Saturday, November 14, 2009

Why We Sing

Why do I sing in gay men's choruses? Why do I like to sing in male choruses? Why do I sing with Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus, in Madison, WI, the chorus I currently sing with, and have written a new piece for, that will be premiered in December 2009?

Short answer: Because I love singing in male choruses, I'm gay, I love singing in gay men's choruses with other gay men, and most importantly, we are musical ambassadors to the world. We give back to our communities, and at the same time raise the general community's consciousness about the social issues and concerns of our gay lives by celebrating them, singing about them, and sharing them. We reach out with music to heal and give hope and beauty to the lives of others.

These are all generalities, but they're true for me nonetheless. I've known for a long time that my personal form of social activism happens most effectively through my music, my writing, and my artwork. I used to be an activist who marched in the streets. I participated in the very first LGBT Pride March ever organized in Madison, WI. I did outreach to both the LGBT and straight communities in Madison; I sat on discussion panels; I participated in speaker's visits to schools and corporate offices. We had fun, and we had strength, and we knew we were helping to make the world a finer place for everyone.

We were right—and we were wrong. We did catalyze change, and yet the world stubbornly refuses to improve faster than a snail's pace. It's true that the Tribe can only evolve at the rate of its slowest members—a truth I learned later, after I had left my overt activist years behind.

So here's my really long, personal memoir answer:

I've always been a choral singer. I loved singing in church choirs, starting about age 7 or 8. I graduated from my church's youth choir to the adult choir in my mid-teens; they needed tenors, and I was gifted musically. I sang in the Michigan Men's Glee Club from my first semester in college. It's probably destiny that has led me to sing in not one, but three or four gay men's choruses over the years. I view it as part of my social outreach, my activism, and also a way to stay musically active, which for me is as necessary as breathing.

As a boy, I was a soloist, a boy soprano, and for awhile an alto. My middle choral teacher, Hunter March, trained me in the techniques of the English choral tradition, the pinnacle of which in many opinions (including mine) is King's College, Cambridge. I still listen to that group's annual broadcast of lessons and carols at Christmastide. But most boy sopranos don't have adult voices as good as their boy voices, once their voices have changed and stabilized. That was my fate. Yet I had all this training. I was recruited right out of middle school by the choral teacher of the high school I would be attending. I remember a meeting in the middle offices, before the end of my last year there—my voice had just broken, spectacularly and embarassingly, during a solo in a choral performance—in which I sat down with my current choral teacher and my future choral teacher, and we talked about my future. Plans were made. I was a little intimidated and overwhelmed by the attention of these highly musical, highly trained teachers; but I also liked it. I already knew I had some musical talent beyond the ordinary; I was already writing music, and I had already been given the chance to play with a suitcase-sized Moog synthesizer, and make a little tape music. I remember my two choral teachers discussing my situation, and what to do to make sure I continued to improve as a singer.

My voice had just changed. The long hot summer between the last year of middle school and my first year of high school was also the summer of my sexual awakening. We lived in what was at the time the outermost northeastern corner of Ann Arbor. Our subdivision was the edge of town. Behind our house was open, empty fields—fields which had been nothing but wheat for several years after my family bought that house, but which by this summer had begun to be filled in with row-house condo construction. The construction moved slowly, and took several years to cross the field from its opposite to end to behind our fence. During this long hot summer, I spent many hours in naked play with two or three of the neighbor boys. We explored how our bodies could bring us pleasure, and how to pleasure each other. It was always exciting, too, because it was forbidden and risky to get caught at it. I wrote about it, even then, as a teenage boy (my parents had given me my first typewriter for Christmas). I wrote about my fantasies, and I wrote about my memories and dreams. I'll write about that some more, here, at a later date. There's a lot of memory material from that time of my life that I want to reconsider and reinvent. Later.

There is a classic question: are you a gay artist, or an artist who happens to be gay? Does your sexuality inform your art-making? A lot of gay artists get hung up on this question, going in circles while never answering it definitely. Of course, asking the question is a matter of identity politics for many: of discovering and identifying who you are. It's an essentialist question, and an existential one.

