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Singing Brings Us Together, But For What?

In 1661, Samuel Pepys recorded “a great deal of mirth” after a night of singing in The Dolphin. In dusty rooms, pubs or concert halls today, the same sense of togetherness beguiles choirs around the country. As our sound of the city series draws to close, Robert Barry asks what the comforts of communal singing can do for unity.

WORDS - Robert Barry
15.06.2017

One of the unexpected highlights of this year’s Borealis Festival in Bergen, Norway, was called into being by the voice of a composer whose name appeared nowhere in the programme and had, in fact, been dead for three and a half months at the time of the concert. Rising out of the rippling minimalism of Oliver Coates and Lawrence Lek’s Heliotones on the last night of the festival, a recording of Pauline Oliveros led the audience and the youth choir of the local cathedral in a performance of her Tuning Meditation piece of 1971. 

“Inhale deeply;” her voice intoned, “exhale on the note of your choice; listen to the sounds around you, and match your next note to one of them; on your next breath make a note no one else is making; repeat. Call it listening out loud.” Sprawled across the floor on cushions, eyes closed and all singing softly together, the crowd inside the Grand Bergen Festsalen felt blissfully as one, while the muted tones of our voices threaded through the air between us in a harmonic cloud.

Pauline OliverosPauline Oliveros, photographed by Vinciane Verguethen.

Oliveros, who died last November at the age of 84, was a pioneer of live electronic music and ‘deep listening’. She began publishing her Sonic Meditations in 1971. At the time, the series represented a dramatic shift in her compositional focus, a move away from the machine-based, John Cage-influenced work she was engaged in for much of the 1960s, and towards something more human-centred and embodied. Moving to San Diego at the end of the 1960s, amidst protests against the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Oliveros recalled feeling “tremendous fear” and retreated from performing for some time. It was the trust engendered by an all-female musical group called the ♀ Ensemble that brought her back. And it was amongst this group that she developed her first Sonic Meditations, each one an exercise in sensory awareness and social engagement.

The experience of taking part in the Bergen Tuning Meditation brought me back to the brief time I spent taking part in a quite different group: singing in a London-based choir called Vocal Constructivists. We would meet up in a drafty old church in Stockwell and sing through avant-garde graphic scores by the likes of Oliveros and Cornelius Cardew. The group drew on a range of different backgrounds and abilities – professional singers and enthusiastic amateurs, some as young as 20 and others closer to 60 or 70 – but everyone was welcomed and given a part to play. Too shy and lacking in confidence to sing such works on my own, the presence of the others quite literally gave me a voice.

In 2015, a research group from Oxford University’s Department of Experimental Psychology studied the differences in levels of social bonding over time between groups of people in different kinds of adult education classes. They found that singing groups tended to feel more connected quicker than those engaged in other sorts of activities, like crafts or creative writing. In their report for the Royal Society’s Open Science journal, the authors called it the 'icebreaker effect' and suggested that the capacity for group singing to facilitate social cohesion may be an adaptive trait. “Singing may have evolved to quickly bond large human groups of relative strangers,” they speculated, “potentially through encouraging willingness to coordinate by enhancing positive affect.”

Their results tally with my own experience, as well as anecdotal evidence from a number of friends. Tamsin Worrad-Andrews, a member of She Choir since January, sings Destiny’s Child and Hot Chip to audiences in Dulwich and Brixton and insists to me that there is “definitely something about the process of singing in a group that means that I’ve very quickly felt at home. She Choir is like a big lovely sisterhood.” Choir joining has experienced a sharp uptick in recent years, with stats from Making Music, an organisation set up to promote amateur music-making, estimating that there are now 25,000 choirs in the UK. Rock Choir, a group founded in 2005 by singer Caroline Redman Lusher, boasts some 25,000 members on its own, a figure that has been growing exponentially over the last few years as the group have filled ever larger venues, from the Royal Albert Hall to Wembley Arena. Evidently, people are starting to catch on to the comforts of communal singing.

Pauline OliverosPauline Oliveros, photo courtesy of the Center for Contemporary Music, Mills College. Photo at top: PeopleImages / iStock.

In a political climate in which so many forces are seeking to spread division and fear, we may look to music as a force for unity. It was Charles Fourier, one of the first great critics of modern capitalism, that assigned music an essential role in his future utopian society. Fourier was a silk merchant by trade who spent most of France’s revolutionary years in the library, reading about everything from the history of mathematics to the zoology of fish, and writing endless letters to the National Convention offering suggestions for policy adjustments (all of which went ignored and unanswered). In the evenings, he would take his seat at the opera. When he finally began to publish his vision of the perfect society, he gave opera a central place. Participating in musical activities trained the growing child “to subordinate himself in every movement to unitary conventions, to general harmonies,” Fourier argued. Music was essential to the peaceful coexistence of the different passions united in the Fourierist “phalanstery” since it makes discord an essential ingredient of a greater harmony. Every symphony is a lesson in tension and release.

Craig Robertson, an expert in the role of music in conflict resolution at the University of Leeds, urges a note of caution. “It is common to think that music has a power to bring people together, and this is supported by empirical evidence, but what do people do when they are brought together in this way?” he said when I reached out to him by email. “Ultimately, shared musical experiences afford a belief structure that the participants somehow belong together – at least temporarily. But whether this is for peace or for violence very much depends on the context of these common memories and emotions.” Some dissonances may require more than just a perfect cadence to fully resolve. As with the work of Oliveros, we need not just sing, but to listen too.

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