The conductor gave her cues. The choir members opened their mouths. But instead of being greeted by intoxicating harmonies capped by delicious overtones, the entire Esplanade Recital Studio was immersed in sheer and utter silence.
The year was 2009 and the concert was “Birth and Death” – SYC’s contribution to “Spectrum”, a series that featured contemporary classical chamber music. While this wasn’t my first SYCES concert, this was the one that left the most lasting impression on me.
For their last number, SYC performed the 5th and final movement of Hoh Chung Shih’s eponymous work. Choir members quietly “sang” the characters “生” (shēng/birth/life) and “死” (sĭ/death) as their conductor Jen etched these words, slicing the air with her deliberate calligraphic strokes.
I was awed and left speechless. When a friend whom I later met asked me how the concert went, I said, “I honestly don’t know. I am unable to process what I just experienced.”
At that point, I couldn’t understand why SYC did not sing. I couldn’t understand why those characters had to be written in the thin, still air. I couldn’t understand why during the post-concert open forum, Jen earnestly shared that it took her some time to prepare herself to conduct the final movement. I remember that my mind was awash with questions that needed answering.
How could any piece involve that much preparation? How do you prepare for a silent piece? (How do you even decide to perform a silent piece?) How could performers sing in empty tones? How could a single performance put me in such a state of numbing confusion?
At that point, my stormy brain groped for answers to no avail. No previous experience could anchor me; no theory could shine a beacon of clarity. Drowning in this absence of meaning, I sank slowly and surely into silence and unease.
It took 4 years and another SYC concert before this silence was broken.
As I was watching their 2013 Christmas concert “Pagdiriwang”, I finally understood what silence meant. The choir had just premiered John Pamintuan’s “Nativitas” – a new composition employing Prudentius’ 4th century poem. The song had all the elements of a Pamintuan arrangement – syncopated counterpoints, masterful contrasts of simple and stacked chords, distinct yet connected thematic movements – all culminating in a triumphant, glorious ending.
However, at some point during the performance, time stopped and the moment felt extended. At some point during the performance, the choir was both singing and silent at the same time. At some point during the performance, there was no “I” and “them”, no “performers” and “audience”, no “sound” and “silence”. There was only a collective “we”, there was only the ever-present “now”.
This is the miracle of music and singing.
It is a miracle because singing is never about the past nor the future. It is never about fulfilling future expectations nor making up for previous mistakes. It is never about the artists nor the audience, but about everyone present, physically or theoretically, in that space and time. It is never about silence nor sound, but the silence from and sometimes even within sound.
I realised while watching Nativitas, I was witnessing the first of many births, the first of many miracles.
Every performance is a miracle not because it “was” nor it “will be”, but because it simply, purely “is”.
The 5th movement 4 years ago invited me to die from my notion of what choral music was – audible and probable; tonal and logical. It was an invitation to die to myself and be reborn – to restart my choral journey through sheets of songs, to explore worlds within works, to soar the lofty heights and plunge into the fathomless depths of the human spirit.
Lastly and most importantly, it was an invitation to celebrate the gift of silence –
The silence that invites us to die to our false notions and images, opening us up to new experiences and relationships
The silence that gives birth to skilful arrangements and moving renditions
The silence that precedes and pursues not only tearful sighs,
but also rapturous applause.
= = = = = = =
*Aldo finally found the courage to audition for SYC in Jan 2014 and has been learning, unlearning and journeying with the group since then. SYC will be performing at the all-Pamintuan choral festival, SingaFOUR: Maior Caritas IV, at the SCO Concert Hall on Sun 27 July 2014.