a choir is a city, a country even like a ship of commerce

“my condition when abroad, and even in guinea, might be envied by multitudes who stay at home. i am as absolute in my small dominions (life and death excepted) as any potentate in europe. if i say to one, come, he comes; if to another, go, he flies. if i order one person to do something, perhaps three or four will be ambitious for a share in the service. not a man in the ship must eat his dinner till i please to give him leave; nay, nobody dares to say it is 12 or 8 o’clock, in my hearing, till i think it is proper to say so first. there is a mighty business of attendance when i leave the ship, and strict watch is kept while i am absent, lest i should return unawares, and not be received in due form. and should i stay out till midnight, (which for that reason, i never do without necessity) nobody must presume to shut their eyes, till they have had the honour of seeing me again. i would you judge from my manner of relating these ceremonials, that i do not value them highly for their own sake; but they are old established customs, and necessary to be kept up; for, without a strict discipline, the common sailors would be unmanageable” –

this was part of a letter by 18th century slave-ship captain, john newton (composer of the hymn, “amazing grace”) to his wife, mary, here quoted from marcus rediker’s incisive book, “the slave ship”.

the captain’s intimate description brings to mind the respect de soi obviously held (rightly or wrongly) by many a president, premier, youth brigade leader and even choral conductor!

composer and conductor, piero poclen, was such a champion – a man i would have followed into the abyss.
and yet, while a member in his coro del collegio del mondo unito dell’ adriatico, i served not only as his tenore, but also his impish !kaggen, his jester.

once or twice in a while, piero would throw me a you-are-nearing-the-borders-of-anarchydom look, but generally he let me continue with my silly and harmless prancing. i think this was because he knew i had a deep respect for him and his discipline.

as members of his big choir we performed works from all over the world – china, mexico, the (former) czechoslovakia, russia, germany, the u.s. and everywhere … but nothing from south africa. i hadn’t yet started composing myself then, so i never was able to bring him any works to hear inspired by the sounds of my own backyard.

he had hush-hush invited me to attend the smaller classes with a chamber vocal group he had assembled to read and sing madrigals he himself had composed. it felt like being a part of special hits squad.

and so today, here out to these (you) congregants ‘pon the aether do i cast this clip, inspired by the sounds of my own backyard, performed here with the brilliant joy of africa choir of port elizabeth.

it is a song about working together, submitting to the discipline of listening and communion – a theme, i suspect, the more malleable minions in ol’ john newton’s squad would have practiced heartily during those watchful hours as he gallivanted ashore at nearing midnight.

with love, n