If music be the food of love...
My garden is a plot of land about one hundred feet long east to west and four feet deep, sandwiched between an alley to the south and a wrought iron fence to the north. Sunlight is good; water is easily accessible. Other than that, it was a wasteland of post-construction garbage and fill when I began working on it, five years ago—chunks of concrete, old bricks, lengths of rusted rebar, broken glass; random pockets of gravel, sand, and clay; volunteer Chinese elms, ailanthus, and mulberries competing with weeds for the available soil. Cars and trucks had parked on the southern edge of it for years, creating an iron-hard apron about a foot wide. One of my more onerous tasks, in fact, has been to convince drivers to stop parking on what I bravely called my garden. It took, and takes, working like the proverbial dog to turn this wasteland into a garden. Starting with a patch about fifteen feet long in the middle, and working east and west from there over the following years, I have dug and grubbed and hauled, to come up with something resembling friable soil; I collect bags of grass clippings and leaves from the curbs and alleys in the neighborhood; I haul buckets of horse manure from the police stables south of us; I compost in a pile, in a bin, and directly in the “garden” itself. My rules are: spend no money, apply no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, use locally available soil-building materials. I have never hired a backhoe to rip out what was there, leaving a hole into which a hired truck could dump expensive, prime topsoil stripped off a farm downstate; I use what is at hand. Year by year I work this patch of earth, and it responds by coming to life, producing an abundance of flowers, fruits, and vegetables, attracting birds and worms and insects, enriching my life as well as the lives of my family and my neighbors. I feel I am doing very much the same thing my gardening forbears did, first in northern Europe, then on the Minnesota prairie-- of necessity, developing the skills to deal with the givens of a situation, and coming to love that situation, in all its particularity.
Choirs and gardens are very similar. One can garden very differently than I do, and buy/achieve spectacular results; one can also buy, if one has the money and the inclination, the components of a spectacular choir, recruiting and paying large amounts of money for the most talented, skilled, trained singers, then exercising a certain type of leadership and skill in coordinating these expensive components, and creating a winning choir/garden.
I first drifted into, then found myself firmly committed to, the life and ideals described in my metaphor. Chicago Chorale’s singers are hardly so raw as the materials out of which I have built my garden; but they are, like the components of the garden, the materials at hand-- the people who show up and want to sing good music with one another. Making them into a choir is work. But could there be a better work? To combine the disparate and often disconnected materials that surround one, into an interlocking whole, to create community where none existed previously, community committed to discovering and building and sharing beauty, is immensely rewarding and inspiring. There cannot be a more necessary or worthwhile enterprise, than that people come together in this way, to make music well with and for one another, while all around us the world seems incomprehensibly driven toward ugliness and destruction.
I obsess about potential garden materials going into landfills; I also obsess about music that goes unsung, and about singers who go unsinging and unheard. When we work together on the highest level of which we are capable, we know that making music is somehow the salvation of our world. It is not only worth listening to, but worth living for.