Tuesday, August 29, 2006

369. The King's Singers, part 1

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.)

4 comments:

Regina Clare Jane said...

That's the trick, huh? Finding balance- that balance between beauty and freakish perfection. At least I think it is...;)

alto artist said...

Agreed!--you read my mind (that's where I'm going in the next post...)
--aa.

Rachel said...

I used to really adore the King's Singers. When I sang in my madrigal ensemble in college I wished so profoundly for that kind of clear pure tone...

On a semi-related note, know what I'm doing right now? For the first time in nineteen years? That's right -- trying to learn trope. OMG I have so much more respect for you now. (Not that I was short on it before, you understand. I'm just saying.) This is so much harder than I remembered! (And Rosh Hashanah is so, so, so soon...eeeeeek.)

alto artist said...

Yasher koach--you'll be fabulous! I take it you're reading this weekend? Very cool. Are you learing High Holiday trope (vs. regular Shabbat trope)?

It gets SO much easier once you're done it a few times--you'll be a pro in no time.

--aa.