is it worth it?

11Jan10

Robert Wyatt quit Twickenham when it started to gentrify, he complained.  I feel partly responsible because my moving in coincided with his moving out.  I don’t think it was my fault, although I did arrive with two cars — a cardinal error for a cycling campaigner — but neither was a BMW.

In fact, one was a 1981 Mark V Ford Cortina Estate, beige, purchased specifically for the move.  In subsequent years it didn’t do much: being lent to visiting family and friends, or used occasionally to transport our tandem.  It cost me less than one month’s car allowance. OK,  the car allowance makes me sound yuppie.  I was a 28-year-old bureau chief:  precocious perhaps,  but I think the Cortina shows I was handling it well.  The other car was a Citroen 2CV6 Dolly, cream and maroon, about which there is no denying that it was a convertible.

I’m not an avid Robert Wyatt follower, but he does hold a special place in my musical affections  because when I was about 17 I rushed out to buy Shipbuilding on 12″ vinyl the moment I heard it, even though its melancholy reflection on the Falklands War, if I’m honest, probably did not fully reflect my politics at that time.  The record contained a haunting version of Thelonius Monk’s Round Midnight.

Some of you will know thatWyattingis a verb for entering a pub and playing  weird tracks on its  juke box to upset the regulars.  In response to a Guardian question as to whether he would himself “Wyatt”, the psychedelic jazz-rock guru uttered this immortal line:-

Oh no. I don’t really like disconcerting people. Although often when I try to be normal I disconcert anyway.

On New Year’s Day, Wyatt was the guest editor of BBC Radio 4‘s flagship news programme Today, and he did a bit of disconcerting there too.  Wyatt revealed that, despite having no god, his private passion is to wander up to his local parish church in Louth, Lincolnshire, and listen to the choir — his argument being that amateur choirs, lacking the ticks of professionalism with which he’s all too familiar, are what music is really all about.  How odd.

It’s true enough, the parish choir is about as unsung in our culture now as it’s ever likely to get, unless you think Wyatt’s advocacy is a sign of some incipient church choir revival.  That said, the National Secular Society recently celebrated the forecast that church attendance will fall off a cliff.  So maybe the days of the church choir are truly numbered, Wyatt or no.

And when you think about it, what a peculiar thing the parish choir is.  What motivates people to turn up at least twice a week first to practice then to sing to and with an ever-narrowing community of the faithful?  Surely, these musicians, and especially those with the skill to lead such ensembles, have better things to do with their time?  Why not ply their art on You-tube or Britain’s Got Talent?

For my own part, I hesitate to disconcert those who come here for an intermittent dose of skepticism but, despite a consistent pattern of anti-clericalism since childhood, for the past five years I have been been climbing into a threadbare blue cassock and surplice (which may have already seen in excess of half a century’s service) to supply my inadequate baritone voice to a local church choir. This choir, on some winter nights,  had looked so thin that there were doubts whether it could rally a quorum for the next weekend’s communion service. My own voice — which, from the point of view of the choirmaster, probably shares many of the handling characteristics of a Mark V Cortina Estate  — sometimes feels that it has barely improved despite all the practice; it still struggles over the familiar, and can fall apart when overly exposed. But, like the Cortina did all those years ago, it normally gets me from A to B, and (with a following wind) sometimes other notes in the octave too.

From the choir stalls, a modern congregation can look like a strange perversion of the Pareto principle.  Twenty per cent may be over eighty.  Or is it that eighty per cent is under five? — a function of making church attendance mandatory for entry to any associated faith-controlled school.  All garbed up in an elaborate frock, you might be forgiven for thinking that you are just window-dressing to the young urban-professional parents’ will to secure the best for their little ones in an Ofsted-mediated educational world without having to pay.  They disappear after a while, when the school gate has been opened to them, which is incidentally where you will next see them.

Then there are the times at the weddings of young women, who you might be lucky to have seen three times before,  when you feel you may be not much more than a bridal accessory, helping those among their family and friends who have lost their voices through decades of their own neglect stumble through what were once familiar rousing hymns to some common heritage.  You earn your money by filling the gap while registers are signed and witnessed, money which for some time  in our case has been hypothecated to a fund for new robes.  By the way, I heard tell of one bride (not local) who, when asked why she didn’t have the parish choir sing at her nuptials, replied that it was because they were too ugly.  Nice to know that, for some ladies, the parish choir is  in a category below corsages.

But then, there are the times when you have to contain your own tears at the funeral of a fellow singer whose participation has lasted decades and for whom singing provided a source of sustaining health and inter-generational companionship.  Or the time when you glance up momentarily from your score in a quotidian service to catch the doleful eye of  someone recently bereaved, or otherwise troubled, or the transfixed gaze of a musical toddler, someone who may later be driven to sing too, arm stretched aloft as they are dragged down the aisle to be blessed at the communion rail, perhaps witnessing real music for their very first time.

There is no shortage of music in the world, most of it now free at the point of download, but it sometimes seems that, for the handful of minutes that we pipe up every second Sunday, and perhaps this is what Wyatt is driving at, some power law of love is in operation, disproportionate to the music’s duration and even its absolute quality.

All that said, if we can press the pause-button on self-deprecation for a second or two, it is not always as haphazard or mark-missing as it sounds.  In the week before Christmas in a great many churches, and for as far back as it now matters, secular and liturgical have met as some sort of equals in the traditional carol service, something for which most choirs put in many hours of disciplined practice.  Doubtless, Wyatt was invoking this when he referred to his favourite piece of music as being Vaughan Williams’ arrangement of the Herefordshire carol This is the Truth Sent from Above, a truth he  nevertheless rejects.  As chance would have it, it was part of our candlelit Nine Lessons & Carols this year too. Through little bits of luck that brought in some new voices, our choir finally delivered a performance worthy of its tireless director: better, in his estimation, than any in the previous 20 years.

It’s a little rehearsed fact that English church music is the oldest Western musical tradition, stretching back 1400 years. Is it worth it? Only time will tell.

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