a long period is that you can see your relationship to the same things develop over time. When I did the same piece again in 2009, not only was it much easier, as if Charpentier had gotten simpler in seven years, but I also noticed that I was enjoying the Les Arts Florissants recording that I have of it much more. There was room in my head to appreciate the energy of the singers, the contrast of tempi and dynamics, and the quality of the playing.

Other pieces that I have repeated are Handel’s Messiah (naturally) and the Bach Magnificat. In both those I sang a different voice part (or “changed teams” as a fellow alto commented) when I repeated the piece (alto and soprano for Messiah, alto and mezzo for the Magnificat), so it wasn’t quite the same as repeating the piece, but in some ways it has made the pieces more “mine” because I’ve sung more than one part.[2]

I suppose what I am really saying, as I live through my choral adolescence, is that I am slowly having a sense of personal musical history, and, to be perfectly honest, this thought gives me the warm fuzzies. Also, I realize full well that it isn’t really about me. Just as a classic novel rewards reading and rereading even centuries after its creation, these pieces all reward singing and resinging. There is a reason they have survived so many centuries. With them there is always something new to discover or improve. And there is always something about revisiting the piece that makes it more “mine”. If sightreading a brand new piece, happy in the knowledge that there will be a chance to learn it properly, gives me a high, revisiting something I’ve sung before is like a familiar, comfort blanket. There is nothing quite like it.

[1] Their rendition of Hieronymus Praetorius’s Factum est Silentium was perhaps my favourite piece of the evening. Lively, athletic singing, and they were clearly having so much fun that it was infectious. And Jenny Spence ruled, as always.

[2] Additionally, singing soprano on Messiah gave me quite a high, pun intended. And above all, I learnt this: the single thing to most avoid while singing soprano is yelling. It ruins everything. Yes.

Also, even though the Hallelujah chorus is almost certainly the most sung piece of choral music in the English-speaking world, it is not true that choristers can just sing the parts on sight on the first go, even if they have done it once before. I should know, I was there at that first rehearsal.

On the beach


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As always, the kids know best how to just have fun. They run in and out of the water, mirroring the wave that comes out and in, while the adults stand around talking of freezing feet. They laugh as the beach ball they thought was going to go in to the sea comes right back to them with the wave; then they push it in again, to see the trick being repeated. The kid whose slipper starts to go in with the wave leaps in with a splat to save it, fully muddying the front of her shirt. She finds it all terribly funny while her parents stand around shaking their heads.

Children feel an unbridled joy at just being near the water, and it expresses itself with their entire bodies. Adults too enjoy being near the water, but their joy is a different beast. They talk of how beautiful the water is, how the aquamarine colour fills their hearts as it fills their eyes, how the waves are tireless in their movement, not pausing for a minute, going out, coming in, unceasing. They walk along the coast, occassionally getting their feet wet, collecting shells and stones, admiring the lovely colours and marvelling at what nature keeps creating. Their joy is of the tempered variety, not the instinctive, intense joy of kids, and involves logic in addition to emotion, but, for all that, it is no less real. [1]

I wonder though, if there is anyone who is not immediately delighted at the sight of the ocean, who at the sight of water stretching off into the far horizon does not essentially feel the same wonder that the Spanish and Portuguese explorers might have felt centuries ago: a sense of adventure at not knowing what lies beyond, and a sense of awe of the sheer magnitude of it all. Because while we might know the precise shapes of the landmasses better than them, the feeling of uncertainty over how things might actually be “over yonder” hasn’t left most of us just yet, and as long as we see enormous waves crashing into the coastline, carving hard granite into rugged cliffs, it is unlikely to.

I wonder too if there is something even more primal than genetic memory that is at work here. I am sure there is no scientific evidence for this whatsoever, but is there something in our cells that “remembers” that life originated in the oceans? That knows when the primordial soup that we arose out of is “near”? I know it sounds a bit like the One Ring, the presence of which can be felt by the Nazgûl instinctively (only far less sinister). But is it too much to expect science to fully nail this connection at some point in the future?

