Music For me, the undoubtedly highlight of last night’s Light Night in Liverpool, apart from sweeping into the ballroom of the Town Hall just as the Blue Danube pulsed out of the speakers and the waltzers on the dance floor began to flourish, was attending The Big Voice, a mass harmony singing event at Liverpool Cathedral, presented by the Sense of Sound choir. As I’ve written before, our school choir used to perform there every year and although I couldn’t really sing and learnt everything parrot fashion, I’ve rarely since experienced much with the excitement of singing my lungs out in that massive space.
Except last night I did. Not really knowing what to expect, I slumped in a chair at the front of the pews at about half-seven having walked over from the Town Hall, realising as I sagged that I probably should have availed myself of the free bus service which was part of Merseytravel’s contribution to last night’s event. On my way, I’d been handed a single song sheet, or rather a sheet with a single song on it, something called “Ain’t Gonna Give Up”. Someone sitting nearby noted the melancholy within the lyrics, all talk of “bloodshed weeping from out skin” and “anger screaming from within”.
But in the singing as we discovered, they became words of defiance. At the front of this motley congregation was a platform, a lectern and microphone and within a few minutes Jennifer John, the Artistic Director of the Sense of Sound Singers telling us that we were ready to begin. At this point I wasn’t sure if I was ready but I went with it, having noticed now that about three hundred people had now gathered in the chairs behind me. She introduced the song, or at least told us that it wasn’t a piece any of us might have encountered before, which was true, and that we were going to learn to sing it. That created the first murmur in the crowd.
The second murmur came when the Sense of Sound Singers were asked to join her at the front and that they would sing the song through once to give us some idea of how it should sound. And they’re good. Really, really good. It’s difficult now to really describe their work, since I while enjoying it I was (a) also trying to remember what they were doing and (b) distracted by the people sitting behind me saying things like “Oh, we’ll never do that” as well as “Have you got a pen, I'll have write these this down.” So yes, a murmur, a bewildered, nervous murmur or the kind I’d not heard since our school choir were handed one of the Te Deums in Latin, Purcell’s I think.
Then came the business of learning the piece. Jennifer sang us slowly through the song, line by line pointing out potential problems, with the Sense of Sound Singers dotted about the side for us to sing along to. The tune wasn’t easy to learn. Although there is a general scheme to it, there are a few rhythm death traps around syllables at the ends of lines. The aforementioned defiance developed from fighting against these problems, insurmountable problems like really being able to sing. But sing I did, full voiced, somehow feeling the noise coming out of my lips reach towards the roof of the cathedral, just as our school music teacher suggested it should.
At which point the obvious, magical thing happened. This crowd became a choir. Somewhere in the midst of our variable singing abilities what was collectively being created wasn’t the congregational singing of Songs of Praise or the Kop but proper choral music which resonated through the space and led still more people to join in at the back. That continued into the breaking of us into sections, the central trunk carrying the lions share of the song, the rest of us branching off into dub-a-dee-dubs and aaaahs. Some where clearly disappointed not to still be signing the whole thing, but I just saw it as an opportunity to set aside the words and just experience the joy of song. Oh, yes.
Cameras hovered close-by and goodness knows what I must have looked like, arms by my side, shoulders back, my cavernous mouth blasting away. I suspect I gave it some volume, which I probably needed to given the notes which were being asked of us, some of which I’d not even attempted in decades, our section handed the very high sections and the very low notes. But like I said, this was about defiance, setting aside embarrassment at our own abilities and just getting on with it. Now and then the lady from the singers who’d been assigned to our section would remind me of which dub-a-dee-dubs or aaaahs we were up to. Her attentiveness put us at ease.
Then an hour and half after we’d begun we gave it one final rendition and that was that. It wasn’t perfect, not always coming in at the right moment, not quite having our sections of the harmony entirely in tune, but that was us. A choir. Then after some applause for Jennifer, for Sense of Sound and for ourselves, it was over. Perhaps most impressive was Jennifer’s abilities as a teacher, the fearlessness that somehow managing to marshal together all of these strangers to create this sound, to convince us that we have that capacity. With great attention to detail, noticing even in this mass of voices where the harmonies were falling apart slightly and correcting us.
As we walked away, people could still be heard singing their bit to themselves. I was too. After just an hour and a half, the song was locked in our brains and probably will be for a while. Even stepping out at the front of the cathedral, a few of us began a mini-version of what we’d just created, a final ad-hoc affirmation which then dissipated, like us, into the rain. I did record the choir in our final “performance” but the result is poor, the tiny microphone crushing the sound and losing the sense of it. I won’t delete it, but I also won’t listen to it much. I’d much rather keep the memory of it. The memory cheats, thankfully. But then, just this once, it doesn’t really need to.