This summer, I spent two weeks on the island of Corsica, studying traditional three-part polyphony with a group of 27 singers from the UK, Sweden, Columbia, and the US. Two expert Corsican singers, Jean-Etienne Longianini and Jacky Michaeli, guided us through this tricky, heavily ornamented music; they shared their repertoire and coached trios of us on how to sing Corsican padjellas in the style. (Listen to one here).
The wonderful organization called Village Harmony ran this trip, led here by Patty Curler and Mollie Stone. This blog post will give you a flavor of what Village Harmony means to me. It’s just some personal impressions; my apologies for leaving out so many wonderful moments and people and stories!
“I have to go to Corsica,” said everybody here, and somehow we all did. We are a yoga-doing group of amateur singers and choir leaders and professional musicians, many of whom are vegetarian or vegan. Many attended Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey or knew each other from choirs in Chicago, Illinois. On my first day in Corsica, I smile at this new circle of singers, feeling so thankful for their presence. I’m so glad there is a new circle of singers. Somehow, there always is.
We sleep in a former monastery and rehearse in a church. The window of the church looks like a photograph. Down the road from the church is a clock tower by the sea, and the clock tower is an epiphany at night.
We rehearse from 9.30 am -1:00 pm, 2.30 – 6:00, and 8:00 – 9.30 or 10:00. These blocks of time are the squares into which stained glass is fitted. We eat three square meals a day, home-cooked: breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with tea and coffee available when we want it. Most meals are not rushed and can be taken inside or out, under what may be a mulberry tree in the courtyard. Everybody sings at lunch, while washing the dishes. (There is no distinction between work and play, and why should there be?) At lunch we do yoga in a room with a mannequin in costume who looks out onto sea.
Singing Corsican music literally takes your breath away. It is a game for seeing how long the seconds can push the terzas can push the basses to not breathe. And the ornaments reach a bedazzling level of complexity. To warm us up, Jean-Etienne sings us passage after passage of ever-more-complex ornaments, and asks us to repeat. I can keep up, I can keep up, until suddenly it is one ornament too many and my lines fumbles amid laughter and the limits of short-term memory. Jean-Etienne smirks; there is always more iceberg under the ocean where he comes from.
Corsican trios are vocal chamber music. It is some of the most intimate music you can make. And it’s hard! The Corsican language is neither Italian nor French but some unique combination of voiced consonants and beautiful vowels. We struggle to pronounce the words, and forget most of them, except for the name of a beach snack shack, U Snaccu, which becomes a running joke. We struggle to read a Jean-Etienne’s Kyrie written in an ancient style of notation that looks like figured bass. And we struggle to adopt the right vocal tone for the padjella’s. When our teacher Jackie comes in around day 3, she screams into our ears and punches her stomach and insists we sing from the gut. She models for us by screaming out the door of the church: “Hey JOHN!” We pretend we are saving John from a burning house, beneath the palm trees and transparent sky.
The melodies are haunting and seemingly impossible to pin down, yet after the first day I begin to see their outline. There are points at which all three parts hit a chord — these harmonies form the skeleton of a piece — and then wide-open spaces of indeterminate length between these points, which are stretched or shrunk as the middle part says. After one day’s rehearsal, my notation from the first day barely makes sense any more. I had notated all the unimportant notes.
I stay away at night trying to transcribe Jean-Etienne’s ornaments.
There is so much to learn from my new friends. I must read Concerto in Memory of an Angel and Apollinaire’s Cortege, listen to Blowzabella and Inuit mouth music and a thousand other bands, discover how to make a great lentil soup and conocut rice pudding. Once I try to steal oranges at midnight from a tree by the our monastery while listening to creepy sounds of Swedish kulning. It is a strange unrepeatable experience that lasts the length of its soundtrack. The camp is composed of singular experiences like this, like when we rewrite the anthem “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” as “Keep Your Eyes on the Wine.” These passing moments of collective improvisation bear the spark of the divine.
I experience so many profundities during rehearsal week that I don’t have to time to put them into context, or to write straight. We repeat the old French song Puis Qu’en Oublis while walking in a circle, and it is a walking meditation. Patty tells us we should not give up an instant of a chance to put everything in. If we’re not digging into it, we’re just marking time. In the confrarie, we sing the South African song Tino Sinxobele, and the notes keep flowing into the space before the echoes of the previous moment’s notes die away. So long as we keep pouring our energy into the space, the church is alive. Like swimming in a pool, we must make new waves while the old waves still haven’t died away.
Half-way through rehearsal week, one of the singers, Joy, learns that her grandfather has passed away. We sing the shape note Hymn To the Angels for him, and Joy records our singing and sends it to the memorial.The work that singers do is to soothe people who grieve, celebrate people who are joyful, uplift those who are down. This is important work. I understand that what you do at 10 am in the mornings five days a week is important, too, the routine just as much as the epiphanies.
There is something about what we do here — the singing and the cooking and late-night conversations and cuddling — that enables us to to become ourselves and be accepted for it. I am Joelgoose to friends here, a nickname I haven’t been called in years but which feels right. Once, after Kerry, who is blind, blew our socks off singing terza, the whole group said “step” when she had to step down to return to her seat. That is acceptance — group-wide, joyful recognition of each of us.
And yet I encounter the edge. At harder moments before we audition for the trios that we will sing in concert, it feels like the game is to earn our teacher Patty’s approval, to duck her scorn or boredom. Yes but no. The game is really to make music and get better as a singer. The trap: It feels like I can’t workshop a piece unless I know it, and I can’t improve a piece unless I workshop. But gradually I improve. I go from singing the secunda part to the singing the higher terza part, which supports the second and then resolves the chords. Ah, that feels better. The music is about supporting and being supported, like human relationships.
Jean-Etienne says the music does not come from pages and books, but from memory. “The dead are still present,” he translates from the lyrics of a padjella, and I recall my tour of two years ago: what it feels like to be in the spotlight, how the light shines on the back of your hair. The names of Monteverdi and Mauchot awake something in my soul. And I recall that unique chain of introductions and transitions that feeds your adrenaline when you sing the same program of music at 7:30 every evening, a chain so familiar while you are singing it, and so forgettable when you are not.
Our chain of concerts in Corsican churches draws to its end — our stories from those concerts will have to be another post — and I encounter the questions that will haunt me when I leave. How important is it that the identity of the groups of which I am a part conform to my own sense of identity? I feel so much congruence at Village Harmony, somewhat at Harvard, not at law school, definitely when Joy calls me Joelgoose and I trade back rubs with Hannah Rose, who pinches my ears for 10 seconds at the back of the church. I keep a list of true callings: physical therapist for horses, music therapist for autistic kids, the bookseller at a poetry bookshop. I begin to see that my passions are music and writing — maybe singing and writing or songwriting and writing — and that so long as I am progressing on those, I can be happy.
I expected the trip to Corsica to be my last Village Harmony trip. I expected to end this trip and be an adult and work a 40-hour-a-week job and be satisfied, somehow. In fact, this trip is a not a farewell but an encounter with a deeper level of self. I need to recreate all that has made me so happy here. I need to gather more friends to sing, to record more, to keep performing, to get my damn manuscript out into the world. Maybe I’ll never do another Village Harmony tour, but I am certain there will be another circle of singers. There always is.