Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount, Goa. Credit: Sebanti Chatterjee.

Listening to Voices

Understory · Sebanti Chatterjee - Listening to Voices

I recall that it was Aaron (name changed) who told me that a defining aspect of choral music was how the voices come together. The musical consonance of harmony is based on the ability to listen to each other while retaining one’s own vocal range and texture. Unlike the strict structure of Western classical music, church music is not confined to notes, and one develops an excellent ear to pick up tunes from a young age. The church creates ear-trained voices, he said, which is an essential attribute of worship protocol and part of an informal music education in a Goan Catholic’s everyday imagination. As a part of my ethnography, I was in Goa to study its musical landscape, and from thereon I planned to travel to Meghalaya to compare church musical cultures.

The Archdiocese of Goa has established the Diocesan Commission for Sacred Music and the Diocesan Centre for Liturgy. This apostolate determines what gets formulated as sacred music, and ensures the use of notational music and the lyrical intent in liturgy. On the one hand, this has made Church music more serious, while on the other, the spontaneity that collaborative ear-trained voices produced has retreated.

Aaron belonged to the Merces parish and played the violin for Sunday mass. I listened as he reminisced on the mid-1990s, when church music did not yet use proper notations. It often meant that the musician accompanying the singer adjusted to the scale after arriving at the tune that corresponded with the sung melody. The singers chose a comfortable register and a voice suited to one’s timbre while working out the tune.

A regular church service choir comprises at least three singers, mostly sopranos (a female melody line), altos (supporting female voices in a lower register than the soprano) and sometimes tenors (the male melody line). The fourth voice, a supporting male bass, that holds all the voices together while providing a deep resonance at a very low register, is not a regular feature of every church parish choir. However, a professional choir requires the presence of all four voices. There are further nuances associated with these principal voices which are presented as mezzo soprano, contralto and baritone.

“Most of us would make our voices according to the chords, you know. So, we used to put all our voices on the spot or we used to teach each other. It was more of a group effort than a one-man show. Sopranos and altos put natural seconds because they did not refer to the music at all and sang by ear. We also had tenors who put voices by ear. Education is sort of spoiling the musicians as we are not using the ear as much and I think that element is getting lost."

Aaron made me aware of the creativity that church voices nurture. Unlike score sheets that demand that a perfect tessitura emerge according to the written arrangement, ear-trained voices underline the ‘texture’ to enable in the process of rehearsing and embodying the tune that forms the part of the liturgical service.

I auditioned for the University Choir when they held open rehearsals for the public. It was my first ever choir audition! I was asked to sing the seven notes, and raise each successive note an octave higher. After a few runs, I realised that my voice sounded too shrill and the shape of the notes didn’t make much sense. I still made it to the Soprano section. Phew! I felt lucky that I wasn’t asked to do the ‘seconds’ and figure out the accompanying harmony to complement the melody line. That would have been my role if I was chosen for the Alto section - a more challenging prospect.

When we listen to songs, we do not listen to separate the four voices even when they present themselves before us; it is a challenge to pick up on the elements that are constant and those that surprise the meandering nature of the composition with its peculiar lifts and halts. When the time for actual rehearsals and performance came, I joined the mezzo sopranos. Our Maestro, Santiago Lusardi Girelli* had interesting pieces set out for the very first Monte Festival of Goa University Choir. It was not part of a service or a mass but was religious music approved by the Diocesan Commission for Sacred Music, Goa, as part of the annual cultural festival. I remember two in particular which were entirely different in temperament and expression. One was Ola Gjeilo’s The Ground: Pleni Sunt Caeli et terra gloria tua, part of his Northern Lights album. The second time we sang it, we were required to sing a super high octave of Agnus Dei, ‘qui tollis peccata mundi’, and the sopranos were divided into soprano and mezzo soprano. At that particular octave, the mezzo sopranos repeated the octave that we sang the first time around, because the qui tollis peccata mundi sounded rather coarse and intolerably shrill for a few of us in the highest octave. This section was crucial for it demanded that our voices convey a sense of urgency, atonement, and continued shadow of gratitude offered by the almighty. In English, it means the lamb of God who takes away our sins.

The other one was the chorus of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem: Dies Irae.

Dies irae, Solvet saeclum in favilla:

Teste David cum Sibylla.

Quantus tremor est futurus,

Quando Judex est venturus,

Cuncta stricte discussurus!

Tuba mirum spargens sonum

Per sepulchra regionum

Coget omnes ante thronum.

Mors stupebit et natura,

Cum resurget creatura,

Judicanti responsura.

The chorus demanded that our voices express wrath, dismay, human folly, tragedy and an account of plunder before those who lay down the rules of justice, amid the imminent and callous sounding of the trumpet. This required clear, potent, slight, staccato utterances to convey the sentiment of the consequences of war.

We watched him, as he widened his eyes or peered closely, his fingers indicating a gradual fading, or picking up sudden momentum while his occasional smiles reassured us that the sound of the choir was in sync. Giving voice to these two pieces, I learnt how the ear guides us to our inward feeling-fulness of the lyrics, flow, rhythm, and tunes. Visual acuity cannot be overlooked in performance either, and the conductor’s baton aids in this respect. So much gets lost in the process of simple immersion in the sheet guidelines and dynamics.

* I take this opportunity to remember with sorrow and immense gratitude Maestro Santiago Lusardi Girelli whom we lost to Covid-19 in May 2021.

Sebanti Chatterjee teaches Sociology and is a cultural anthropologist. Her doctoral dissertation in Sociology from the Delhi School of Economics was on the choral music scene in Goa and Shillong. Occasionally, she also wears the hat of a storyteller.

15 February 2022

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