It probably is, I guess. In fact it almost certainly is. But it doesn’t matter all that much anyway. Analysis really isn’t always worthwhile, or even necessary (and while we are answering questions raised by Paul Simon, theatre isn’t really dead). So long as kids come in with sand toys and want to stay on for hours on end, and adults get a sense of timelessness just standing on the shore, ocean trips are already giving us exactly what we need.


[1] The one point of commonality among the two is their admiration of surfers though. They both go “wow” at the sight of a mere human, made of flesh and bones, standing tall among even taller waves and riding her way home on a little piece of board.

Perfection VII


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blue jay feather

blue jay feather, against the light

It is such a humble entity. It is nearly weightless. It doesn’t worry its owner to lose one or three of it. It becomes dull coloured the moment you hold it up against the light, and for so many owners it is a dull colour even to begin with, as it seeks to provide camouflage in the bushes. And yet, it gave humanity one of its earliest and greatest dreams, the dream to fly. A solitary blue jay feather, found on a dusty trail is enough to put me in mind of Icarus, such is the power of flight.

I am glad that it was a bright coloured feather though, because I doubt I would have carefully placed it in my tiny camera case and flown home with it (!) had it been some dull coloured one. (I know, so superficial of me.) But bright or dull, they serve the same purpose — to get their owners to defy gravity. (Well, okay, not if the owner is, say, an ostrich.) Thanks to feathers, bird(brain)s flit about hither and thither, while we, with our huge, complex brains merely plod along, footstep in front of boring footstep.

Feathers serve other purposes too — protection from the elements, camouflage, and a major role during mate selection. As with the skins of lychees, they frequently combine great beauty with great functionality. What more can any object hope for?

(Here is the complete Perfection series.)

and a mini

On the fluidity of movement


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asphalt sealer fluidity

In what was a glorious summer for gymnastics, the Montreal Olympics of 1976 saw the 14-year old Nadia Comaneci score a perfect 10 for her uneven bars routine. It was the first flawless score in gymnastics history, and a first of such magnitude that the scoreboards, which were not designed to have two digits before the decimal, only managed to register a comic 1.00. That score was followed by six more perfect 10s (or 1s!) from her in those Summer Olympic Games. You can see those routines on YouTube today, and they still seem other-worldly. To see this young girl performing so confidently in the pin-drop silence of the huge arena, one cannot but marvel at the precision and fluidity of her movements, their strength and their grace. She elicits involuntary “ooh”s and “aah”s not just from her enrapt audience in the arena who had the privilege to watch her live, but also from today’s YouTube viewer, some 37 years after the fact.

The closest I have come to seeing in person anything remotely of that calibre was when I saw an act called Tournik, in Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo. It was almost six years ago that I saw it, but I remember it vividly. The act involved the traditional high bar of men’s gymnastics, but used four bars, arranged in a square. Several gymnasts were on them at the same time, moving in patterns which ensured that they never crashed into each other. The geometric perfection of their act was mesmerizing. All that their act required was that no two of them ever be in the same place at the same time, and this they achieved by the simple expedient of obeying the rhythm of the music being played as they moved in their predetermined patterns. That rhythm was the key to their act, the thread that tied them all together, making them cohere into one highly functional unit. The Grand Chapiteau filled with “ooh”s and “aah”s, as it had for Nadia. You can see about six seconds of the act over here, and the full act over here.

Above average motor skills are not restricted to gymnasts though. Two years ago I went to see a physical therapist to see if he could help my twisted ankle heal faster. I wasn’t really interested in going, and only wanted to learn some exercises from him. But within a few minutes, he had made a convert of me. Treating my foot like a mechanical object with parts that needed to be fixed, he moved it around like nobody’s business, and it took every last ounce of my ego (or what I call my “manhood”) not to say Yes to his repeated enquiries of “Is that too much? Should I lighten up?” His movements were practised and thorough, gentle but firm. The smoothness of his action belied the strength of his hands and fingers. I went back several times, and admired his efficacy of movement every time.

Experienced and skilled craftsmen of many stripes have the same efficacy. Back when I was a child, it was still quite common in India to have carpenters come to your house and make your furniture right in your living room or courtyard. They would measure and saw the planks of wood, they would nail together pieces, laminate the surfaces with formica that was cut to the exact same size (but of course) and, best of all, they would create even, smooth surfaces with a hand plane, the little curls of wood falling off, creating a pretty mess. I would watch them for hours on end and I still remember the smell of sawdust and wood shavings from those days. Their repetitive motions were soothing, and the quiet hum of their busy work quickly became a favourite source of entertainment (read wasted time) for me.

