Monday, March 19, 2018

Singing "The Sounding Sea"

Broad Cove, Inverness, Nova Scotia
So already, the Unicorn Singers and Broad Cove Chorale, the two South Shore choirs directed by Margo Euler, are in full-throttle preparation mode for our upcoming spring concert. This spring's program will immerse our audience in a phenomenon as common as weather--and just as dominant, compelling, essential, and indifferent. That phenomenon: the sea.

"White Point #3" by Scott Ketcham
Presenting the sea sometimes as setting, sometimes as subject, "The Sounding Sea" reflects a variety of perspectives and purposes through a range of musical expressions. There are ballads and arrangements of traditional songs, some about historical personages; pieces that present a sequence of the sea's states and moods, sometimes with commentary; and compositions designed to provide a direct experience of the sea by making it audible. 

Sometimes the music's purpose is political as well as musical. Sally Lamb composed  "Glee! The Storm is Over,"* a setting of an Emily Dickinson poem, in conjunction with the Cornell University Chorus's "No Whining, No Flowers" commissioning project. It's hardly the usual women's choir fare with its lyrics about shipwreck victims and its dissonant voices assuming the roles of clanging buoy bells on a turbulent sea. The Broad Cove Chorale--I'm singing in both it and the Unicorn Singers this season--is sandwiching this piece between a more typical, very lyrical piece in which a woman bids the wind to hasten her lover's return and an exuberant but cautionary tale about the legendary eighteenth-century female pirate, Anne Bonny. Women can choose to do other than wait, wish, and wail.

"Full Fathom Five," Vaughan Williams' setting of lines from The Tempest, casts the Unicorn Singers as bells. But the most haunting and evocative Unicorn pieces are the two in which the choir becomes the sea. 

In "As is the Sea Marvelous" by Matthew Lyon Hazzard and "The Sounding Sea" by Eric William Barnum, the choir sings, speaks, hisses, and exhales in order to sound like waves as they swell, spill or crash, and then retreat. Sustained hh, sh, ff, and s (the "s" in the middle of the word "listen") sounds stretch and overlap, trade places; glissandi abound, linking pitches in imitation of the waves' rising and falling motions; crescendos and decrescendos alternate, working in tandem to render the changing volume of waves that crest, sometimes pound or break, and then slip or drag themselves back across the pebbly shelf. All voice parts are needed to convey the water's simultaneous forward and backward movement. Sometimes hands clap and feet stomp when the sound's all about force.

The combining of musical and "non-musical" sounds might sound gimmicky--but it's not. If anything, it authentically augments the music's ability to convey the shifts and turns that are characteristic of the stories of the sea and of the sea itself. I think of them as being represented visually by the sheet music's numerous hairpin dynamic markings. Things change course, sometimes by as much as 180°; ambiguities abound, shaping human destinies nonetheless. To be becalmed is not to be calm. "Glee, the great storm is over," but oh what heart-breaking flotsam the waves push toward the shore. Tragic fates are shaped in pitiless moments. Spirits soar in breath-taking other moments that lead to peace. And whatever is true in the moment may only be true in the moment: all is permanently in flux.

After my husband and I visited Cape Breton last summer, I blogged about the uneasiness I felt with the ocean: even though--or maybe because--for six of our seven days we saw it at its most scenic, azure-perfect, I knew there was another side to that sea story that we were not experiencing. A few weeks ago, I happened upon a description of that other side in an Alistair MacLeod Cape Breton short story:
Detail from "The Cemetery at White Point"***
"It is the second of November . . .. Each day dawns duller and more glowering and the waves of the grey Atlantic are sullen and almost yellow at their peaks as they pound relentlessly against the round smooth boulders that lie scattered as if  by a careless giant at the base of the ever-resisting cliffs. At night, we can hear the waves rolling in and smashing, rolling in and smashing, so relentless and regular that it is possible to count rhythmically between the thunder of each: one, two, three, four; one, two, three, four. 
     "It is hard to realize that this is the same ocean that is the crystal blue  of summer when only the thin oil-slicks left by the fishing boats or the startling whiteness of the riding seagulls mar its azure sameness. Now it is roiled and angry, and almost anguished; hurling up the brown dirty balls of scudding foam, the sticks of pulpwood from some lonely freighter, the caps of unknown men, buoys from mangled fishing nets and the inevitable bottles that contain no messages. And always the shreds of blackened and stringy seaweed that it has ripped and torn from its own lower regions, as if this is the season for self-mutilation--the pulling out of the secret, private, unseen hair" (98-99).
The sea is "Marvelous," but we marvel at what horrifies as well as enchants. Given the range of the shifts and turns that the whole Unicorns/Broad Cove program and some of its individual pieces present, it's very appropriate that it borrows its title from the George William Curtis poem that Barnum set to music.

The first stanza--
"O listen to the sounding sea
     That beats on the remorseless shore,
O listen, for that sound will be
     When our hearts shall be no more."
--reminds us that the shore feels nothing, least of all a sense of wrong-doing, and that when we are dead and gone, the sea's rhythms will persist, mourning us not at all.

But immediately we're handed a welcome emotional hairpin turn: the second stanza transforms our alienation and sense of insignificance into warming connection and intimacy: 
"O listen well and listen long!
     For sitting folded close to me,
You could not hear a sweeter song
     Than the hoarse murmur of the sea."
The poem pivots on the power of human touch: from our position of being "folded" against the speaker, maybe against one another, we can embrace the sea's "sweeter song," feel gladdened and lifted up. And what is music if not human touch?

The Unicorn Singers and the Broad Cove Chorale sing of MacLeod's "roiled," "anguished" sea, but also of that azure sea that invites; that rollicking sea that promises adventure, employment, and renown; and that wide-stretching sea that billows and pacifies. It's a moving program--sensual and meditative both--and no less timely though most present-day travelers of vast distances board airplanes more often than ships.

So join us if you can on April 8 in Hingham, Massachusetts to experience the sounding sea in all its incarnations and evocations. 

And one final thing. My beloved aunt Elayne Selig died on Monday, March 12, 2018. She was an ardent swimmer, but her favorite place to swim was the ocean, no matter how cold the water was. I will be especially thinking of her when we sing Eric Whitacre's "The Seal Lullaby." 

* You can listen to the piece to clicking on the image of the sheet music's cover. 
** “‘In the Fall.’” Island: The Complete Stories, by Alistair MacLeod, W.W. Norton & Company, 2000, pp. 98–117.