Blogging GALA :: Day Three
It was a late night once again, last night, but that didn’t stop your intrepid EDGE correspondent from jumping out of bed at the crack of the fire alarm, anxious to get to the sights and sounds of GALA... or at least find out whether the building was on fire. (It wasn’t. A guest in the breakfast room had burnt toast.)
While others were headed off to the morning’s Coffee Concerts--one of which was a work titled "The Young Person’s Guide to the Gay Men’s Chorus"--I was expected to actually attend a rehearsal.
Well! The nerve of it.
But the practical necessity of knowing the words and the music and the choreography in order to put on a half hour show for all our peers had a certain logic to it, and so I forsook the Coffee Concert and trudged to another local hotel where the rehearsal was slated to take place.
Still, I have this uncertain feeling about the BGMC having been scheduled opposite the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus... So, listen, you all GALA delegates reading this blog, props to San Fran, but you probably saw them at some point already. Come hear us instead. (Smiley face, heart, and assorted other cute orthographics so that I don’t sound like a total bitch.)
Where was I? Ah, right, trudging off for a few hours of rehearsal. While I am away, though, here’s an interview with Paula Bresnan Gibson, a writer with a background in law who hadn’t had any contact with or knowledge of the world of gay choruses until she attended a concert by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C. five years ago.
A large part of the reason for the existence of gay and lesbian choruses (apart from the fact that we chorines like to get up and perform) is a need to work for a more equitable society.
Arguing about it doesn’t seem to help much; impassioned pleas based on reason, logic, or appeals to basic fairness don’t seem to make much of a dent. To reach people with your message, you have to communicate on a gut level, a primal level. And what touches people more directly and deeply than music? (Well, the moving images of television, if you buy into Al Gore’s 2008 book "The Assault on Reason," which essentially explains why TV makes you stupid and holds up cable news as a shining example. But music works a treat, too.)
When a gay activist uses words to explain his need for full and equal protection under the law for himself and his family, he gets wrath at worst and yawns at best. But when a gay chorus performs a song like "Marry Us," the audience suddenly understands, through the vocabulary of emotion, the core concepts of the argument for equality... concepts that words cannot convey in the same surgical, forceful, and indelible manner.
Gibson, herself a singer, quickly understood this, and set out to write a book. But she didn’t write about the "issues." She wrote about the people those issues affect, and the poorly reasoned, sometimes brutally unfair policies that emerge from those issues. She wrote about the members of the chorus, and she used their own words to do it.
"I saw an amazing amount of commitment, passion, and enthusiasm that the men in the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C. had for the chorus that I had never seen in any organization in which I had participated before," Gibson, who attended GALA to promote her book, told EDGE. "There was one chorus member in particular, who devoted an incredible amount of time to the chorus and one day I asked him, prior to having any concept that I’d be writing a book about the chorus, why he cared so much for GMCW. He shared with me that being involved in GMCW is what got him out of bed every day.
"As soon as I heard that, I quickly realized that I wanted to ask more men about why they joined GMCW and what it meant to them to be a part of the chorus," Gibson continued. "I had always wanted to write a personally meaningful book, and I thought that a collection of stories from GMCW men could be an interesting and informative read--a type of history about the chorus.
"However, once I started interviewing the men, I heard some very powerful and moving stories and concluded that their actual words combined with how their stories impacted and educated me would be a more compelling book--a book that would be educational for both gay and straight communities."
After interviewing 65 individuals, Gibson decided not to cast the book in a standard non-fiction way. Rather, she thought that simply using the men’s own words would serve the book best, so she defined themes such as "In Search of Community," "Teaching Families," and "Making Statements," among others, and then arranged the comments her interview subjects had shared with her about these things. The result is something like a documentary on paper: Immediate, vivid, and direct. These "Voices" seem to speak straight to the reader.
In a way, they are, albeit through Gibson. "The format of the book unfolded to me after I interviewed the men and then re-played the taped recordings of my conversations with them," Gibson related.
"Although every interviewee had their unique story, there were certain issues that were repeated in their responses. For example, the open-ended question of, ’What brought you to GMCW?’ taught me that men joined the chorus because they were in search of something--a musical outlet, a social life, or a community. Then, I chose the sections of the interviews where the men became the most emotional and passionate about what the chorus meant to them, and those responses shaped the chapters of the book."
In a way, what Gibson seeks to do with the book is the same thing that the gay chorus, any gay chorus, seeks: To reach and inform, to educate, to communicate something despite the cultural barbed wire that’s been set up to keep out simple messages that address our humanity.
"My goal for this book is for gay and straight people to learn about the challenges that gay men have faced in their lives, and how gay men successfully overcame those challenges by participating in a gay chorus," Gibson said. "My hope is that members of gay choruses will read this book because they will be comforted by learning of the parallel experiences or journeys that they share with the people in ’Voices from a Chorus.’
"Further, I hope that the book becomes a teaching resource for people who are learning about the gay community--whether they are learning more about their own sexual orientation, are students in a civil rights or LGBTQ course, or are parents/family members of a gay child, or are a friend/co-worker of someone who is gay.
"On a side note," Gibson added, "a couple of people at GALA suggested to me that it should be turned into a commission[ed work of music]. Who knows? I just hope that people will read it, be moved by it, and think about things a little bit differently after having read it."
Personally, I think the book would also make for a great movie. (Why not? I mean, come on, they just made a rom-com somehow based, however nominally, on the book "What to Expect When You’re Expecting." Between this modern crop of screenwriters and improvements in CGI, nothing is impossible for the movies anymore.)
The Great Northwest
Vancouver not only gives good Pride; it also boasts the Vancouver Men’s chorus, "Canada’s first gay men’s chorus and a charter member of GALA," according to the program notes.
The Vancouver guys filed in singing Rufus Wainwright’s "Oh What A World" and then segued into "Big Yellow Taxi." There was a certain Canadian pride going on right along with the gay stripe, and one couldn’t help noticing it as the program unfolded with "Canadian Man" and "Un canadien errant" in the mix.
The great Northwest of the United States sung back later on in the day, though, with the Seattle Men’s Chorus, who filed in to a packed-to-capacity Boettcher Concert Hall in three groups: One on stage, and two in different parts of the audience, a fitting configuration for their opening number, "Everyone Sang."
Once the Boys from Seattle were all up on the stage they followed up with "O Magnum Mysterium" (I might have guessed it to be an Eric Whiteacre composition, but it turned out to be a work by Morten Lauridsen); then, despite the July weather outside, the space within the hall became very Yulish indeed with "Black Christmas," a hilarious jab at racism in popular culture led by seven African American soloists.
In 2010, the Seattle and Boston choruses co-commissioned a work based on the memoirs of a young gay man murdered by the Nazis. The young man’s lover escaped the terror that swept Europe, and preserved the memoirs, which have become the basis for various interpretations. The work the two choruses commissioned is titled "For A Look or a Touch," and the Seattle Men’s Chorus delivered a riveting rendition of one of the cycle’s most intense pieces, "A Hundred Thousand Stars."
But not all was solemnity; the Seattle lads also treated their audience to their reading of Israel Kamakawiwo`ole’s version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (while wearing leis, naturally!), before finishing up with Eric Lane Barnes’ "Don’t Knock It," sung while eight members of the chorus performed an elaborate hand dance on small tables. It was a dazzling finish.