Each year they load up an uncomfortable yellow bus, the choir director hops in his car, and all head for some remote location, generally at a summer camp-type facility, often in Wisconsin. As students cope with hunger pangs and the choir director copes with Friday traffic anxiety, they all begin to wonder, ‘Why are we doing this?’
Carving pumpkins, roasting marshmallows, and campfire singing may seem an unlikely way to cajole students into appreciating choral repertoire and singing it well, especially choral repertoire written before 1700. However, brief epiphanies suggest otherwise: a particularly good run-through of a Byrd movement, or voluntarily singing more William Byrd on the bus ride home.
In the liberal arts context these rituals are truly, albeit indirectly, paying homage to the art of vocal polyphony. Sung masses like these are far from most people’s experience. Something of what motivated Byrd and Tallis to continue to compose this music in the shadow of political opposition must motivate non-music-major students to put down the i-pod and sing a modal piece of music, so foreign from their musical culture, and, one might add, using a skill that is completely non-transferable to the rest of life. The aesthetics of this music are so far afield of even what most people consider ‘classical’ music: tuning each musical interval, letting these sounds move freely yet emphasizing the graceful flow of well-made consonance, and then the exquisite and cherished dissonance.
This strange little ritual: pumpkins, campfires, etc., although not a covert Elizabethan mass, still makes the music new and special and somehow vital to our lives. This is music that is worth keeping around, worth the drive to Wisconsin, worth the time it takes to appreciate and worth the pains it takes to sing well.