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Our Passions, Our Day Jobs

Songs in the Key of Eno

Much to the chagrin of his former 25-year-old self, a man in his forties—with no singing experience outside the shower—joins the village chorus. Terror, learning, and intense joy, all while making Brian Eno proud.

Mark Podwal, Hallel, 2011. Copyright © the artist, courtesy of Forum Gallery, NY.

“Hi. Welcome. Come and join us.”

It was one of those situations where you walk into a room full of people who all know each other, and you don’t know any of them, and one says “Come and join us,” and that’s the very last thing you feel like doing because—oh god! This is terrifying!

That was my first sing.

It must have been autumn 2002. Our baby son was just a few months old, and we’d moved from London to rural Wiltshire, about 130 miles west of the capital. We’d bought a tumbledown cottage in a tiny village. Roses grew over the garden gate and owls hooted in nearby trees at night. It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t as idyllic as it sounds, but at that moment it suited us well.

We’d started a new chapter in our lives, not least with the birth of the baby. We didn’t really plan it this way, but my wife ended up back in her full-time job and I ended up house-husbanding with not much freelance work to do. I had fun, but we found ourselves a little isolated. Having only just moved, we didn’t know many people. We didn’t feel part of a community. We needed to make some connections.

A poster in a shop window caught my eye.

“Sing in the round!” it chorused. “Sing for the fun of it!”

Despite 25 or more years of singing along to the radio and my cherished music collection, I was stirred by it. What made me think I could sing? I’m not sure. The la-la-la noises I’d made to date didn’t make me cringe. They sounded like the ones in the music, in the sense that the notes were roughly the same. And anyway, the poster promised that you didn’t have to know anything to join. No musical knowledge, or talent, required. Nothing to lose.

I made a phone call, and a week or so later walked through those doors into that big room in front of all those people.

What I didn’t know then was how much I’d love it.

 

Children sing all the time. But the older you get, the less you sing. Before you know it, you’ve got kids yourself and your first gray hairs and the best you can manage is a quick hum-along when a song you like comes on the radio. 

I felt like I needed to do something about that.

There’s musical talent in our family. My dad is a gifted organist, and he has what my step-mother calls “a beautiful baritone.” At the point when I signed up for the singing group, I wasn’t even very clear what baritone meant. But I knew that singing was something I liked. And the abstract pleasure of making music with nothing more than my vocal chords could be doubly satisfying, because my adult life had been plagued with regret for not learning to play an instrument when I was younger.

Walking through the door for that initial terrifying moment of exposure in front of a crowd, I made the newbie singer’s mistake: I stood in the wrong place.

When was the last time you sang out loud?

I don’t mean just an idle hum in the shower or a quick hum while driving the car. I mean a full-on, full-throated, full-volume sing. A time when your attention was centered on the act of singing, just singing. For many adults, when they stop and think about it, the answer to the question is “when I was a kid.” Children embrace singing as an activity in its own right. Parents too, but usually only an activity for their children, not for themselves.

It’s not just me that thinks singing has something going for it. Brian Eno doesn’t just like singing, he believes in singing. From an essay on NPR:

When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That’s one of the great feelings—to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue.

Like Luke Skywalker was when I was seven, Brian Eno is a role model for 40-something me. He has hands in many pies and projects, he writes and sings and musics and does all sorts of fabulous creative things. If there was a Force, it would be strong with Brian. His book, A Year With Swollen Appendices, is one of my all-time favorites. He sings with others just because. He sings with no other purpose or aim, other than to sing. That’s where the belief comes from.

It’s hard to understand what he means until you actually commit to the act, until you open your mouth and take a breath inward and exhale with volume. Singing stirs muscles within. It exercises the mind, forcing you to concentrate on the notes and the spaces between them. The ears, too: you listen to yourself, and you listen to your companions. 

The companions are important. You can sing on your own and enjoy it, but singing with others forces you to trust them, to open up to them, to feel comfortable enough to make a fool of yourself in front of them. Strong new friendships form. You can know someone intimately by knowing their voice, learning as they learn, exchanging a delighted look when both of you hit the right harmonic notes at exactly the right moment. That incredible sound—you’re making that, the two of you. The 10 of you. The 50 of you. Like lovers, you share a bond that’s physical and tender, something you both have to work for, something you both enjoy more when you both get it just right.

 

Walking through the door for that initial terrifying moment of exposure in front of a crowd, I made the newbie singer’s mistake: I stood in the wrong place. 

Of course, a choir is divided into groups by vocal range. This one was arranged in an almost-circle, like a torc, with the group leader in the center spinning on her heels to face each group in turn. The sopranos at one end, a large group of women. Then altos, a smaller and entirely female group. Then the tenors, where voices mix and some men mingle with the girls. Finally, at the other end of the torc and facing back toward the sopranos, the men singing bass. The vast majority of the group were two decades or more older than I. The ratio of women to men was about three to one. Everyone was smiling.

I become part of the song, as much as part of the group. The tangible sensations I get in my spine and the hairs on the back of my neck are the side-effects of the group working together. Empathy as electricity.

I stood at the front of the altos, because I hadn’t really taken all this in yet, and because there was a Giles-sized gap I could squeeze into and it seemed to be the least conspicuous place for a newcomer. It was also comfortingly close to a large concrete pillar, which might be useful to hide behind.

Then wham, we were straight into it. They tore through a few songs they knew well by way of a warm-up. I had no idea what to do. I tried listening out for choruses and repeated notes, and sang along with them when I could. There were no words on paper, no sheets of music (not that sheet music would have helped, I can’t read it). Our leader sang at us, and we sang back. If it’s not quite right, repeat until it is. Line-by-line. Song-by-song. 

