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13 December 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 2:54pm

The road not taken: John Burnside on his desire to join a choir

By John Burnside

In another life, I would be a singer. To be fair, I would have been a singer in this life, but for one small problem: after an all-too-brief career as a boy soprano in the school choir, my voice broke early and any subsequent attempt at song on my part inspired even the sternest of the nuns at Our Lady’s Catholic Comprehensive to descend into sub-teenage giggling fits. Not that I gave up right away: over the years, I tried various techniques, from Dylanesque mumbling to the hyper-stentorian (I was listening to my Dad’s Mario Lanza records long before anyone ever dreamed of the Three Tenors). Nothing worked.

What I would most like to do in my next, more actively musical life, is to sing in a small to medium-sized choir, in which the voices combine to create something both intimate and greater than the sum of its parts. Best of all would be to sing a capella – in György Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna, for example, or the 16th-century English composer John Sheppard’s Media vita, arguably one of the most beautiful musical compositions ever made. What is striking about these pieces, for a listener, is the architectural nature of the work, the way in which the voices come together to build something majestic, or poignant, or even divine. I can only imagine how much more satisfying it is, not just to hear, but to participate in the making of such acoustic edifices.

As a writer, it is easy to feel like an incorrigible soloist, a lone voice in the desert with its own solitary agenda. That is why I love to work with other artists, especially musicians (for example, I recently collaborated with the wonderful Orcadian composer Erland Cooper on a radio project called Wild Music). It is a special pleasure to hear my words set by a great composer and sung by beautiful voices, and I value that experience more than most. But I still wish I could be one of the singers, presumably a bass or a baritone, laying down a foundation for the voices of others – sopranos, tenors, altos – to soar into the clouds.

This article is from our “Road not taken” series

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