I’m pretty well just fascinated by music in general. Isn’t it pretty amazing? I mean, any toddler can wail out a tune, strange and wordless as it may be. All it takes to make music is a voice or an instrument that will resonate, producing sound waves.
Almost as quickly as we learn to speak, we learn to recognize our culture’s musical patterns – the sequence of tones, the structure of rhythms, the basic elements that define what our culture describes as music – that some wave patterns are more listenable than others and mean more to us than others. The existence of these patterns is only the beginning of the fascinating part – the rules that describe the relationships between notes apply and imply certain physics, and the way that tones can fit together, sound waves amplifying, multiplying and canceling each other to build chords, discords, and harmonies is beautiful in the way that snowflakes, nautilus shells, and faces are beautiful – not just esthetically, but in that almost frightening way that they imply an order to things that we can’t really find the tools or the math or the faith to put a name on. Maybe it’s God. Or maybe that’s just another name for an even larger mystery.
Yet observing only the physics and math makes music sound dry – as any six year old can tell you, you don’t sing or play an instrument because the math is cool. You do it because once those notes join to become melodies, and the other resonances produce harmonies, and the logical progressions lead to the next chord and the next, while the beat goes on, metering out measures of stress and unstress, repeating patterns, progressing to the next, this grammar, this syntax can build an emotional wallop ranging from repulsion to ecstasy. It’s humanity’s second language. I see little evidence of actual magic in the day to day lives of humans. Except when they make music.
I got to watch a bit of that magic this weekend while on tour with a choral group to which Boo lends his lovely tenor voice. One Voice Mixed Chorus, and its spinoff ensemble OVation, is one of a plethora of queer and queer friendly arts groups in the Twin Cities. In addition to OVMC, there’s the Twin Cities Gay Men’s
Army Chorus (and their spinoff ensemble Outloud!), Calliope – a women’s chorus, TransVoices – a recently formed transgender community choir, the Rainbow Families Children’s Chorus, Timbre - the newest kid on the block, the Twin Cities Women’s Choir - who aren't primarily GLBT, but friendly, the Minnesota Freedom Band, and the Minnesota Philharmonic Orchestra – the first GLBT orchestra in the United States. And I won’t even go into dance groups, theater troupes, or the most fabulous glam-goth genderfuck rock band in the entire world, All the Pretty Horses.
But…that’s the Twin Cities. Get only a few miles out of town, and not only do queer arts not exist, it’s possible to find communities that insist that queers don’t exist. Or shouldn't exist. At least not in their town. In each of the past three years, OVMC has taken a tour to remote towns, such as Vermilion, South Dakota; and Marshall, Stillwater, Bemidji, and Duluth, Minnesota. This year’s tour headed south, hitting Northfield; LaCrosse, Wisconsin; Mankato, and New Ulm (enough links - here's Google Maps, do your homework!). It was the first time I went along on the tour – I had a great time being a roadie.
Getting 80 people, their luggage, five sets of portable risers, a box or two of props, and a backup electronic piano (just in case) from the Twin Cities to five or six remote destinations without losing anything (or anyone) significant requires a great deal of logistical planning and a lot of cooperation. Since both of those things were in short supply this year, we were very lucky to have a force of nature on our side. I’ve mentioned him before; we shall call him Boo. He’s my spouse.
When Boo releases his inner dominatrix, the world must bow to the whip. Thus, despite road detours, a slightly directionally impaired driver, and a schedule tighter than Nathan Fillion’s trousers, we arrived everywhere we needed to be on time, fed, and rarin’ to go. Essentially (inside joke). This is Boo’s fourth tour as tour dominatrix, so he was in fine form.
Our first stop was Northfield, a town of “Cows, Colleges, and Contentment.” (Says so right on the label). I went to one of those colleges, incidentally, which is how I came to be in Minnesota after growing up in Oregon. (I’ll bet that had been troubling you up until now. No? Huh.) At any rate, this performance was at the other college, the one with the world-renowned choir. So, no pressure...
