“Why does New York City need another choir?”; “Why Choral Chameleon?”; “Why now?”; “What are you trying to do or show?”
All of these are excellent questions and those who know me well would say: “Don’t add fuel to his fire!”. Those people who ask me these types of questions are completely right to ask. I wonder, though, if many of them realize that in asking these questions, they are also making statements. Who’s to say that Choral Chameleon is really a “choir”? Who’s to say that Choral Chameleon was founded with the intention of “showing something for itself”? I’m certainly not going to!
Many people associate choir with “church” or “sacred music” or “my high school choir” or “all-state choir”. Some people think of choral competitions they participated in many years ago. My roommate talked about moving through a choral “succession” where the coveted outcome was to get into “Madrigals”, which was the highest level of ensemble singing to be achieved in his high school. Going through this type of leveled choral succession is competitive and often heartbreaking for young singers. In high schools across the US (and abroad), there is also quite a bit of cross-pollination between choir programs and theater programs. Many choir mission statements I have read almost immediately say the words “musical excellence” in them. Some want to focus on a particular style of music and show how well they can perform that style: i.e. baroque or early music, contemporary, 20th century non-American works etc. There are also small groups with big names. I immediately think of Chanticleer, or course, and also The Swingle Singers (Paris / London-based), and the NYC-based group, Roomful of Teeth. People certainly think “ensemble” for these types of groups, but not as many think “choir” in my understanding. In my own definition of “choir”, a lot depends on how the singers interact with each other in a group and how much weight is carried by each individual member; how much of the personal singing of each member is exposed or isolated. To be clear, all of them are important, just as it “takes a village to raise a child”.
Even as I write this, I am chuckling because the definition of a word like “choir” isn’t a singular one and yet, most people that I have met, musicians and non-musicians alike, have understandably pigeonholed “choir”. They have committed themselves by habit to one general idea of what it is, and in turn, they commit anyone who says “choir” to that same category. It’s not a fault. It’s just a fact. They also have limited ideas about what “choirs” do.
I recall a choral association meeting one weekday afternoon several years ago, in which a new colleague introduced herself to me and inquired about CC and what we “do”. After I gave her a brief explanation (as best as I could) of what we “do”, she immediately said to me with a smirk: “Well, that sounds just exactly like what we do”. Now, you might expect that my reaction was to be annoyed, angered, or disheartened in some way by this. The truth is that initially, I was some combination of those things. However, as I thought about it some more, I realized that in order for her to make that statement, she had to have made certain assumptions about WHO I am as a director and WHAT Choral Chameleon is aside from what I told her. Sure, it has “choral” in the name which can lead almost any breathing person to believe that it is a “choir” - but that, of course, is an assumption on my part, isn’t it? My dear friend, Katie Zaffrann, who was the founding president of CC, was also at that meeting. We later figured out that as I was having this interaction with one person, she was having a similar one simultaneously across the room with a rather condescending person who wanted to make sure Katie understood that (at that time) this was an association of professional choruses - which meant either that some or all of the singers in the group were paid, or that the chorus had a budget bigger than God’s, allowing them to rent Carnegie Hall or some similar venue for their concerts. That person was quite shocked to learn from Katie that all of our singers in CC are paid. She made some assumptions too.
This article, however, is not about assumptions and it is certainly not about airing dirty laundry or resentments. It’s more about how these types of questions and interactions ignite brilliant, dancing, joyful fire in me. I almost just said “people like me”, but that would have been both an assumption on my part, as well as self-pigeonholing.
You’ve probably heard people preach about how long we’ve forced ourselves to conform to “what society thinks we should be” or “where society wants to place us”. I dare say: music society is a top offender in this incessant game.
I have grown up in music. What I mean is that I have gone through the lessons and the rehearsals and the conservatories and the recitals and numerous teachers. I have written papers about Lully’s lesser-known operas and analyzed the passacaglia of Wozzeck and given presentations on the cello sonatas of Beethoven. I have been torn to shreds and put back together again and again. I have played Hanon until my fingers were blue and sat crying my eyes out because I just couldn’t get that left hand run in that Mozart sonata to be “graceful enough”. I have worried and prayed and obsessed over “what my teacher is going to say”. I have sung in so many choirs. I have sung for directors out of love, out of fear, out of respect, and out of obligation alike. I have sat in solidarity with singers as we were yelled at, told we were worthless and that we were an embarrassment to music. I was once told by a very famous conductor, when asked to improvise an accompaniment to a piece because there was none written on the page: “For God’s sake, child, play something tasteful for a change”. I could go on forever, but I will spare you. You’re welcome.
