Seems to me like a new world is rising from the shambles of the old, as the song says, and the new world looks much like the old one — with more complicated social mores and a lot more distrust amongst us.
Speaking of songs, let us reflect on the the fact that one of the more significant victims of our pandemic world is ensemble singing — gathering together in musical common purpose and raising voices in song for the delight of the singers and whoever may be listening.
Ensemble singing is arguably the oldest of all human activities — maybe even older than hunting or gathering. That singing is considered a dangerous activity at the moment is a true sign of apocalypse (apocalypse with a small “a”).
Studies are underway to determine the trajectory of aerosols, viral load, the drag indices and trailing vortexes of air currents disrupted by the singing human voice, and other song related issues, according to the British Columbia Choral Federation — an umbrella group for more than 200 choirs in the province, from small backyard groups in Cranbrook like the Funtastics to global superstar choirs like Vancouver’s Chor Leone.
But until more data is in, B.C.’s top doctor, Bonnie Henry, has recommended against singing together “for the time being.” In the meantime, choirs are obliged to follow health regulations, until it is determined if singers emit more droplets and aerosols than usual, and therefore might be “superspreaders.”
A recent online “Town Hall” on safe singing reported that singing out of doors in groups of about six or fewer should be okay, with the now standard two-metre social distancing in effect. Until such time as, this appears to be all the ensemble singing we’re going to get. Seems to be lacking the electricity of a performance by the Mt. Baker Vocal Jazz Ensemble, or the sublime majesty of the harmonies of a Sun Valley Song concert, or the family friendliness of the Kimberley Community Choir. Certainly leaning in to share a hard-rocking moment at the same microphone, a la George Harrison and John Lennon, is a quick ticket to widespread censure, not to mention Covid-19.
Choirs are not taking this lying down. Choirs will not be denied. Humans are as driven to sing as the birds are. Choirs in Europe are coming up with ways that individuals can sing in each other’s company — with the wearing of masks, and standing at a distance from each other. Choirs in Canada are looking to follow suit, to be freed up to sing together, using all due precautions.
And of course, that great winner of the pandemic, Zoom, has provided a virtual alternative.
Still, the days of crowding into a venue where the acoustics amplify the magnificence of the human voice in ensemble seem to be numbered. A small theatre or church, a large cathedral or auditorium; all the great indoor places where choir singing is heard — that’s part of the pleasure and uplift provided by the singing voice. We humans have never created a musical instrument equal to it.
It’s possible to imagine waking up in a world without birdsong, given what we know about declining numbers, habitat and migration pathways degradation and climate change. It’s almost impossible to imagine a world without humans singing in it, because of the dangers that singing poses.