Sunday, June 28, 2009

Consensus: chant and community

This Sunday morning, our schola was joined by a professional singer with expertise in early music -- Gregorian chant, pre-Bach polyphony, and the like.  Different scholae sing chant very differently, and I could tell during rehearsal that she was feeling her way around, trying to figure out how our director and our schola interpret various musical directions.  This led to an interesting discussion between our director and her about how a schola decides on a musical interpretation of chant -- of a particular piece and of a whole style of chant (Gregorian, Mozarabic, Ambrosian, etc.).  It was fun to listen in and talk about the way I learned to sing chant.

During the warmups before Mass, I was assuming the professional singer would remark on the interpretation method.  When she asked a question about interpretation, I remarked that we do "parish Solesmes" (referring to the French monks who revived Gregorian chant in the West in the 19th century), meaning that we interpret vaguely according to Solesmes rules, bending them either to make the music easier for amateurs or to make it more musical.  In the discussion after Mass, though, it came out that she was thinking of something entirely different than a set of rules.  The word she used was "consensus":  guided by the text, the melodic line, and by historical investigation, the schola members gradually come to agree together on the subtleties of interpretation.  She contrasted this with a director imposing rules upon a choir that must learn them.  Consensus is most often not a conscious verbal act; it emerges as a group phenomenon from individuals, who both have unique characters and seek unity and agreement. 

Consensus involves an interesting balance between individual leadership and submission to the group.  Individuals have to have an opinion, and lead -- otherwise the director just ends up imposing a rule, and dragging everyone else along, like a string of five-year-olds on a class outing.  However, people have to compromise on strict interpretations if they realize that the choir just isn't going along.  Everyone has horror stories of that one stubborn person whose rigidity precipitated open conflict.

What I like especially about consensus is that it makes each group unique.  It evolves out of practice -- out of common practice, together -- and thus it shows progress towards forming a real community.  Of course it makes trouble for singers who have to learn all those subtle, unwritten cues when they have to work outside their normal group, but to me that lends so much character to the art of sacred music.