When Performance Becomes Listening
Yesterday’s interpretation of the Passion Gospel by the Trinity Choir was the most arresting interpretation I have ever experienced, an instant indelible memory.
The technical aspects of what the choir did were impressive: the solos, duets, and full-choir parts were all completely improvised – the choir had no music, only text (the way the early monastics used to sing) - and one rehearsal to gel. This meant that they had to listen to one another intensely, in the moment, and they had to listen to what the text, and the moment itself, was telling them to do.
The result was riveting - the way certain words and phrases opened up to new interpretation, sung in a spiraling thin line, a forceful baritone blast, or augmented with edgy half-tone grace notes. I heard this story again for the first time.
I spoke with some of the singers afterward. Far from a simple “performance,” they had found themselves soulfully drawn deeper into the text. Two of the principal singers said they were sweating profusely from the concentration it took to listen so deeply to one another and to the emerging meaning. The moment that will remain burned in my memory was the interpretation of Jesus’ words “Take, eat, this is my body.” My whole world pivoted in that moment (a rare gift for the liturgist who plans worship). The singer said later that in rehearsal he had sung the lines lower, with more weight, but in the moment he could sense Jesus’ extreme vulnerability, and was led to a higher pitch. Those words as he sang them had such a plaintive, almost confessional quality. Their humanity came through so piercingly.
That’s the word: pierced. The passion reading pierced me this year. It could do that because it was piercing the choir in that moment, and they were clear and generous channels. But I wasn’t just getting the choir’s single interpretation; like a sermon preached from the pulpit, the people in the pew each hear a unique message, the sermon they need to hear. Everyone has to be listening for this to be able to happen.
These are precious moments in life, whether on the stage, in the pulpit, or over coffee, when “performer” and “listener” distinctions fall away, and each makes available their whole selves to this moment’s transformation. There is only listening, and then generous living.
It’s only Monday; we’ve got a lot of that ahead this week!