We hear about a work or person and go our merry way until something happens that stops us in our tracks and makes us listen. Really listen. In this case, it was a status line on Facebook which included Eric Whitacre's choral work When David Heard. Having heard of Whitacre's work, but never having actually heard it, I clicked on the link and listened in an act of solidarity, suddenly finding myself in a liminal, numinous world.
I've sung a lot of choral music over the last 30 years, most of it terrific, some of it terrible, very little of it reaching into the center of the heart. Whitacre's work does that, primarily, I believe, through the canny use of silence.
Silence is the one thing lost in our culture of smart phones, iPods, huge flatscreen TV's and cars that tell us where we are going. We are rarely silent even for a minute, much less for any real length of time.
Music needs silence. Singing does too, those Old Italian School voice teachers talking about the pause, suspension and lift that happens before the tone springs forth. You can experience this while panting slowly and silently with the accent on the inhale—small moments of stillness that make one feel lifted, suspended and timeless.
If one delves into the matter further, we find that the breath is suspended when two things happen: when we are 1) afraid, and when 2) we experience joy and wonder—bliss even.
I experienced the former when I was robbed many years ago while subletting a ground floor apartment in northern Manhattan—my first summer in Gotham in 1988. It was very hot, and the apartment didn't have air conditioning, so I left the window in the kitchen open. I awoke at 3 in the morning, thinking I had left a light on, since I saw light streaming in from the living room. Getting out of bed, I walked three feet around the corner, and saw a kid standing in the kitchen (he had turned the light on), taking a swig from a fifth of whiskey left in a cabinet. Standing there buck naked, I heard myself say in a hoarse whisper: "What the fuck are you doing?" Ear, breath and body firmly closed, my voice sounded like it came from another room. The kid, seeing me standing there in the dark, ran for the door, taking my wallet and new Walkman with him.
The latter? When practicing meditation, I found my breath became still when a refined, altered state of consciousness was attained. Without limits, borders and boundaries, I was lifted up, empty and full of Presence.
Two ways of being; one pulled down for survival sake, small and hard: the other lifted, opened-hearted and expansive.
Mr. Whitacre? He makes silence sing.