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    The Politics of Polyphonic Singing

    An essentially corporate activity with every part of equal weight, this music represents the common good.

    By Dhananjay Jagannathan

    October 7, 2020
    • Hari

      An excellent and enlightening piece - thank you!

    • John maulella

      Thank you for taking the time to share this beautiful meditation.

    In more ordinary times, on Sunday afternoons twice a month, I can be found on the streets of New York with a dozen other singers, performing the sacred music of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe.

    Well, not always in the streets – on cold days in the winter we repair to the Graybar Passage in Grand Central Terminal, one of the most acoustically perfect spaces I have ever made resound.

    Well, not I – but rather we.

    For two years, I have been a member of the Renaissance Street Singers, directed by John Hetland, who founded the group in 1973. Before we start singing, John makes note to the audience, if there is an audience at the start, that the concert is free and that we are singing the music we love because we love it and we love to share it.

    The message is clear: the music is religious (virtually all of it written for use in Christian liturgy), but you needn’t affirm any particular belief to be absorbed by its beauty. There are a few practicing and committed Christians in the group. Others are Jewish, and still others have no particular faith tradition.

    I love these words of John’s: we sing the music we love because we love it and we love to share it.

    There is a lively community of enthusiasts for so-called early music in New York City, and, as with nearly every kind of music, there are concerts and recitals of Renaissance polyphonyfootnoteaplenty. Still, I suspect that churches – such as my own, Saint Ignatius of Antioch, with its Anglo-Catholic tradition – are more likely places than recital halls to hear polyphonic music. As a result, our performances often attract wonder, sometimes at the simple fact that we are singing this music in public and sometimes – when all goes well – at the music itself.

    Singing is a bodily activity. I don’t mean only that we use our bodies to create sound when we sing. When my boots clatter on the floor, that too is a sound created by my body, but my footfalls are incidental to the unfolding of my activity of movement. What I am doing is trying to get somewhere, and to do that I inevitably make sound.

    Singing is not like that; it is bodily through and through. When I sing, I become a vessel for sound, filled and miraculously transformed like the wine jugs at the wedding feast at Cana.

    On first encountering a new piece of music, my attention is devoted to reading the score, and the cognitive strain of that task, turning symbols into reality, takes precedence over any physical attunement. To learn the piece, however, that attention has to be directed more and more to what I am doing – passing vibrating air through my upper body, breathing to supply the bellows in my chest, singing – and less and less to what I am trying to do, following the written instructions, that is, producing certain notes in a specific rhythm at the right volume, and so on.

    What is special about polyphonic music is that, eventually, my attention passes even from my own bodily awareness to an awareness of the corporate activity of singing the piece, which is not something I can do, not on my own.

    To be sure, my voice can contribute to filling up the acoustic space of Graybar Passage in a purely physical sense, like one tap among several helping to fill up a tub with water. But the musical character of the sound means that there is no single act in which I am uniquely engaged that creates the music, but only a special joint activity, for which many are necessary.

    The dominant effect is of a sonic landscape, stretching out in many dimensions at once.

    This truth arises from what is distinctive about polyphony. In more familiar harmonic music, where there is a single melody, there are two tasks, typically differentiated in a choral context by voice part. One task is to produce the melody, the single line that contains the central musical interest. In much music, the soprano or highest voice plays this role, since it is easy to hear higher pitches clearly. The other task, left to the other voice parts, is to produce one or another harmonic line that supplements or ornaments this melody.

    Neither task is unimportant. One of my favorite things about singing hymns in church, for instance, is harmonizing while others around me sing the tune, the melody. Still, there is a division of labor in harmonic singing that sharply distinguishes it from polyphony. The melodic voice keeps the listener’s attention, and that makes the unfolding of the piece importantly linear.

    In Renaissance polyphony, a skilled listener might be able to keep track of several of the parts as they dance around one another, but the dominant effect is of a sonic landscape, stretching out in many dimensions at once. At times, what is experienced is more like a wave of word and sound overflowing attention.

    It is that capacity for overflowing attention that makes polyphonic music so well-suited for liturgical use. For it is in our vulnerability to the reality that lies beyond conscious perception and control, where our self ends and the world begins, that we encounter the transcendent.

    Renaissance Singers performing in Central Park

    The Renaissance Street Singers perform in Central Park. (Photograph by Judy Sterio,

    “There’s no way to sing together apart,” wrote Katherine Lucky movingly in Commonweal in May of her enforced absence from choral singing due to the pandemic. “What a grief. And what a reassurance.”

    Some days I predominantly feel the grief, the absence now six months long. The Street Singers met, cautiously, for a last rehearsal shortly after our annual concerts. As always, we laughed, we told stories, we complained, and through it all, we sang. That very night, a report was released on a choir rehearsal in Skagit County, Washington, a so-called superspreading event. A single symptomatic choir member attended. Of the sixty-one people present, fifty-three developed Covid-19. There would be no more rehearsals, anywhere.