A few weeks back, I saw yet another category of workman display his skill. The paved areas around where I live were getting a sealer coating of asphalt, to better protect the surfaces from the weather, so that they would last longer. One man poured out the liquid and the other spread it evenly with a tool shaped like a flat mop. He walked up and down the surface, leaving his boot marks as he did so, and then he walked back, smoothing over them. His movements were relaxed and calm, no strokes were wasted, and he seemed to accomplish his task with minimal effort.

Even more recently, there was a girl in the park nearby, trying to juggle some balls in the air. She was only a beginner, but for the seconds when things worked, it was beautiful. The blue, red and green balls moved in hypnotic repeated patterns then, as did her hands. For those few seconds, her whole act clicked along exactly as she intended for it to, and the balls and her hands were part of a single fluid motion.

The best part about fluid movements, to my mind, is that they are so utterly democratic. You might see them in a Nadia Comaneci video one moment, and see them in an anonymous construction worker the next. You can see them in how a trained chef chops onions on TV, but you can also see them in how my sister chops onions. Human beings are advanced learning machines, especially when shaped by habit. If they do something repeatedly, not only do the neural pathways get wired to do that thing on auto pilot, [1] they also figure out a way to perform that action with the greatest economy. It’s an optimization problem to which they gradually find the global solution.

There is another aspect of fluid motion that is even more subtle, and it is this: For the doer of the task, time falls away. Especially if the task is sufficiently complex, it occupies all the conscious attention of the doer, and leaves no room for other distractions, including that of passing time. In this state of flow, nothing seems to matter apart from the job at hand. There is a peaceful liveliness at work, and that alone makes skilled, highly effective motion worth striving for. And it often does take some serious striving. Anyone performing at a high level of skill in a complicated task has to have spent a lifetime practising that task, for their neural pathways to have learnt it so thoroughly.

Whether the flow is achieved in an overtly physical activity, such as the ones I mention above, or in something less physical, such as painting, writing, or singing, there is the same fluidity involved. It may be of the hand, or the mind or the vocal chords, and thus operate less obviously than if it were more physical, but the same principles apply. The doer is still transported to a different place by it, and, possibly, so is the viewer.

Having said that, there is something about the fluidity of physical movement that is especially immediate to the viewer. [2] To go back to Nadia, some of the discussion in this clip is particularly fascinating, especially the bit where she says, “When I take off, I already know what the end result is.” Clearly, there is a physical awareness and a personal mathematics of a higher order that is at play here. [3] At any given moment, she knows exactly where every ounce of her slight frame is, and where it needs to be, and she knows how to make it be there. It is this business of relaxed control taken to its absolute limits which pulls in the viewer, I suspect. Or at least it pulls in this viewer. And while pulled in, for a little while I experience a small fraction of the doer’s flow state, simply by being an interested, wholly committed observer, and that temporary glimpse of an alternative reality always leaves me enriched. Long may it be so.


[1] The auto pilot leads to illogical behaviour sometimes. I am reminded of a friend who often makes tea for two even when her husband is away travelling, simply because she is habituated to making tea for two. People who lose a long-term companion often report similar behaviour.

[2] To my mind, the only other sort of fluidity that is on par with that of physical movement is the one displayed by musicians.

[3] This is what she says in full: “When I take off, I already know what the end result is. Sometimes I feel that I am off because I took off a little to the side so I have to make very quick correction in air which is, like, either shoulder or my head turns the other way, but you can’t see that. So it’s tricky.” It’s almost frightening how much is going on underneath those polished, perfect-10 routines.

Renaissance with TSSS: Final impressions (Part XI)


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room with a view, campion hall, seattle university

(This is the eleventh and final post in a series of posts on the Tallis Scholars Summer School 2013, held in Seattle. For the previous post, go here; for the complete series, go here.)