Somehow, I ended up in the choral branch of the music tree. I always loved singing in choir and from my earliest memories of singing in the Catholic school choir, I can extract an unparalleled feeling of joy and excitement at both the thought and experience of interacting with other people this way. I have always loved all music, but choral music swept me off of my feet around age 6 and I never looked back. You can imagine how difficult it was for me, later in life, to reconcile the need to preserve this joy and excitement in the face of pressures placed on me to “produce a product” that people would pay to hear. I quickly compartmentalized the two things. In one box, I would play and write and sing for my own enjoyment. In the other box, I was an obedient employee on a paid clock, allowing moguls to exploit my musical abilities in the name of advancing their own careers and their own agendas. There was very little, if any cross-pollination between the two.
Then, all of a sudden, I realized that it didn’t have to be one or the other.
Choral Chameleon is about “getting more bees with honey”. Now before you call me Betty Crocker or Mrs. Cleaver, consider this:
We are mammals. We adapt and evolve over time. Our habits are so engrained in our subconscious minds that we couldn’t recognize them as habits if we tried. So when someone comes to us and says: “Hey, guess what! You can be joyful and make money at the same time”, something doesn’t compute. We might even believe that person is trying to scam us or trick us. The things we associate with “joy” and the things we associate with “making money” are more often placed in very different boxes from each other.
I want you to know what I am actually disheartened about, which is that most of the people I meet today no longer have the capacity to believe that human goodness is still possible for us. In telling you the following brief anecdote, I will also tell you the essence of what Choral Chameleon “is” and what it “does”, which does not fit in a box.
I recently sat across the lunch table from a composer colleague of mine. The two of us have known each other for about six years now. He had been heavily involved in the foundations of CC. As I had been thinking about commissioning five new works for our fifth season, his name came up in my mind, of course. During our lunch, I offered him one of these commissions. I said: “I can’t think of anyone more appropriate than you to write one of these pieces for us. The things you have done and given to CC have played such an important role in our foundation and I am so grateful to you for that. I am a huge fan of your music and I’d like to help make sure that it is heard by as many people as possible”.
His response: “Jesus, Vince, I wish you could just sit down and say what you have to say without making it such a rehearsed speech. I mean, why do you have to be so manipulative all the time? Can’t you just be real for a change? You’re always trying to pretend that you’re someone you’re not”. In the moment that he said these awful words to me, he also gave me a gift. He made me understand why it is so important that CC exists, especially in a place like New York City. He made me understand what makes us “do” what we do.
If Choral Chameleon can come into contact with “people like this person” and change their hearts back so that they are able to believe human goodness is possible again, then I can die a happy man. To me, Choral Chameleon is more than a vocal ensemble or a choir. It is a social movement. We don’t put on concerts full of my favorite music. We don’t choose certain repertoire in order to prove something about our level of musicianship. We are servants of the music we sing. We includes me. I don’t yell at the singers in rehearsal - except out of joy, or even momentary ecstasy. CC does everything it can to take care of them. It is my intention to build them up; to fortify them so that we might face an ailing world together and use the brilliance and power of choral music to re-instill in people a sense of hope that human goodness is still possible. We consider others in every step we take: in the planning stages, the rehearsal process, the performances, and the spoken postludes. We are not hoping to prove anything to anyone about our musical abilities. As one of my favorite music teachers would say: “technique that is true and refined is invisible”. Technique is a means to an end. In our case, that end is reaching people. We reach people by singing to them, with them, and for them. We find ways to tell their stories on their behalf. We let them know that we understand real matters of life and that the proscenium of the concert stage does not really separate us from one another. We work hard to learn as many languages of musical style as we can so that we can talk to more individual people in their own preferred musical languages; in a way that makes them feel most comfortable and relieves them of their hard defenses. We appear in places where we are not expected as a reminder that working together with other people, unexpected collaborators, is how change comes about. We take big risks because change would never happen without them. We not only think “outside of the box” about choral music itself, but about how we can use choral music as a tool to accomplish all of this.
So to answer these questions of “Why this?” and “Why now?” and “Why does NYC need another choir?”, I say: we don’t need another choir. We need people who believe in human goodness to heal others who don’t. Some people do it in other ways. I do it using the gift that I, personally, have been given - as a choral director, composer, and pianist. I am not a capitalist or an opportunist ready to knock the person in front of me off the totem pole in order to get ahead. People who would mistake me for this kind of person don’t realize that everything I do and say goes back to this mission of restoring faith in human goodness - because they don’t believe human goodness is possible. I don’t make a ton of money. I don’t dream of having my name on a marquis. Those things actually make me quite anxious because I associate them with having to reconcile “joyful music-making” with “pushing a product”.
To those people who ask “Why this?” and “Why now”, I say: Why not now? If not now, when? If not this way, how? For me, it’s the only way I know. I assume we all start first from what we know, don’t we? Well, I’m obviously not any different then the rest of them. Or am I?
Thanks for reading.