Monday, August 18, 2008

The Beauty of Silence

People often ask, "What is your favorite type of music?" These people usually anticipate a conversation about Blues Traveler, Weezer, or the Barenaked Ladies (all of which I enjoy) but this question puts me in a tricky situation! Wanting to remain cool (of course), I am somewhat shy to reply that almost all of the music that I listen to is choral! Always a conversation killer, I’ve discovered that very few people my age enjoy choral music to the extent and near-exclusivity as I do.

To prove my point, I bought a new car a few weeks ago (not really new, but new to me) with a premium sound system. I believe that the most effective test of a speaker system is, in fact, fine choral music! When sung with dramatic dynamics and featuring exciting writing, choral music will test all of the important aspects of an audio system. I've often been disappointed with speakers that didn't quite carry the beauty of a high soprano or the rumble of a deep bass section. A good speaker system can handle this range of pitch as well as the extreme dynamics indicative of top-quality choral music.

Back to my original point - in my opinion, the best music in the world is first-class choral music. Why do I think this? Keep reading.

I began singing my freshman year of high school where I discovered my initial love for the art. I didn’t immediately find the joy of listening to choral music, only performing it. Chanticleer’s Sing We Now of Christmas was the first CD I ever owned. I listened to it year-round nearly nonstop; yet, this love for a particular CD didn’t evolve into a greater love of choral music until later.

In the summer of 2004 I "discovered" the Brigham Young University Singers. On a trip to upstate New York I purchased one of their CDs entitled “Songs of the Soul.” Later, at my home in Virginia, I played the CD on my living room stereo while I talked to my family. It wasn’t long until we stopped speaking entirely and sat transfixed at the beauty we were hearing. More specifically, for fourteen minutes and fifty-five seconds we were silenced by one particular track, When David Heard That Absalom Was Slain.

When David Heard is a four-part a cappella masterpiece composed by Eric Whitacre. It relates a single heartbreaking verse from the Old Testament of David’s terrible grief upon hearing that his son, Absalom, has been slain. Absalom had rebelled against his father, formed an army, and attempted to take the kingdom by force. Of necessity, David sent an army to stop him, but gave very clear instructions not to harm Absalom. The King’s army was victorious but, disobeying orders, killed Absalom. In his grief, David shuts himself in his chamber and cries,

My son, my son Absalom!
Would God I had died for thee!

From this breathtaking story Eric Whitacre created the most wrenching and beautiful piece of music I have ever heard. In my opinion, it is the best in the world.

After discovering When David Heard, I fell in love with it. The painful harmonies and staggeringly beautiful melody stayed with me for many weeks. It was in my mind when I received my endowment at the Washington D.C. Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To this day I associate this song with that most influential moment of my life. It has become the only song that I avoid listening to for fear that it will become too commonplace to me – that it will lose its sacredness - and sadness.

It was a few years later that I learned the story behind When David Heard. BYU Singers, the performers on the CD, had not simply found the piece and recorded it. The composer, Eric Whitacre, had written the piece specifically for the Singers, and more specifically, for their director Ronald Staheli. Dr. Staheli’s breathtaking conduction of When David Heard arose from his grief at losing his son in a car accident at the prime of his life. For this, Mr. Whitacre “dedicated [it] with love and silence to Dr. Ronald Staheli.”

Following the summer of 2004, I served a two-year mission for the LDS Church. It was during this time that my love for choral music expanded from When David Heard to include other types of choral work. I exhaustedly listened to every recording I could get my hands on from the Singers, as well as other BYU Choirs and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It was in the reverent silence of a missionary’s life that I grew to depend on the beauty of choral music.

The collective music of the BYU Singers has lifted my heart to rejoice and enlightened my mind many times since then. I have since listened to every CD they have produced - some of them dozens, if not hundreds of times. I have been to their rehearsals and recording sessions. I’ve acquired and scoured their archival CDs, and befriended many members of the choir. I’ve listened to dozens of concerts both from the audience and from the stage. I have found a deep love for the BYU Singers, and easily consider them the most beautiful musical ensemble in the world.

Upon returning from my mission I auditioned for the BYU Men’s Chorus, which I had been a member of during my freshman year of college. To my surprise and exultant joy, I instead found a spot in the BYU Concert Choir. This exquisitely beautiful mixed choir, conducted by Rosalind Hall, has recorded wonderful CDs and holds a very special place in the BYU choral program. To many this choir is the training choir for BYU Singers.

So here I find myself in the summer of 2008 following a year and a half in the Concert Choir – agonizingly close to my dream. The most beautiful choir in the world is only a few tenors away. Last year I lacked the courage to audition, but in April I had a preliminary audition with Dr. Staheli. It went very well and I am now waiting to see if I have made the callback list. Callback auditions for Singers is a very intimidating proposition – last year a stack of challenging music was assigned and a few days later auditionees were required to be able to perform it! The final requirement for entrance into the choir, despite a candidate's long resume of choral experience and musical expertise, is whether or not his or her voice fits in with the BYU Singers sound. Vocal parts have only four to six singers making blend essential. Many fantastic singers have been rejected from the choir because the beautiful sound they have developed is not the exact sound required by the choir. It is this fear that keeps me up at night!

By now, you will have surmised that one of my life goals is to be a member of the BYU Singers. Is this an unreasonable goal? Probably! When I conceived it in the summer of 2004, it definitely was. But over the past four years, it has become increasingly more possible. I don’t fear rejection this fall, or next, as I am willing to audition many times if necessary to get in. My greatest fear is that if I do get in that following the experience I will lose my love of the BYU Singer sound. I have found that I become much more critical of a choir’s recordings once I’ve been in the choir and am familiar with all of their typical mistakes! Will membership in the choir be worth the potential loss of my love for their music?

Well, obviously the allure of performing with the choir trumps that fear, but it still remains in the back of my head – a risk I am willing to take. For now, I hope to make the callback auditions, do well, and become a member of the choir. It’s a long shot, but for the first time in my life, I feel that it’s not so long.

So why have I put all this into my blog? Well, what are blogs for, but to write stuff like this? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I also somewhat want to share the beauty I’ve found in choral music with others. A few weeks ago I added a fancy little application on the right side of this blog for visitors to listen to some of my favorite songs. When David Heard is there.

I won’t beg you or even ask you to listen to it, but it is there if you’re intrigued.* If you do listen to When David Heard, do it right - listen alone, in a quiet room. Give enough time for the entire song without interruptions and try to concentrate on nothing else. If you listen with your eyes closed and with an open heart perhaps it will bring tears to your eyes as it has to mine many times.

*I grew tired a long time ago attempting to persuade people to do things that are good for them: A natural result of a mission? Or just a natural result of lame friends who will never do anything fun?


Janae said...

Nick, that was beautiful. Not just the writing, but also the way that you talked about music! Thank you!

And just so you know, I will be listening to the song as soon as I get home from work (in the quiet and solitude of my bedroom).


B-Rob said...

Good luck getting the audition, man. And as far as choral music being the best...well, you already know that I'm too set in my ways with the piano/organ to agree :)

Alisha said...

i saw the close-up of you at regional conference yesterday. you all sounded magnificent. it's amazing school's only been in session for a week and you can produce music like that. way to go.