The music was quite definitely the highlight of the week, but, thinking back, there were non-musical things that are worth mentioning as well. Since it was my first time at a choral summer school, it was interesting to talk to others with more experience of this type. Some had expected more lectures, or would have liked more “parallel” sessions in the afternoons, so they could choose between lectures on different topics, or more singing. Some thought that the “hanging out” time with tutors was not enough, they would have liked to have more informal chats with the tutors maybe at mealtimes or so. (There wasn’t a lot of free time built into the schedule.) What everybody seemed to agree on was that 50-odd was the right size for a group (you got enough variety in your human specimens, but there weren’t so many specimens that it was all a blur) and that the people were really interesting to hang around with.

Spending so many hours with new people can give you an accelerated view of their personalities and lives. And, to my surprise, a week is in fact long enough to get a pretty good idea of some of their subtler thinking patterns as well. For someone like me, who just enjoys the details of how people go around their lives, it was a live museum of sorts, where each exhibit could potentially display a wonderful complexity. People who voluntarily choose to spend a week at a Renaissance music summer school, and willingly pay good money for it, perhaps already have certain “characteristics.” Though I wouldn’t presume to know what these are, what I do know is that for at least for a few of these specimens, I got beyond the superficial “Hello, where are you from? What choirs do you sing in?” level of conversation. A man I spoke to many times was very frank about what was working for him about the summer school and what wasn’t. He had been to other such events before, and was honest in his comparisons with those experiences. Thanks to his generally analytic take on things, and also his questions to me about my musical and personal background, I quite enjoyed talking to him. A woman I got along with well surprised me by her strong reactions to certain things (reactions that I agreed with, I should add) because I had only seen her gentle and diffident side until then[1]. Then there was a forensic toxicologist, a very experienced radio producer and former NPR employee, a fiddler who would go off and play in the garden during lunch time and sometimes forget to come in for rehearsal, a high school music teacher and mother of three who had done a lot of hard work on the home front (such as filling up the freezer and refrigerator with food) before flying out, several very energetic and talented undergrads and grads, and, interestingly, several engineers and/or scientists (some retired, some not). About half the number made or planned to make a living around music, or had degrees in music, and the rest were like me, who did something else for a living, and had no formal training. (And a lot of them were musically far more proficient than me.)

Though I couldn’t quite think of them as live museum exhibits, it was fun to have the four people who were in teacherly positions all speak with English accents. There were times during the week when anything I read silently in my mind would automatically come with the intonation of one or the other tutors. (Not to get too self-referential, but Deb actually said to me at some point during my singing lesson that she found it simply amazing that all this variety of accents and sounds all came out of a tiny larynx, which was the exact same for everybody.) And their vocabularies were a bit different too. Though they tried to use American terms like “half notes” and “eighth notes,” their original “minims” and “quavers” would slip in[2]. The would ask us to hold our “copies” up, or whether we could do a piece without “copies.” For the plainchant at Compline, they would ask us to “pile in” at the beginning of a line , with longer pauses in the middle of lines, reminding me of rugby scrums. And they would ask us to “take a short” when they meant “take a quick breath.” (Though I wonder if that was just a David-ism.)

Personally, I got to live high up in a tall building, and enjoy an absolutely terrific view, but, more importantly, I got to live in a dorm for the first time in many years and also to be a full-time student for the first time in a while. This was one of many things that reminded me of a simpler time. A time when my schedule was made for me by external entities, and I simply had to follow it. A time when I had very few possessions, and they all fit in one half of a dorm room[3]. A time when all my meals were in a cafeteria-type setting, with a varying cast of friends, and with some external entity always making up the menu. A time of very few decisions. And, most of all, a time when staying within that simplified life, and doing my best within it, was all that was expected of me, and all that I expected of myself. I did a couple of 10-day Vipassana courses many (many) years back, and TSSS was somewhat reminiscent of that too, in that it offered an appealing glimpse into monastic life. (A monastic life spent singing, of course, rather than in the silence of Vipassana.) In many ways, it was a week that opened a little window into other possibilities.