I find it irrelevant and uninteresting. Perhaps a couple of decades ago I might have debated it. The fact is, I'm an artist who happens to be gay, and I'm also a gay artist. I'm a gay man who makes gay art and non-gay-themed art; I'm a man who makes art; I'm a man who makes gay art and non-gay art. If indeed these are separable modes, which is debatable, I work in them all. I don't make a distinction, because I don't believe it important to make a distinction. My sexual orientation is part of who I am—not all of who I am, but an important part of the whole—and as a man who makes art, all the parts of who I am are present when I'm making art, to a greater or lesser degree. Not all of my art is overtly homoerotic, or even sexual, or sensual. And some of it is.

My first year in high school was the year my voice was settling. My choir teacher, Miss Ruth Datz, who became over time one of my important mentors in life, guided me carefully through the change. For a few months I sang baritone rather than tenor, so as not to strain my newly-changed voice. (I still have that lower range.) But I was also trained in barbershop quartet, and as a countertenor. My head voice, or falsetto, proved to be very useful. I have never had the soloist's voice as an adult: neither the power, or the range, or the quality of openness prized in opera, or the projection prized in musical theater. But thanks to my choral mentors at this time in my life, I have a tremendous amount of vocal training. I am rarely picked for solo parts in the choruses I have sung in: I don't have that kind of voice. But I have three times the training of most of those who I sing in chorus with.

I also have a very good ear, and a very trained ear, for pitch. I am very good at blending. I discovered that I can control the timbre and pitch of my voice so well that I can blend with anyone. I make other voices sound better. Put me in the middle of the first tenor section, which is where you'll usually find me anyway, and I make the whole section sound more like one voice, than a group of individuals. It's a knack, an instinct. I just seem to do it, and it's not always conscious.

In college, I sang in the Michigan Men's Glee Club. I was not yet fully out to myself as a gay man, but it was clear to me that most of us in the first tenor section were either queer, bisexual, or at least open-minded. There’s an old joke on the choral circuit, that there are three kinds of people in the world: men, women, and tenors. There's some insight and truth in that, after all. Anyway, I began to get a sense of a gay sensibility, a homoerotic gathering of sensibility, a sense of male comradeship, of Whitman's "adhesiveness," during those years singing in the Men’s Glee Club. We toured Europe and many regions of the USA together during, those years; staying in a hotel, staying in homes of alumnae, being hosted and feted wherever we went. I learned things about myself, and my colleagues, on many occasions.

After graduating college, I largely turned my back on Western music for about a decade. Surviving after music school meant a period of unlearning: being a composition major, mostly what they could teach us was music theory and history, and they crammed so much theory done our throats that I was compositionally constipated for a few years, and could write nothing. (I eventually began over with Western music by learning jazz improvisation, improvised music, the arts of spontaneous composition.) But at the same time, I had discovered Javanese gamelan, and played that music for many years. One element of certain pieces of Javanese gamelan is the unison male chorus, or gérong, which sings traditional texts as one layer of the music. For example, here is a performance of Ketawang Puspawarna, a traditional opening piece for concert performances, used by many ensembles.

Listen to how the male chorus, which is members of the gamelan group, some playing instruments as well as singing, do punctuated calls at key moments in the form, as well as performing the sung unison text. Puspawarna, a classical Javanese poem, means “kinds of flowers.”

Thus I kept my vocal chops up, albeit in music from another culture. I learned I had an ear for precise pitch, for being able to match different tuning systems, for being able to sing correct intervals in more than one tuning system. I played and studied Javanese gamelan for many years. I lived in Indonesia for a year, as a Fulbright student on a grant, studying traditional gamelan. I taught gamelan as a graduate student teaching assistant, later, at the University of Wisconsin. This music has left a permanent mark on my own music, the way I write music now, even the way I improvise when playing in jazz and rock music settings.

My coming out process as a gay man was long and late and slow. I wasn't exactly in the closet, I wasn’t exactly pretending to be something I wasn’t, but it takes time to learn self-acceptance and self-esteem. I came out fully sometime in my late 20s and early 30s. That's another long story, which like my sexual awakening as a teenage boy, I have written about extensively, in my journals and in my poetry. I'll be writing more about that, later, as well.