I was hooked from the first harmonies. I was part of this.

When I sing with a group, I can concentrate and pick out individual voices around and behind me—but mostly, I’m listening to the single voice of the group. The voice that is the song. Brian Eno’s right (he is about most things), it’s not just the sound you make, it’s the immersion of self. I become part of the song, as much as part of the group. The tangible sensations I get in my spine and the hairs on the back of my neck are the side-effects of the group working together. Empathy as electricity.

 

Twenty-something me would have been horrified at what forty-something me was doing. Then again, twenty-something me was a jerk. Or as we would say here in the UK, a bit of a prat. I was an arrogant, cocky know-it-all who thoroughly deserved to be taken down a few pegs. A dedicated indie kid, a devoted fan of the best alternative music the ‘80s and ‘90s had to offer. I was that kid who queued up outside the record store the day the second Ride album came out. The kid who had to get every Cocteau Twins album and complete the set. The kid who spent more time thinking about music than studying, who spent more money on music than on food, who generally spent the best part of his time at college mucking about and being an idiot.

Younger-me would have despised this singing group.

For a start, I would have hated them as people, because they’re predominantly middle-aged, grey-haired, past it. The older generation. A different planet.

And I’d have hated what they’re singing. Classical music, choral music, anything that wasn’t indie pop noise pollution. It was the stuff I skipped on tape recordings of Peel shows. Ugh.

I did sing, though, back then.

I ended up as the singer in a couple of bands during my college days. The first broke up because the guitarist and bassist had a blazing row at band practice, and ended up threatening each other over the roof of the bassist’s car. They drove off in a fury in different directions, and there were no more practices after that.

The second band was a joke—as in, put together simply for a laugh. That band never settled on a name, and its best song, “Butt Naked,” was written by a slurred spin-off band after a night of partying and cannabis. We played precisely one gig, at a party in a student house on a summer’s evening. We lifted the French doors out of their frame to provide a “stage” for ourselves in the living room, and played out at the partygoers assembled in the garden. We were terrible. I sang my stuff, stayed for a few beers, and slunk off home.

Neither band’s adventures amounted to much, and younger-me’s efforts in front of the microphone weren’t really singing. I couldn’t hear myself over the din of the guitars and arguments. I had hopes of being the next Michael Stipe, and spent hours writing tortuous, awful, anguished teenage-poet lyrics.

It was more complaining than singing, if I’m honest.

But here, 25-ish years later, younger-me is older-me and I’m singing amazing stuff with a group of 40 or so other people and I cannot believe the physical reaction I’m having as I sing. It’s spine-shivering stuff and not in the same way as those mid-period Cocteau Twins albums. The shivers are caused by something else, that unique moment when you’re in a room with people and you’re in time and in harmony with them too. It’s the reason that the word “harmony” has meaning both musically and culturally. Harmony begets harmony.

 

I spent five or six years in the group. I made new friends, discovered a vast range of fascinating new music, and worked out that I have a half-decent baritone, like my dad. I would flit between the tenors and the basses, depending on the requirements of the song and on what I fancied singing that week. The tenors were more fun to be with—their unique mix of male and female made for a livelier bunch. We used to pull faces at our friends in the soprano group when they were trying to practice a particularly tricky bit. 

More honesty: a large part of the appeal was not only the singing, but that a few of the group would retire to the nearby pub after each session. We’d enjoy a pint or two and on special occasions, we’d even burst into song in the bar. The landlord didn’t mind. The quirkier his pub was, the more people came in for a drink.

You don’t just sing, you feel singing. It goes through you, and leaves something behind.

My voice might have been up to the task, but my nerves failed me on the few occasions when we sang in public, in front of an audience. My throat would constrict involuntarily, and I’d end up squeaking out my part. At a gig in front of hundreds of people to celebrate the group’s 10th anniversary, I sang a folk song with three others and forgot the words halfway through. I had to mime a few lines, my jaw opening and shutting as if doing an impression of a goldfish.

Then circumstances and family life intervened. Life got busier and singing got harder to get to. One day I hadn’t been for months, and concluded the time had come to stop. I promised myself I’d go back. I’ve not managed that yet.

But I still remember some of the songs. The tones—but not the words, unfortunately—of some of the Eastern European ones, with their crazy, spectacular harmonies and delicious bass parts. Some of the jauntier folk songs often come back to me in an idle moment. One of my favorites is an old English song called Hail smiling morn. Composed in the 1800s, it sounds much older. We sang it like we were sitting outside an inn, clutching tankards of ale in one hand and pipes of tobacco in the other. The happy Shire scenes in The Hobbit—yes, just like that. We sang it like Hobbits, and we loved it.

It has delicious depth to its bass notes—not too low to put them out of range, but low enough to feel the rumble in your chest. When a group of men sing it, the rumble fills the air around and between them. Standing at the front, which as one the shorter members I often did, I’d get the benefit of hearing my companions booming behind me. When you can hear that you’re all singing it right, that no-one’s fluffed a note or missed a beat, the boom becomes a shroud, a blanket. As a lover would, it holds you close and tight. Your ears hear the sound waves, but they echo through the rest of your body too. Your chest cavity, your skull, your fingertips.

You don’t just sing, you feel singing. It goes through you, and leaves something behind. You don’t need to ask Eno, take it from me. Look for a you-sized gap you can squeeze into at the front of a group of singers, and use those ears and those lungs like limbs. As the music touches you, touch back.