Last week I watched part of a program on Bravo about The King's Singers, a British a cappella sextet with whom I was a little obsessed in college. I have never, ever heard as perfect a vocal ensemble. They're my paragon of tuning, phrasing, tempi--like the two drummers in the Grateful Dead who synchronize pulses at the beginning of a performance, I wouldn't be surprised if their six hearts all beat in the exact same rhythm. Their sound is so flawless it seems to hypnotize, an exquisite, clear lake upon which I can see not just a reflection of heaven but of myself, as well.
On the program they sang part of Spem in Alium, a 40-voice Renaissance masterwork constructed in the studio by laying their six voices over and over each other. The resulting sound reminded me of a prism focusing sunlight on paper until, like a refiner's fire, it begins to burn. For many years I thought this kind of painful precision was the best possible way to make music. I yearned for those moments, elusive as that split second when the DeLorean leapt into the future, when perfect faithfulness to the composer's intent created a state out of time and without boundaries between myself and the sound. When I heard the rabbinic teaching that Torah is "black fire on white fire," God residing between each letter, I understood immediately--for the magic to work, every mark, every space, like the notes in a score, was sacred and had to be honored. And when I first learned to chant, the crowd of lines and dots that comprise trop symbols made me almost dizzy with anticipation. I was both comforted by their structure and challenged to find holiness within their limitations, just as one of the rabbis at my synagogue described the laws of kashrut.
So I was surprised at my reaction last week to The King's Singers. I wasn't transported. Rather, I felt like reaching through the TV screen and shaking them all by the shoulders: Chill out! Loosen up! Instead of beautifully controlled, the music felt to me like it was tied up in a straitjacket.
(To be continued.)