Oh, if only we could all sing together…

Kathaumixw is a Coast Salish word – a gathering together of different peoples – and is the name given to the international choral festival that has been held every other summer in Powell River on BC’s Sunshine Coast since 1984.

I grew up in Powell River and my mother still lives here, but this is only my second visit to the festival. My own United Church experience of choirs was pretty stodgy, though I do remember when Frank Bemrose sang O Holy Night at Christmas, shivers ran up my spine. It was his wife, my Grade Three teacher, who suggested I just move my lips when we sang at the Christmas concert. In spite of her, I used to lie in bed at night singing my heart out for the talent scout I knew was hiding in the closet so as not to make me anxious.

It wasn’t until I joined the Smithers community choir, Local Vocals, that I realized what powerful emotions are given expression in a choir. Mrs. Bemrose was right; I am not a strong singer. But surrounded by a cluster of talented altos who are very friendly about nudging me up or down the scale when necessary, I think I do okay. Well, mostly. There are days when it’s hard to batten down the jealousy I feel when those special voices ring out true and clear around me.

Kathaumixw is truly the perfect word – this festival is rich in musical differences. Each choir has its own personality: some are controlled, the singers barely moving, the voices the only projection coming from the group. They lean slightly forward, eyes on the conductor, attentive to every nuance of tone, tuning, blending and dynamics.

Other choirs are pure energy. They move and clap and laugh, visibly enjoy the sounds they are creating, the peculiar calls and responses the composer calls for, the clicking and whistling, the honking of small horns, the yodels and thunderstorms. These are not stodgy, these choirs, they are not stuffy. They can belt out an African-American spiritual, hollering and stamping. And somehow forty singers can hush down as quiet as a mother bending over a sleeping child.

But while I love to sing, I’m a writer. And however well a choir’s voices blend, you can find a Russian novel’s worth of characters standing side by side on the risers. As the music flows through them, you can see that big man on the left with the goofy hair is singing from some deep soulful place; the skinny little soprano who’s always smiling probably brings cookies to rehearsals. The middle-aged alto reaches out a hand to the baritone beside her. He steps closer to put an arm around her as the song reaches its crescendo. Afterward, he bends to her, she nods and steps away. Some crisis averted. Plot potential abounds.

The children’s choirs are miracles of diversity: one girl with dead straight black hair that sticks out like she’s taken part in a science centre’s high static demonstration; a little guy, can’t be more than six, has a dozen cowlicks, his exuberance barely contained. Beside him, a girl with tight pigtails stands apart, her mouth barely opening, the notes squeezed out through some powerful resistance. As a young women’s choir – a kind of finishing school for young ladies of the eastern seaboard – walks onto the stage, one girl sails out, large and calm, her hair bright pink, the only colour in the pall of ashen gowns and decorous hair.

As all these shapes, sizes and personalities sing, you can feel they are changed by the music and you know the music is changed by them. Some are struggling with technical difficulties, perhaps. Others might be reliving the heart-breaking memories of a winter’s night. When they belt out Hallelujah, one is maybe thinking how she’d like to kill the conductor for not giving her the solo. One is trying not to throw up from nerves or a hangover, one is pregnant, another has just miscarried, a grandfather has just heard that his daughter is leaving her husband and, for each one, the song tells a unique story.

As a writer, I find myself lost in their faces, their postures, their gestures and stances. With singers from Asia, Europe, Africa and New Zealand and North America, they literally encompass the world. There are a thousand unique characters that will gather tonight for the final massed choir singing of Oscar Peterson’s Hymn to Freedom and running through them all flows the great river of music. How could a writer not be jealous? How could a writer not be inspired?

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