The summer school had an intense schedule, I never even cracked open the book I had brought along. At various times I would find myself recalling something that had happened, and wondering if that had been the same morning or the previous day. I have said before, in many different contexts, that to enjoy something fully, you have to be fully present. I think this summer school was a week of being fully present for most of us, thanks in part to the schedule, and in bigger part to the music. I am sure that I am not alone in craving experiences that blow me away. These are precious experiences, and, almost by definition, rare and hard to come by — if you start to have too many of them, they start to lose impact. The interesting thing about TSSS was how regularly it produced them. Most of us know at some deep level that there is magic in music. Attending TSSS was like discovering a reliable source of this magic. Here it takes the form of a stream that flows for a week during most summers, and it is a stream that is worth drinking from again and again.

room with a night view, campion hall, seattle university


[1] She also gave me some memories I am unlikely to forget soon. One was on the final night, when she wanted to dance, and a waltz was being played. She asked me if I wanted to waltz. I had never done it before, but we waltzed anyway. She said that when she was a kid she would see these old women dancing with other women, rather than men, and wondered why they did that. And, as she added wryly, here she was, doing the exact same thing. “Anything for a dance,” she said. Well, we certainly had a lot of women dancing with women that night. As with most amateur choirs, the women easily outnumbered the men.

[2] Incidentally, there was a Francophone in attendance, for whom neither terminology really worked. She was also used to Do Re Mi for notes instead of A B C.

[3] And a time when there was no full-length mirror in my life, making me negatively evaluate the size of my tummy several times a day! Among the many things TSSS taught me, one invaluable lesson was that the quality of life goes up dramatically when one is uninfluenced by full-length mirrors. Another thing that improves the quality of life: desk chairs with the curved bases of rocking chairs. Clearly, rocking desk chairs rock.

Renaissance with TSSS: The concert (Part X)


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seattle skyline from water

(This is the tenth post in a series of posts on the Tallis Scholars Summer School 2013, held in Seattle. For the previous post, go here; for the next post, go here; for the complete series, go here.)

Any chorister will tell you that the reason they sing is not actually the performances, but in fact the rehearsals. Performances can be fun and rewarding, and are often the climax of a lot of gradual build-up. They can give you a high in the moment and if they go well, there’s a buzz that can even last for a little while, say for several hours, maybe even longer. But you can’t sustain month after month of rehearsal if your only enjoyment is going to be that one evening in the distant future when you finally perform to an audience. You have to enjoy the rehearsals themselves, otherwise you are unlikely to continue singing.

I would like to say that it was exactly like that for me at TSSS, but it wasn’t quite. For someone who just loves the act of singing, alone or in a group, in tune or out of tune, the first few days were, somehow, just not magical enough. Maybe my expectations were too high. Perhaps being in a new setting, a new routine, around new people took some getting used to. After all, it was my first choral workshop of this sort. Or maybe it just takes a few days for a group to really feel like a group. In any case, I found myself wondering in the beginning whether I did really enjoy singing and Renaissance music, as much as I believed I did or whether I had somehow been kidding myself all along. A part of me believed (hoped?) that things would turn at some point, and I can safely say that it would have been -really- disappointing if they hadn’t. But the mind works in mysterious ways. On the day off (Tuesday), things started to shift within me. Saying that the view from floor 73 of Columbia Center changed my perspective would be too cute and convenient, but it was such a lovely day, especially on the water, that it was hard not to feel optimistic.

And so it was. Wednesday was fun, with the performance at the church service (with the “interesting” sermon). Once that was behind us, the rehearsals started to focus more on the chromatic or “frictiony” pieces, and I really got back into my “singing is bliss” mentality. Things too got busier, if that were possible, with the Sharing concert of Thursday evening, and by the time it was Friday I was simultaneously loving every moment, and suffering from separation anxiety. There was an internal litany that went something like, “Wow, it is so terrific to be doing this! And tonight it’s all just going to end.”

In more ways than one, the concert was the climax of it all. Certainly it was the peak of my emotional engagement, but musically too, things just felt ready to go after the Friday morning rehearsal. We weren’t perfect, by any means, but we were “not bad at all.” Then there was the rehearsal in the cathedral, where we went over the “choreography” of where the tutor groups would sit and sing from. And a little while later, it was showtime. The Monteverdi Mass went well, the tutor groups were good, and then it was time for my favourite part, the chromatic pieces.The Lassus, or the first half of it, was perhaps what we did worst on, but the rest were quite satisfactory. I thought we rocked the Gesualdo, and there were several moments from other pieces that I can still hear in my mind, such was their power. There was a small audience, and I hope they enjoyed it, but I suspect that most of us were singing for ourselves, for each other and for the tutors. It was good stuff, and it gives me the warm fuzzies to think about it.

