After Years of Decline Choral Singing Enjoys a Renaissance. Whether to reassert their humanity in an age of machines, or to rebel against `creatrophy,' people are rediscovering the joy of making music together
NEW YORK — ACROSS the US and beyond, choral singing is enjoying a grass-roots revival. Although singing in choirs lost ground in the '60s and '70s, the present decade has seen a resurgence in community, church, and school choirs, according to some leading choral conductors.
Although it's hard to pinpoint exactly why this revival is taking place now, there is one man around whom much of the activity revolves. He's John Rutter, English composer and arranger, whose choral pieces - notably his well-loved ``Requiem'' - are often included with the usual Bach and Mozart in the repertoire of choirs both here and abroad.
In Cambridge, England, John Rutter conducts the Cambridge Singers and heads up his own company, Collegium Records. He visits the US about every other month to conduct choir seminars. On Sunday, he will conduct his ``Requiem'' at Carnegie Hall using 10 church, community, college, and high school choirs from eight states.
In a telephone interview from his home, Rutter commented on the back-to-choral-music trend.
``There's certainly been a big upsurge,'' he said. ``Now there is a World Federation of choirs that had its first convention just two summers ago in Europe. There were choirs from Russia, from Poland, from Yugoslavia, and some rather unexpected places. I think they had a Tibetan choir. I think this is something that couldn't have happened even 10 years ago.''
How does Rutter account for the renewed interest in choirs?
``The standards of choral singing have so much improved over the last generation,'' he says, ``thanks to pioneers like Robert Shaw and Sir David Wilcox.
``Also, people are beginning to realize that the voice is the only instrument that you don't have to pay for; nor do you have to plug it in; nor do you necessarily even have to have lessons before you can use it.''
Rutter pointed out that, although he is enthusiastic about the developments going on in electronic music, the danger is that ``the human element can be overshadowed by the gadgetry.''
`` I think that people are now hearing the sounds of voices - solos and choirs - as being an assertion of humanity, in a way,'' he added. ``People listen to choirs and join them as a way of getting back in touch with human feelings, with human expression.''
John Kuzma, choir director of Denver's Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church, takes the issue a step further. ``With the automation and depersonalization of life that's happened over the past several generations, I think there has come an increased passivity,'' he said in a telephone interview from Denver.
`People tend to become passive consumers of music instead of makers of music. I think this has produced a kind of spiritual wound in people.''
Mr. Kuzma believes that coming together with other people to sing in a choir can help bind up that spiritual wound - and he points out that singing is an art that's accessible to anyone.
``People of all ages can participate - and, with a little bit of training and help, you can make some music,'' said Kuzma.
``If you get four or five people who are mediocre singers together, that's one thing, and they might be able to do a little bit. But if you get 40 people together, even if they're all mediocre singers, you can make some pretty good music.''
And, by doing so, says Kuzma, people can escape what he terms ``the stupefying nature of so much of what we do in our modern culture. We supposedly now have more time to pursue things, but the fact is that people haven't become more active in pursuing creative things. Instead, they've developed ... what a friend of mine calls `creatrophy.'''
But the desire to create and participate is beginning to rise from the ashes, according to Kuzma. ``The deeper core of it,'' he says, ``is this eagerness to really make something beautiful.''
Who are the singers in today's choirs?
Both Kuzma and Rutter agree that they come from all walks of life, but, says Rutter, ``there is a common factor: They're people who have a very strongly developed sense of feeling and humanity.
``I think if you were a cold fish, you probably wouldn't want to join a singing group, because very often they turn into much more than a musical organization.'' Rutter believes choirs offer ``a chance to ease the stresses and strains of everyday life, to move into a world where everything can be beautiful.''
Adds Kuzma, ``The artist gives tangible expression to some deeper vision than ordinary reality. That vision is possible to people'' - especially, he stresses, to the person who is able to set his or her ego aside, and ``who is willing to give himself over to a certain discipline. The choral group is not student-directed teaching. It's teacher-directed, and the teacher is saying, `Hey, if you want this music to sound good, you have to do this, this, and this.' There's no arguing.''
Carol Elliot is a former Broadway singer and actress. She and her husband, a surgeon, are longtime members of the Montview church choir.
Reached by phone, Mrs. Elliot that the biggest thrill for her is the feeling of singing in a large group of people. She says it's really wonderful ``to feel all that energy of people pulling together. There's an enormous amount of energy produced by the group that's singing; you're nurturing and uplifting the audience, too.''
She also appreciates the camaraderie that develops through membership in a choir.
``It's not a club where there's a one-upmanship kind of thing,'' she says. ``There are various levels of skill, but it really doesn't matter. And I do think that singing helps you to go on to successes in other areas of life. ``I have seen single women, because of divorces or whatever, going on to continuing studies, to career changes, and they have the support of their friends in the choir.''
Says John Rutter, ``Many people have told me that those couple of hours a week when they go down to choir rehearsal are the most precious part of their week.''