Monday, April 12, 2010

Architects of fate

Free from a social code that fails
To Serve the case of human need.

"As Tranquil Streams"

It happens in all faiths, but the Unitarian Universalists seem not to make bones about it--things change, the way we see the world is different, and our understanding of the writings that came down over the centuries and how to interpret them gets some new wrinkles. Even the most conservative of religious groups are not the same as they were 500, 100, or even 10 years ago. During my experience at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, 4001 Ann Arbor-Saline Road, I believe I heard statements five times that boiled down to "We don't do creeds." Instead, they explain, they build their mode of faith through relationships and love for each other. The hymn quotation at the top of this post seems to capture a big piece of the essence of their thought, as well as the title of this post--another hymn had text by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, saying "All are architects of fate."

I had originally scheduled to visit this choir in January, but some of you might remember that there was some bad weather on the evening of January 7, when I was to go there for rehearsal. It was so bad that they canceled rehearsal. Since attending rehearsal is a very important part of the Itinerant Chorister experience, I rescheduled, and ended up doing it this week. It was very much worth my while to go to this rehearsal, as it ended up being filled with exotic voices--hillbilly, Jamaican, and falsetto with a British accent. Plus an impromptu chorus of the Motown tune "The Loco-Motion," all instigated by choir director Glen Thomas Rideout. The funny voices actually served a purpose. The hillbilly voice, in particular the emphasis of the letter "r" and the vowels that tend to be colored by being followed by it, was used to demonstrate how not to sing. We went so far as to sing an extended section of one song in the hillbilly voice during rehearsal, in order to get it out of everyone's system. The Jamaican voice had at least some of the aspects of how we should have been singing another song. And the falsetto British voice is something I have encountered before, and seems to be a tradition carried on by proteges of Jerry Blackstone. The purpose of this one is to get diction using very wide-open, "tall" vowels--first you speak it in the British falsetto as practice. Then if you sing it while thinking about that voice, it improves your diction and yet sounds much less ridiculous than Graham Chapman in drag.

One of the traditions of Unitarians is to light a flame in a chalice at the beginning of worship, and this extended also to choir rehearsal. The chalice in the rehearsal space is decorated to resemble a tree. In conjunction with this, they have a member talk about his/her relationship to the choir; on this evening this duty was performed by Chris Petrie. One of the things that he mentioned is that now that he is in the choir, his vowels are tall. In honor of this tradition, the choir at this church is known as the Chalice Singers.

We rehearsed "How Can I Keep from Singing" arranged by Richard Walters and edited by Glen Thomas Rideout, "Sing Me the Universal" by Vincent Persichetti, probably about the most harmonically difficult pieces that I have tried during my tour of church choirs, and the highly rhythmic "I Got the Fire" by Stuart Chapman Hill.

One thing that I have learned to do on my choir visits is to find out what I should wear. In this case, there was no need to wait until the end of rehearsal, as this subject was discussed with passion at one point during the rehearsal. Apparently feelings on this subject run deep within this group. The basic rule is black pants or skirts and tops in a solid color--any color, as long as it is solid. One choir member held up examples of fabrics that were printed with patterns, and therefore did not qualify as solid colors; once again, it's not OK to wear these. Apparently it was OK, though, to wear a scarf in a different solid color. It all made me nervous that I was skating on thin ice when I later showed up in a light blue shirt with white buttons.

The rehearsal ended with a little social time, shown in the photo.

I actually attended three services. One was on Saturday afternoon and featured the installation of Rev. Lisa Presley as District Executive of the U.U. Church, which I took to be the equivalent of what would be called a bishop in many other churches. It also involved the choir leading some hymns. The other two were nearly identical services one after the other on Sunday morning.

During these services we sang a few hymns in addition to "How Can I Keep From Singing," mentioned above. This church is one of the best for participation of the entire congregation in hymn singing, and I think Glen deserves a lot of credit for this. He stands in front and directs then, and they even follow his direction in terms of volume, phrasing, and tempo! A couple of songs were sung in canon or round, including the whole congregation, and these hung together. Kudos also to Pianist-in-Residence Allison Halerz, who also played a few solo pieces.

There were two pieces to the readings. One was from Ralph Waldo Emerson, in which he scolded the churches for keeping their faith in God frozen in time. A key phrase was "God is, not was." The next was from Henry David Thoreau (see paragraph 16 here), with a key piece being "I do not wish to live what is not life; living is too dear." The place where I found a piece from the Bible was not read aloud during the service, but was on the front cover of the bulletin--"Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins," Matthew 9:17--not a saying of Jesus that many other churches choose to dwell on very much. Minister Gail Geisenhainer built on these ideas from Emerson, Thoreau, and Jesus in her sermon, giving some examples of people who had a poor perspective on things because they saw things as they used to be, not as they are, and particularly things in their past that they didn't like. "What they wanted to be away from was perpetually with them because they didn't revisit," she said. She advised everyone to do a spring cleaning of their memories and take a new look at their old experiences. "Let winds of change air out everything we take for granted."

I actually made two Itinerant Chorister visits this weekend. News from the Jain Temple of Farmington Hills will be posted soon.

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