During the week, I found myself wondering what it is that makes a choir “good” or even “great.” Certainly, it helps to start with individual singers of ability, who know their notes, rhythms and rests accurately and follow them precisely. But the individuals also need to work well together — they need to breathe together, stagger breaths as needed, shape their vowels the same way, shape their phrases together and be sensitive towards each others musical lines, and generally meld together into one cohesive unit, at least for the duration of the performance. If there is an orchestra involved, that too needs to meld in, and all of this is usually aided and abetted by the conductor. The main difference between professional musicians or groups and amateur ones, to my mind, is that the former can reliably and at will turn up the knob labelled “cohesion,” while the latter stumble upon it in one concert and rather miss it at another. I suppose if you started with 50-odd really high quality singers, they might learn to meld into a coherent unit in much less than a week. Given our mix of professionals, semi-professionals and amateurs, I’m quite sure we never fully got there, but there were times, or musical phrases during the concert when we momentarily were completely cohesive, and the rest of the time, we enjoyed just trying to get there.

At the post-concert party, if we needed further proof of how cool our tutors were, they obliged by posing in the tiny sunglasses they got in their gift packs. The gifts, the money for which had been collected from the students through a secret offertory of sorts, were all meant to be useless, but were generally attempting to be funny and/or were related to some incident or comment from the preceding week. David, thanks to his syncopation-constipation comment, earned some stool softener, to which his response was, “Organists need stool softeners. Because they are so full of shit.” Us students got something far more boring in return — certificates of participation, along with “physical contact” with each tutor. (It was reasonably exciting actually. Some student-tutor pairs got far more physical contact than others, it is fair to say.) It was a great night, with music, and dancing and conversation. It was also when the goodbyes began, because we all went our ways the following morning.

Which also means that it’s time for me to wrap up this sequence of TSSS posts. The next post will be the final one of the series.

Renaissance with TSSS: Compline (Part IX)


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the light in st. ignatius

(This is the ninth post in a series of posts on the Tallis Scholars Summer School 2013, held in Seattle. For the previous post, go here; for the next post, go here; complete series, go here.)

There is a topic that deserves even more careful attention (and words) than the miscellaneous topics of the previous post. Of the many things that were new and challenging to me at the Tallis Scholars Summer School, the most unique and immediately rewarding was perhaps Compline. Pronounced KOM-plin by the English, this is the last church service of the day, and has been observed as such for many centuries. I am not sure what led to the adoption of this service into the summer school, but I imagine that choristers around England are familiar with it, all the Tallis Scholars have done it at some point in their lives, and knowing what a sense of satisfaction and closure it brings, it is perhaps unsurprising that they included it in the summer school schedule.

At Compline on the first day, I may have been the most clueless person around. I had no idea how to read the notes, when to turn to which page of the “Compline booklet,” when to make a sound and when to be silent. Luckily, the student sitting next to me was a cantor at an Anglican church, and like all little kids, I learnt by imitation. Deb, who led Compline on most days, even asked if some of us couldn’t read the notation, and when we raised our hands, she said something to the effect of “No worries, you can learn by listening.” (That’s my kind of attitude!) There is a local Anglican church where I often go to attend concerts, and I flip through their hymn book in the intermission sometimes, so I had seen that notation before, but did not even know that it was called neumes, much less know how to read it.

It turned out that the service consisted of  a set pattern of text and plainchant, including call and response passages, with some parts that depended on the day of the week, but most parts that were the same everyday. And in there somewhere there was a Marian Antiphon, and at the end was Nunc Dimittis, and these could be sung in a particular setting, or the traditional chant, as written in the Compline booklet could be used directly. We had a different cantor each night, and we sang different settings of at least one of these on most nights. One day it was the men who prepared a piece, another day it was the women, both under Deb’s tutelage, and on some days it was one of the small groups. (Some my co-conspirators on the Rore Ave Regina suggested it for Compline, but I was secretly glad when it was shot down because it was “too long and boring”.)

