A voice had begun to sing

St James’s music scholar Harrison Knights delves into the intersectionality of music, community and creation.

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Church Window Mask

In 2017 I helped develop a new play at the National Theatre Studio, which was being produced by National Theatre Scotland. The play, written by Frances Poet, tells the true story of an Egyptian trans man, who seeks asylum in Glasgow. Having never heard of the term transgender and having no reference to this in Alexandria, after months of detaching himself from the outside world in Glasgow, a friend gives him a laptop. Adam finally plucks up the courage and types into Google “I think I’m going mad, I feel like a boy trapped inside a girl’s body” – and the world responds. My part of the development process was as a lead vocalist and trans consultant. Two worlds of mine, that don’t often cross. We spoke a lot about how to play the moment out on stage of Adam’s world expanding as he learns what he is feeling is real, not only that but he is one of a myriad of people, of all cultures, faiths and experiences. The best way we thought to portray this moment of realisation was through music.

As we began to delve into what this meant, I suggested we reach out to other trans singers and over time we created a virtual choir or trans and non-binary singers across the globe. All with a story to tell, in a universal language. Music. Inspired by Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir, we founded the Adam World Choir.

Adam Word Choir (credit Colin Mearns)

In 2020 a comprehensive study at Harvard concluded that music is universal and that some songs sound “right” even in different social contexts, all over the world. The study set out to answer some very big questions. “Is music a cultural universal? If that’s a given, which musical qualities overlap across disparate societies? If it isn’t, why does it seem so ubiquitous?”. After five years of studying thousands of pieces of music across cultures, they found that music across societies tended to be associated with behaviour. For example lullabies, healing songs, dance songs, and love songs tended to share musical features across the globe.

What I’m interested in is how music can bring communities together, like the Adam World Choir, a shared life experience expressed through music. Why is it that sports fans chant and sing? Is it simply about creating a louder presence? Or is it about feeling as one? Connected. Harmonious.

Working within musical theatre as I do, it is a common idea that when a character breaks into song, it’s at the very height of emotion. They are talking and talking and talking until suddenly the spoken word isn’t enough anymore and the only thing to do is sing. The music then becomes one with the words and the narrative can be expressed in more than one way.  Could this by why we sing hymns? That speaking the Good News isn’t always enough, we must break into song to feel fully connected, horizontally with the earth and vertically with  heaven. We all have a voice. But what I have noticed as a musician, particularly in my role as a scholar at St James’s, is I feel called to help nurture those voices. By singing my song, it gives courage to those who may have in the past been singing mezzo piano, to gradually strengthen – until we reach such a crescendo, as we did on Easter Sunday morning, all joining in with the Hallelujah Chorus! To encourage people to find their voice; there is no greater gift.

St James’s Music Scholars

Yes, music can connect communities, and cultures. But can we go deeper?

What if music is the foundation? What if music is the very fabric of creation? Before speech, there was song. And before our song, was God’s song. In every bird song, in every rustle of leaves, and every ebb of the tide. In the very make up of the cosmos, that orchestrates the symphony of life. We are so quick to turn our lives onto silent or do not disturb that we forget that sound is at the very core of everything. Let it disturb us. How we communicate. Remain connected. Both to each other, our natural world and the Divine.

Stop. Breathe. Listen. Repeat to fade.

“In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it.”

From The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

Aslan (credit Anna Barnhart)