Living in Madison, WI, playing gamelan, discovering the Radical Faeries and going to annual gatherings, being involved in the Rendezvous Reenactment circuit, being an LGBT activist, coming out to my family, taking my first long-term male love relationships, discovering what I liked about sex and what I didn't, being in grad school, becoming a serious photographer, writer, and Photoshop user. These were all happening at the same time, form my late 20s through my late 30s.

Some years later, I found myself living in the Twin Cities, in Minnesota. There are long stories in the interim, some of them related to both music and sexuality, and if I were to tell them all now, all at once, this would be a novel-length memoir, pull me far off the topic of choral music. So I’ll save some of those for another day.

I was living in St. Paul, and having a difficult time of life. I felt the need to connect with the larger gay community, as I was feeling very isolated. Just to be around gay men socially, in ways that were positive. So it occurred to me to revive my interest in singing in male choruses. I have always loved the sound and timbre of massed male voices, singing in chorus, and my years in the Glee Club had cemented that preference, musically and socially.

Here’s where why we sing begins to matter.

Singing in a gay men’s chorus is about presenting a face of the gay community to the general community: an artistic face, an ambassadorial face, a face of unity and empowerment, of reaching out with music to heal both gays and their friends and families. It’s about entertainment and having a good time, but for me it’s only secondarily about entertainment. Primarily, it’s about letting people see that we are human, ordinary, serious, fun, and genuinely part of the community. Every chorus in a community has its following. Every chorus does outreach, of one form or another. It’s about reaching out to the community, but also about reminding the community that we are already there, already people you know, already a part of it all. We are your brothers and sisters, your children, your family, your coworkers, your friends.

I sing in a gay men’s chorus because I love singing in a male chorus. I sing in a gay men’s chorus because I need to be with gay men, and making music provides me a way to be with a community of gay men in a way that I’m comfortable with, that supports me positively, that makes me feel a part of something important. I got none of that from the bar scene. I got a little of it from being an activist.

Singing in a gay men’s chorus is a quiet, artistic form of activism. For me, it’s about being part of something larger, something that is gradually, gently, slowly, almost invisibly changing the world.

I joined the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus, which was my reintroduction to singing in a male chorus, but it also provided me with opportunities to make new friends, to reach out to my community, to invite my other friends to part of something. When I moved out West, I joined the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. The same opportunities in a different place. With the exception that the SFGMC is the original gay men’s chorus in the USA; they were the first, for all intents and purposes. When they did they first national tour across the US, they sowed the seeds in their wake in many cities they visited for the LGBT choral movement to spread. Now there are hundreds of LGBT choruses of all sorts of configurations and styles and memberships and missions. The LGBT choral movement has gone worldwide. It’s mostly based in cities, but just in large cities; choruses are present in many mid-size cities, and some smaller cities. My personal preference is for a male chorus, because I like to sing in that style, and within that repertoire. And I am now contributing, as a composer, to that repertoire. Now I sing with Perfect Harmony Men’s Chorus, in Madison, WI. It’s a smaller but growing chorus. It gives me what I want, musically, and I give back to the local community via our music. We work together to make music into our message of peace, hope, and love.

And for me that is my best, most satisfying form of activism. To make art that feeds a movement towards greater unity, greater community, and outreach. We invisibly, gradually change the world by just being ourselves. We don’t always march in the streets, and we don’t always engage in political activism; although almost every LGBT chorus does engage in some form of social justice work. We use our art to educate. One of the most important ways we educate is to show how your sons and daughters are not so Other, not so alien, are regular folks who can have fun, make music, have a good time, and not be so alien to your life that we have nothing in common. If we start by having music in common, that opens the door to having hearts in common. Music is the way to the heart that bypasses the mind and all its prejudices. I’ve heard story after story about how some person who thought they hated gays and lesbians changed their minds, after actually encountering us, as singers, as people, and not as stereotypes.

And that’s how you make the world a finer place. By changing one heart at a time. That’s why we sing.


  1. Gosh. Thanksgiving day, so I give thanks to you for this blog, Art. I'm straight and female, but who cares? I've been interested in the idea -- the IDEA -- of gamelan since my freshman year in high school: 1953 or so. Never enough chances to listen. And I loved the kd lang vid. Thanks again.

    Prairie Mary

  2. Hey, thanks in return!

    I'm very pleased you like the musical moments.

    And thanks to you as well for your own brand of activism, which you do so well.