In each case, the piece that got sung it had been put together in a relatively short amount of time, and this was a real test of sight-reading abilities. I have to wonder if the sight-reading practice it provides is another reason Compline is included in the TSSS schedule. The English are perhaps the most fluent sight-readers in the world (I’m not the only person to think so), and one main reason, I suspect, is the amount of music their choristers go through at church from a young age. They think nothing of putting together a Marian Antiphon or a Nunc Dimittis within half an hour, and performing it immediately. I am not sure we managed to learn new music and perform it as quickly as that, but most of us were quite eager to make it work.

On Sunday and Friday, following the concerts, Compline took place at St. James Cathedral. The remaining four times it took place in the Chapel of St. Ignatius, on the Seattle University campus. This is a chapel built in a modern style, and, in what I suppose is an updated take on the traditional stained glass of old churches and cathedrals, it has an arrangement of coloured glass panels that create patterns on the walls, which patterns move across the space as the sun traverses the sky. Even with the late Seattle sunsets, we never got to do Compline in natural light, so I had to make a special daytime trip to see this, but the chapel was beautiful at night too.

There is a strange peace that comes when singing as a group is the last activity of the day. And I can also imagine the ancients doing something we did not do, namely, to go silent after Compline, and maintain that peace till the next morning, rising to sing again. However the day may have gone, repeating the Compline texts every night quickly becomes a comfort-blanket of a habit, and I can hear the intonation of some parts even now. One of the things I love about singing is that we sometimes get to sing the exact same texts in the exact same way that a monk or a nun may have done in a monastery or an abbey many hundreds of years ago, as if their voices had echoed down the corridors of the ages, only to be branded directly onto our minds.

For me, there is something powerful about that fact. Maybe it is a sense of shared memory or the collective unconscious (shared across continents in my case!), or perhaps those texts and that music have an impact on us that we don’t fully understand, but the fact that they have lasted over so many centuries indicates to me that there is something strong at work between our neurons and those sounds, something definite and almost palpable, but which cannot be articulated. Put another way, it is the sort of thing that has me scrambling for rational explanations, and failing to find any. In any event, for a lot of us, including myself, there was something powerful in the serenity of those daily-repeated Compline sounds. And though it sounds like an oxymoron to say that such a calming experience gave me an adrenaline rush, it wouldn’t be wholly untrue. Every now and then I would find that the hair on the back of my neck was standing on end, as I was overcome by awe at the beauty of the chants resonating around me, making me want to drown in the sea of ancient sounds that filled up the modern chapel. Those moments encapsulated the beauty of Compline. Compline made us feel alive, aglow and at peace every night.

st. ignatius chapel, seattle university

Renaissance with TSSS: Miscellaneous activites (Part VIII)


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fountain, seattle university

(This is the eighth post in a series of posts on the Tallis Scholars Summer School 2013, held in Seattle. For the previous post, go here; for the next post, go here; for the complete series, go here.)

Apart from tutor groups and small groups, the second half of the day was filled with a kaleidoscope of activities. Things started off on Saturday afternoon, and after some meet-and-greet there was a talk by Peter Phillips about the music, where he went over the repertoire and displayed an English sense of humour, and also an English ability to mumble, even with a posh accent. (Incidentally, all the tutors spoke posh, albeit to varying degrees. And, of course, singing posh is a very good thing, even if one doesn’t speak posh. Also incidentally, a lot of the full choir rehearsals were held in Campion Chapel, where the singing may have sounded good/non-ugly, but the spoken voice rather lacked clarity.) On the second day was a concert at St. James Cathedral, by a local group called the Tudor Choir, with the three tutors joining in, and Peter conducting. Rebekah Gilmore, who is the Managing Director and general organiser of TSSS Seattle is a soprano in that choir. I believe that a lot of their members had attended TSSS in the UK and were partly responsible for bringing it to the US and specifically to Seattle. It was a really nice concert.

