Last night I attended a performance by a small gospel choir, six women with a four decade span of ages and styles who rose above these differences to blend their voices into a largely homogeneous whole which was moving physically (you can’t sit still with gospel) and emotionally.  Music is a powerful phenomenon and one which we still seek to understand.  Is it uniquely human?   Bird and whale song suggest otherwise, but of course our greater consciousness sets our ability to scrape, strike, strum and blow alongside the human voice as something very different.

Gospel Shock, the ladies in question, sang with accompaniment for much of their set, but when they sang a cappella they were something special.  Amazing Grace was just that.

I read a comment on Facebook recently to the effect that “when we’re happy we listen to the music, but when we’re sad we hear the lyrics”.  There’s some truth in that, and when words and music are perfectly combined they can be truly powerful (but I’m not going to mention Joni today!) yet I wonder if in many cases our association with the words sometimes masks less effective musical performance or composition.  Having sung in many choirs and groups for about 20 years earlier in my life I know that if the music is right it can be truly spine-tingling in its own right.

In September 1997, the eyes and ears of the world were trained upon Westminster Abbey for the memorial service of Diana, Princess of Wales.  The media at the time were full of one musical performance that took place that day; Elton John& Bernie Taupin‘s reworking of Candle in the Wind caught the imagination of many who were moved by the lyrics, but for me that day was made memorable by another piece.  As the cortege left the Abbey, a plaintive, droning, almost discordant sound arose from the choir.  This was Song for Athene, and though the words, drawn from religious liturgy and Shakespeare’s Hamlet were just as appropriate, it was the sound that transfixed me.

John Tavener, who composed the piece, died this week just as he completed his final work Three Shakespeare Sonnets.   That tributes were led by his contemporary John Rutter speaks volumes; Rutter’s arrangements of Christmas Carols have always encapsulated that season for me.

I have no images of Gospel Shock (not wishing to distract either the singers or their “official” photographer, nor of Tavener, though with his flowing locks he would have made a great picture, but living in Durham means that you’re never far away from someone willing to share their voice…

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*Twelfth Night – Shakespeare

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