Stacy Horn beat me to the punch. Imperfect Harmony is a book I have always thought I would write myself. A choir member for the better part of 50 years, choral singing is woven into the fabric of my life, much as it is in hers. And one of these days, I always planned to get down to the subject.
But any deep-seated jealousy I had over being scooped melted away with the pleasure of reading Stacy Horn’s take on the topic. Horn, who has also written about subjects as diverse as the paranormal, New York’s Cold Case Squad and her cats, here takes a wide-ranging and deep look at choral singing. She is a fine researcher and reporter and puts those skills to wonderful use on here. This is no niche topic, by the way; among the numbers contained in this well-documented book: there are 270,000 choruses in the United States and the number of adults singing in choirs is now 32.5 million.
Nominally organized into sections dealing with illustrious choirs and master choral works, the narrative of Imperfect Harmony also touches on the physics and physiology of sound, the history of American choral singing, the long battles for acceptance waged by female singers, the trajectory of the author’s own life, choral as well as personal, and the evolution of her own choir, the Choral Society of Grace Church in New York. Anti-aging obsessives will be heartened by her research into neuroscience and the cognitive benefits derived from choirs.
Horn also weaves fascinating tales of classic music repertoire: The thousands of public “sing-along” versions of Handel”s Messiah performed every Christmas season, far beyond any church setting. The strains of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” that also found their way into his “Chichester Psalms.” Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria, composed at the request of a chorus of German firemen for their choir competition. And the interviews Horn conducts with contemporary composers, among them choral rock stars Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre will be worth the price of admission for any serious singer. I loved the backstories of Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium,” and of the creation of Whitacre’s online Virtual Choir events.
Among the most delicious aspects of Imperfect Harmony is the interspersing of Horn’s personal observations together with the repertoire she is discussing, and the stories of other singers in the Grace Church Choral Society. There is the bass who attended rehearsals every day of the last week of his life. The woman who only came to terms with her pet’s death while singing an evocative Lauridsen piece. And the revealing tale Horn tells of her “demotion” from First Soprano to Second will reverberate with choir members everywhere, especially her subsequent discovery that harmony is more important to choral works than melody.
If I have any quibble with this book, it is that I would have loved more tales of poor choral form beyond the author’s self confessed arrogance about her high notes. She does recount jockeying for favored seats at Grace Church rehearsals, but I’ve seen behavior lots worse, almost correlated by section. It’s not only that sopranos often over-value themselves, altos are often way over-the-top about their sight-reading skills. As for the basses, I’ve yet to be in a choir where the basses are not the self-appointed cut-up section. And tenors, well, where to begin about the typical tenor ego??
Personality foibles aside, one of the big draws of a choir is the urgent community it creates. Speaking for myself, the seats of my church chancel often seem a lot like a foxhole, with everyone in my choir crammed in together, facing the music. A feeling most pronounced when singing unaccompanied. “‘A cappella is to choral singing as skinny-dipping is to swimming,’” a fellow singer tells Horn. “‘Vulnerable, exhilarating, and prone to revelations.’”
Other revelations abound in this book, many of them having to do with harmony, embedded in -- and beyond -- the musical score. Horn evokes the sensation I have when I hear -- and feel -- my own voice joining with others. It is a thrill like nothing else, perhaps because the human voice is the most personal musical instrument of all. And choral singing is only accomplished when a group of those personal instruments collaborate in an intimate way.
As Grace Church’s John Maclay puts it, “‘No matter how much you practice. No singer in the room can sing choral music on their own. You need each other.” But I think Stacy Horn summarizes the essence of choral singing even better, that “magic current of potential that comes to life whenever people are drawn together by the astonishing and irresistible power of a song.”
(Stacy Horn, the author of five nonfiction books, is also founder of the New York City-based social network Echo. Echo was home to many online media firsts, including the first interactive tv show, which was co-produced with the then SciFi Channel. She lives and sings in New York.)
Watch Stacy's TEDxTalk and then go find yourself a choral group!
Pat Hitchens has written about relationships, health & politics -- as well as personal essays -- for print, broadcast and online audiences in a career spanning television, education, business consulting and public relations.