In about a week and a half I’m going back to London to attend (and write about) the launch of the ORA Singers, a new choir that is based on commissioning contemporary composers write reimagined reflections of Tudor masterworks. Full disclosure – I know Suzi Digby, the founder. About 5 years ago I met her via Twitter when we were both tweeting about being at the Hollywood Bowl. I saw that she was this amazing Choral Goddess, and I wanted to know her. She’s normally based in Cambridge, but spends several months each year in California at USC with her husband, and so I basically invited myself to come visit her, both at USC, and then in Cambridge when we were there a few months later. Since then we’ve become – dare I say it? – friends.
During the times I’ve spent getting to know her I have come to love and adore her commitment to making choral music accessible to everyone. I grew up in Amish country and went to public schools. I wasn’t the kind of person you would expect to be passionate about English choral music. But I was lucky. My school had enough money to have a great choral program, and I was introduced to the King’s Singers via a VHS tape, and subsequent field trips to concerts, and I fell deeply in love with the English choral tradition. Out of that love affair I moved to England, spent my days going to Evensong service at Westminster Abbey, and developed a connection to the people who came before me that rivals many of the connections I have with the people who are actually alive right now. Which is kind of scary.
Singing in a choir taught me about teamwork. It taught me about listening to others more than yourself. It taught me about communicating in ways that go beyond words. It taught me about being part of something that’s bigger than yourself. It taught me how the artistic expression of people can live on for centuries after they die, constantly being recreated and renewed each time their music is performed.
I’m pretty passionate about my choral experience. And I want all kids to have the opportunity to feel the same things. Suzi does work to make that possible, and I love her for it.
Her newest project is ORA. She is commissioning contemporary composers, many of whom are young and getting their start, to write reflections of famous pieces like Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus, a famous piece by a famous composer. Byrd was a recusant Catholic living under a Protestant Queen Elizabeth who, especially as the threat to her realm from other Catholic countries became more and more real, cracked down on those who didn’t conform to Church of England practices. For many, his Ave Verum Corpus is a reflection of the internal angst he felt living a lie, a plea for forgiveness for himself, and humanity.
In a time when politicians seem to be vying to see who can make people the most afraid of Muslims, when the Governor of a state suggests vigilante justice on drug dealers; Denmark isn’t living up to that whole Nordic Utopia myth, and the fallout is millions of innocent people caught in the middle, fleeing homes torn apart by war… well, let’s just say I think it’s a pretty good time for us as a society to step back and take a breath.
The struggles we have today aren’t new. From the beginning of time humanity has been dealing with fears and opinions about the Other. Looking for scapegoats when things go wrong. Being paranoid that people who might have conflicting beliefs wouldn’t be able to integrate into different societies. For the Elizabethan’s it was Catholics, who seemed to have to make a choice between obeying the Pope, and their Queen. But just like most Catholics just wanted to get by and feed their families and survive the rise in wheat prices, most Syrian Muslims just want to be away from war and raise their families somewhere safe.
Music is one way of expressing these fears and this angst we feel about the future. Looking at the music of the past – the way people chose to express their own fears and angst – and reimagining them in a contemporary way is both unique – and obvious. People write Harry Potter and Twilight fan fiction. I think it’s about time that composers were given a forum to perform their own Byrd and Tallis fan fiction, as it were.
I’m excited about this project, and I’m glad that I get to be a part of it in some small way. Writing about the history of the music, spreading the word about the importance of early music and how it continues to be relevant and exciting today…this is what I want to spend my life doing. Because some kid in Amish country might come across it and be inspired to try it for themselves, thus finding a whole new passion in their life.
Take a listen below to a sample – the Byrd and the reimagined version. What do you think?