It was mid-day on a Friday with unwarranted pleasant weather, so a huge crowd was not in attendance. But a good friend that I've known since I lived in Northfield was, so yay! I’ve known J for 23 years; a lesbian a few years older than I who with her partner-at-the-time provided home-away-from-home to me and my partner-at-the-time when we were newly-minted and still-happy; she now works on the St Olaf staff. It was wonderful to see her, as well as her lovely daughter, who was planned, conceived (with the minimum required male contribution), and born while I was still in college. She’s now a student at St. Olaf, which makes me feel ridiculously old.
While Minnesota seasons come on fast, there was still a little leaf-color on the way down river to LaCrosse. But I must confess I strapped on the headphones, tossed on Sigur Rós, and slept most of the way.
The dinner and performance at UW LaCrosse went smoothly, despite the auditorium not having the right kind of risers (we backed up the bus and unloaded our own – hooray for the roadies), the right kind of lighting (they were pre-set for a rock show the next night), and a auditorium that seemed huge and empty. Acoustically, it was quite good nevertheless, and while a few of our very-white Minnesotans gleamed a little hot under the lights, it didn’t look bad either. Also not looking bad? That would be Chris, the far too young, far too muscly, cuter-than-all-hell leader of the campus queer group, who was wearing a very fetching black t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “I ♥ (heart) Female Orgasms.” I’m quite sure several basses and tenors wanted to give him one.
The next day, we set off for Mankato, via route 16 through the Bluff Country. I only encountered the Bluff Country in southern Minnesota a month or so ago; it really is a lovely area. I opted for Neko Case for most of the route, but needed a little aural caffeine part of the way, so switched to System of a Down.
Along the way, we stopped in Forestville for a tour of the Mystery Cave, which was cool (48 degrees to be exact) and fascinating, but ran a bit long. We dashed through Austin for an all-too-brief lunch and visit to the SPAM Museum. This is a very well-designed museum for a very campy product, and we enjoyed it a great deal; getting all 80 of us lined up for the photo op out front by the bronze pig farmer. We arrived in Mankato to a delightful soup supper at the UU Fellowship, then off to Minnesota State for a fun and well-received concert for far too many women with hair that apparently escaped from one of those two horridly coifed television psychics. Why do these psychics have terrible hair-dos anyway? Is it a requirement for spiritual communion? A mystery for the age.
Now One Voice is a fairly eclectic group musically, but in the short amount of time in which they put together this concert, I don’t feel they really played to their strengths – which are typically humor, and exotic musical compositions. The humor pieces they did (I Do – a riff on marriage, and Bittersweet Tango, a riff on chocolate) are ones they’ve done for three seasons now...so I’m tired of them.
Further, they didn’t really find anything unusual – in the past they’ve done some amazing diverse work – a brilliant choral work in Mongolian, a composition employing overtone singing, some very nifty and challenging folk works from all over the world. They’ve even performed a piece entirely in ASL, interpreted for the hearing audience. This show, unfortunately, was heavy on anthems, all performed in English, and frankly, yawn.
Somehow, though, it all came together the next morning, in New Ulm – where One Voice performed for a UCC church service. New Ulm is not a big town, is not cosmopolitan by any stretch, and is about as representative of southern Minnesota as a town founded by Germans, dominated by Lutherans, and home of a brewery (Schell’s) can be. Aside from the giant statue of Hermann up on the hill.
Anyway, I’ve heard One Voice perform “I Come From Good People” about 30 times by now. I’ve heard other choruses perform it at least another dozen times. OVMC first performed it about eight years ago, and just brought it back for tour. It is, without a doubt, a simple, beautiful, and moving piece, some of Robert Seeley’s and Philip Littel's best work. But I’ve heard it. Many times. Hell, I’d already heard it four times that weekend.
Were the soloists that much better this time? Was the space that much more resonant? Or did the phrase “my family are neighbors, and my neighbors are my family” just hit us all with such a force of truth about what we can be to others if we try? Why, when my friends sang it in New Ulm, were tears rolling down my face (and many others) and the pews shaking with barely suppressed emotion?
There’s just a very cool thing that happens when the right performance of the right music for the right crowd goes just so incredibly right that the magic I was blathering about back a million paragraphs or so sweeps down and converts everyone in the room into one big thing. Something bigger than differences and prejudice. Something bigger than fatigue and cynicism. Something that doesn’t have a name. Maybe it’s God. Or maybe that’s just another name for an even larger mystery.