    During our usual weekly rehearsal time, we instead gather via video chat, to keep up with each other’s lives in the way we ordinarily would, before and after rehearsal and during the fifteen-minute break, when I always feel flushed with the enthusiasm of the music but not yet tired and I cannot help loving everyone present. Recently, we held a memorial in this mode for a longtime member who succumbed to a terminal disease, the bitterness of her early death compounded by the distance between us.

    Some days I feel instead the reassurance, just as I do when the priest at my church says at our livestreamed services that he looks forward to greeting us in person when public worship is again possible. In both cases, it is not that I think, optimistically, that it will be soon that we can be together or even, stubbornly, that things have to go back to the same way they once were. In fact, I have no idea when or how we will be able to sing together again.

    I know only that we must, and so we will.

    The experience of singing in choirs has taught me a little about community in the ordinary sense of getting along with people enough to achieve something in concert with them. The same lessons are of course available in community theaters and on picket lines.

    There is also a deeper sense of community, or perhaps communion, that polyphonic music brings to the surface. For in such music we find an image of the common good, which it is the purpose of politics to seek and to provide.

    The distinction between harmonic and polyphonic singing suggests a broader distinction between two modes of shared human activity.

    In the first mode, corresponding to harmonic singing, we achieve a shared goal by contributing our distinct part in awareness of the larger goal, which comes about in the manner of a composite. Success depends on carrying out our individual role well and making sure our contribution fits well with those of others. Indeed, the Greek word harmonia comes from a verb meaning “to join together,” the word Homer uses to describe Odysseus constructing the ship he uses to leave Calypso’s island.

    Polyphonic singing also involves a shared goal and distinct contributions from singers from the different voice parts. But it does not end there. The relative independence of the lines actually heightens the demand for shared attention among the singers, and thus allows for a more profound form of joint activity.

    In polyphony, it is not enough to sing one’s own line, merely singing the right notes at the right time. If that is all one tried to do, what the audience would hear is a single voice accompanied by or even set against the others, a separation of a sort that is essential to harmony, where the melody is singled out, but that is inimical to polyphonic texture. Indeed, the whole work of bringing a polyphonic piece to life lies in adapting each line to all the others with which it is heard, through tuning and blending, of course, but also through modulations of urgency and every other sort of expressiveness.

    In such music we find an image of the common good, which it is the purpose of politics to seek and to provide.

    The dissolution of distinct bodily awareness that I associate with singing polyphonic music is an even more profound experience of transcendence than the overflowing of attention in the listener. Here is a more intimate mode of joint perception and activity in service of a shared goal, where what I am doing depends essentially on what everyone else is doing, and what we are doing is not a composite of independent activities but a single distributed activity.

    For that reason, polyphonic singing also limns a vision of social existence that sees our joint life in a political community as something more than a composite of individually distinguishable lives. The common good, the very aim of political community, is essentially achieved together, not only in dim recognition of our obligations to others but in full vibrant awareness of our permeability to others, of our need and hunger for them and theirs for us.

    To really grasp this vision, we would have to become attuned to a political experience that is as distinctive, and as pointed towards transcendence, as is the blending of voices in song. Such politics is not a set of solutions to coordination problems or an arena in which we compete for scarce resources or vie for dominance. It is not just a way of getting by, but one of thriving as the political creatures we are.

    Postscript: I wrote the above in late May, before New York City underwent its transformation from pandemic hotspot to (relative) oasis. Encouraged by this turn of events and the growing consensus that outdoor activities are generally safe, eight of us, standing well apart, sang the Renaissance Street Singers’ first ever socially-distanced concert on the summer solstice.

    The experiment went well enough. Though at times it was hard to hear one another as we sang, I felt more keenly the plangent melodic lines of Josquin des Prez’s De profundis, and heard more clearly the Psalmist’s words, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord” (Ps. 130:1). For the first time, I really meant them as I sang.

    We have also cautiously resumed rehearsals, twice a month outdoors at the time we used to perform. Where before our concerts drew the attention of passersby, our stops and starts now do, with our more successful run-throughs sometimes even receiving a smattering of applause. These not-quite-performances – shadowed by fear, but also marked by resilience – seem to me a microcosm of the half-a-life that New Yorkers have begun to live again – tentatively, but together.

    Listen to the Renaissance Street Singers’ “Loft Concerts” here.


    1. The music encyclopedia Grove identifies a number of different historical senses for the word polyphony, which has always been a musicological term of art. My use here corresponds to the fourth sense, defined by the subordinate importance of harmony.
    Contributed By DhananjayJagannathan Dhananjay Jagannathan

    Dhananjay Jagannathan is an assistant professor of philosophy at Columbia University, where he works in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and the history of ethics.

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