So it's a new year, and everyone's already written their resolutions and reflections on the year.
I have not.
There's so much I have yet to write about, but it's too much, and I don't know which way to go. There is so much and too much to feel. I'm excited, because I have a couple shows lined up, and a lot of new and meaningful art coming down the pipeline, art that will help people. I'm relieved that I finished a work project that dragged on for too long and brought me down pretty far while doing so. I'm annoyed and confused, because I'm changing, and some of it doesn't feel right. I'm kind of proud, because some of that change is really quite right, and it took a long time to get here. I'm carrying a lot of grief that I don't know where to put. I'm excited, cuz Congress. I'm afraid, because hatred. I think a lot about how terrible it is to be in a country that doesn't want you. I think a lot about how easy it is to be toxic to others without knowing it. I think about fortitude and guarding against toxicity from others. I think about protection. I think about culpability, repentance, forgiveness, death, regrets. I think about all the places I could go. I think about all the places I'm already going. I think about my voice, both literally and metaphorically. I wonder if I can keep it strong. I wonder if it even is strong, because it doesn't feel that way sometimes.
So obviously I'm choosing to write about Christmas music.
Y'all probably know I am only about .6% religiously inclined. That said, if you grow up immersed in [Western] classical vocal music, it is impossible not to have some kind of understanding of the sacred.
Add that to four years of altar-girl-ism, the fact that I'm a black woman in America (aka damn near expected to be Christian, if not at least sing about it and "sound black" whilst doing so), and a senior thesis called "God Is Dead"—and you've got yourself a recipe for some kind of vague Episcopalian salad that nobody can really put a finger on. Especially not the salad.
(I'm the salad. Just so we're clear.)
Anyway—one of the first things I do every holiday season is pull out the holiday music. This is NOT Christmas until Luther Vandross tells me it is.
But the most important Christmas album to me is the Robert Shaw Chorale's "O Magnum Mysterium." It was a gift from the incredible Bryce Hayes, my high school mentor, and it helped sculpt me, musically speaking—both he and the album did. It's pretty lovely, the collection, but I'm really only in it for two tracks. Both O Magnums, both so, so holy.
The first time I heard Francis Poulenc's O Magnum—high school—I thought it was hundreds of years old, which is ridiculous. I know wayyyy better than to hear something from the past 75 years and think it's Gregorian. Most adults do, I imagine, trained musicians or no. But something about Poulenc's setting seems so rooted in the actual birth of an entire system of belief. I sang that alto part over and over again, thinking it had been sung in every century that came before me.
Of all the sacred music I know, that one is "the one." It's not just worship: there's an uncomfortable acknowledgement of anxiety and deep rage and fear. What a great mystery this is. The words tell us who the Christ child is. The music asks if it'll all be okay. (Spoiler alert: Piccardy third at the end says it will be.)
The other track is Morten Lauridsen's setting. It's less riddled with pain, more with peace. I don't hear questions when I listen to it.
The holiday season is a freakin doozy. You rush to buy gifts and finish deadlines, and you reconnect with people, and you fight viciously with those you love and those you don't, and you mourn those who aren't here to do all those things with you.
Somewhere in there, after you eat too much, you think beyond your own Christmas lights. You donate some canned corn or some pet food or some winter jackets, and you hope for the best. And then the new year comes, and you get to start again.
Today is Epiphany, and without realizing it, I did the things and took down the festive flora and whatnot. It's so interesting how habits and rules and doctrine ingrain themselves in you. As I close out the last day of Christmas, untangle the strings of lights, and put the holiday CDs and fake poinsettias away, the Robert Shaw Chorale is singing through my tinny cell phone speaker, reminding me of the expanse of the human voice.
Happy New Year. May you always have a voice beside you, and behind you too. And, of course, may you always have a voice of your own.