Being in choir was the best part of my high school experience. I remember my first day, a nervous freshman who couldn’t read music and was terrified of her own breathy, shaky voice, learning a simple melody that our teacher had us sing in a round and being in awe at the gorgeous sound a simple combination of voices could make. I remember my first concert, being completely enchanted by the upperclassmen and select choirs-specifically concert choir and chamber choir-and wanting so, so badly to be a part of that. I remember working my butt off for the next few years, taking private voice lessons and practicing at home, slowly discovering that I was capable of being loud, of making a beautiful sound. I remember how ecstatic I was to see my hard work pay off my senior year, when I made it into concert choir, chamber choir, and the chorus of two theater productions.
I don’t sing much anymore (besides shout-singing along to my car radio or drunkenly rocking out to “Baby, One More Time” at karaoke with my coworkers) but I’ll always cherish the memories I have of being in choir. There’s something extraordinary about it-that feeling of being wrapped up in music when your voice intertwines with twenty or thirty or three hundred others, completely enveloped in song. It’s amazing to hear what kind of magic is created when different voices combine in different ways, and the songs listed below are prime examples of that.
Most choir students are familiar with Grammy-winning composer Eric Whitacre because he is a musical badass. Recognized worldwide, Whitacre is well-known for composing music using a method called pandiatonicism: a musical technique that, as defined by creator Nicolas Slominsky, “sanctions the simultaneous use of any or all seven tones of the diatonic scale, with the bass determining the harmony.” This can be heard in one of his more popular songs,”Water Night.” The combination of the surreal lyrics (a translation of Octavio Paz’s poem “Agua Nocturna”), powerful dynamics, and Whitacre’s composition style creates a stunning, unworldly quality that gives me chills every time I hear it.
This is one of the weirdest choral pieces I have ever been lucky enough to perform. It’s so eerie and alien-like; I’ve never heard another song quite like it. The last part of it sounds less like a song and more like nearly three minutes of sound effects from a sci-fi movie (if you don’t have the patience to listen to the whole song, skip to around 4:35 to hear what I’m talking about). It really makes you appreciate what the human voice is capable of, thanks to composer Sarah Hopkins incorporation of overtone singing, where the voices’ overtones (frequencies higher than the fundamental frequency of sound) create the melody. It’s one of the strangest songs I’ve ever heard, and it’s so damn cool.
This song is much more traditional-sounding compared to the first two on this list, but it’s just as breathtaking. Composers Paul Caldwell and Sean ivory wrote the song in 1994 as a tribute to the end of Apartheid in South Africa, and the combination of the classic hymn “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” and anti-Apartheid liberation song “Thula Sizwe” honors the occasion brilliantly. It starts out with the first verse of “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” sung in unison, usually by a children’s choir, then blossoms into these gorgeous, angelic harmonies sung in a round as the rest of the choir joins in. Then the song shifts to “Thula Sizwe,” quietly intense at first, but building quickly as it is sung in tandem with “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” By the end, the song has expanded into this glorious vocal celebration, exploding in a final, joyous “oh!” It’s incredible, and I never get tired of hearing it.
We sang this at my high school graduation, and I can’t imagine a better song for such an occasion. The second half of the chorus is text from Carmina Burana, with the first line (“omnia sol temperat/absens in remota”) translating to “The sun warms everything, even when I am away,” which seems like the perfect sentiment for a group of students embarking on a new part of their lives. Like “Hope for Resolution,” the harmonies here are exceptionally beautiful; every note is packed with emotion. And the part near 3:45, when the key changes and the Latin lyrics are overlaid with the English ones, is basically the musical equivalent of the clouds opening up to let the sunlight shine through.
I know a Christmas carol medley seems a little out of place in this list. There are plenty of arrangements of well-known Christmas songs out there, and this one isn’t a particularly innovative version (not that it isn’t pretty). I can’t even find a great example of it on YouTube. My reason for including it is purely sentimental: it’s the song my high school performs every year at the holiday concert, when alumni are invited on stage to sing with the current students, and I’m so grateful that they provide that opportunity. I’m so happy that, once a year, I can be back on the stage, squished between the other alumni in attendance, and for a few minutes relive that feeling of my heart expanding and filling me completely, overflowing in song, my voice rising to meet the nearly two hundred others filling the auditorium. Because I miss it so much, and the chance to be a part of it again, as brief as it might be, is invaluable.