Monday was the only day on which there was a full rehearsal in the evening, and Tuesday, amazingly was a day off after a bit of small group singing in the morning. I had wondered about the sanity of this, given the amount of music left to learn (and also, I had signed up, and paid, to sing, not to go gallivanting around Seattle, beautiful city though it is!) but for most of us, including the semi-professionals, this was a perfectly timed break for the voice and brain from the musical overload that came before and after. We were specifically told not to sing in our time off that day, and there was no Compline that night either, so we all came back fresh on the Wednesday. That afternoon was a service in a local church where we sang Monteverdi’s Mass (with Peter), and also his Adoramus Te (with David), followed by a barbeque and a Q&A session back at the University. Thursday evening was when the small groups auditioned and performed in the Sharing (and we all headed off to the pub after that, along with some of the tutors), and Friday evening was the concert itself (also at St. James Cathedral), followed by the closing party.

The Wednesday service deserves a paragraph or two to itself, although the reasons are mostly non-musical. It was my first time at a Catholic service, complete with rituals and incense, along with plainchant that was, surprisingly, largely boring, and also organ music. The service lasted way longer than expected, delaying the barbeque and Q&A that were to follow. Better yet, it was in Latin and largely incomprehensible to the uninitiated, and done by a very orthodox priest, who talked about music in his sermon. He began promisingly, and we were with him when he talked about the connection between music and society, but the real fun began when he said that secular music (especially rock and roll) was the music of the devil. Not only did he not know about Coppini’s contrafacta, he clearly did not know that some movements of Handel’s Messiah are based on his own earlier secular compositions. And I’m sure he would have been absolutely destroyed to hear of the impromptu Macklemore rooftop concert that had delayed our bus while getting to the church, drastically cutting short our rehearsal time.

But while the sermon was “interesting,” the range of reactions to it among us were even more interesting. I laughed it off, and even napped for parts of it (as I also had on the slow bus ride); some others got annoyed, but still received communion; others who might have received communion otherwise changed their minds after the sermon and chose not to; some found it a normal and routine sermon and service, the latter being in Latin was the only slightly odd part for them; others expressed no disapproval whatsoever and even seemed to have enjoyed it; and some people, as expected, got really angry. This last category was the most interesting — it consisted largely of people who were Catholics themselves and who vehemently disagreed with the priest and thought he was giving their denomination a bad name, and therefore wanted to express their disapproval most strongly. All in all, it was a nice little study of human reactions. “Next year, we should have a Q&A with the priest instead of the Tallis Scholars” and “We should have invited him to the barbeque” were two of the comments that I remember.

I think the Q&A later that day also deserves some attention. One topic was the Tallis Scholars’ Eric Whitacre piece, commissioned on the occasion of their 40th anniversary. I have enjoyed Whitacre whenever I have sung him, so it was interesting to hear about him from the other side. As Whitacre himself describes in this YouTube video, there was a period of composing and rewriting, and discarding sketches and starting over, and then making more changes, right up to the last minute, before the piece had its premiere in March 2013. Titled Sainte-Chapelle, the piece has also been recorded and released since then.

Another interesting topic was how the Tallis Scholars approach different composers. Peter’s response was that they approach a current composer like Arvo Pärt in the same way that they might approach a Renaissance composer like Josquin, which surprised some people, but I think the real point is that the group has a certain basic sound that they are good at and confident about, and they stick to that sound, and to music that suits that sound, irrespective of the century it was composed in. Peter also told us that he never plays a new piece of music on the piano, or hears it in any form, he just reads the music and gets what he needs from that alone. (This concept still blows me away. And I also wonder if this ties in to the unaccompanied rehearsals. In any case, there is no question that he has a great ear and musical brain.)

A question during the Q&A was about the relative ease or difficulty of choral careers in America vs. England. As a lot of us have long suspected, London/England is “awash” in signers who have trained from a very young age in one of the many cathedrals and churches, so there is a lot more competition there than in America as far as singing careers are concerned, but, at the same time, if you want to direct a group, and have a new idea for a niche group, the “raw materials” (read quality singers) are far more readily available in England. (Hollingworth makes similar comments here.) As the week progressed, our interactions and comfort level with the tutors increased, and they were a very friendly bunch overall, ready to discuss anything. The Q&A was just a formal version of that interaction, and it was good fun, though having it outdoors, near a fountain, and with a helicopter hovering overhead for a while (possibly thanks to Macklemore again!) made the audio quality a good bit less than perfect.

In the next post I’ll write about an experience that is the most striking for a good number of the summer school students, namely, Compline.