02 August 2018

Did Choirs Exist Before the Internet?

The BBC is to blame for my arriving at work this morning a little late.  Just as I was about to leave home, on came a news item about a choir in Brisbane which meets in a pub.  I was interested in the story, of course, and particularly by the fact that the BBC devoted so much air time to it today, bearing in mind issues such as the violent aftermath of the Zimbabwe elections, ructions in the British Labour Party, the running out of funds by an English council, a Mexican airliner crash and the clearing up after an Indonesian earthquake, all hot news topics which could easily have occupied a whole half-hour’s news slot.  Interested as I was, and fascinated by the visuals accompanying the report (which seemed to be largely drawn from a private publicity video), I found myself wondering why it was appearing on the world news today.  Why was it newsworthy?

Choirs have been meeting in pubs for centuries.  Virtually every English cathedral has a pub next door to which the choirmen retreat before and after - and sometimes during - practices and performances.  I ran a Welsh male voice choir which, after each weekly short rehearsal in a dreary school hall, repaired to the pub where practice continued until closing time.  (The first commercial recording in which I was involved as an organist was of another Welsh male choir which, after several fruitless studio sessions, was told to go to the pub next door and practice there, only coming back when they were in full voice – which worked a treat!)  I used to sing in a community choir which met in the local pub, and I’ve never sung with any group of carol singers which hasn’t followed the centuries’ old tradition of ending their sessions in a pub or two.  Everyone in the business knows that singing, that most intimate and personal of musical activities, is best carried out in a comfortable environment and with inner restraints relaxed by alcohol and atmosphere.  What more obvious place to rehearse (and perform) than in a local pub?

My question was answered only near the end of the BBC report when the person doing the voice-over pointed out that the pub choir in Australia had become “a social media sensation”.  Ah!  Social Media!  The only reality many of today’s citizens of the world recognise!

It has long troubled me that the internet and, in particular, social media is seen as the sole legitimiser of existence.  Unless we photograph our food, our pets, our children and ourselves in every conceivable situation and at every moment of our existence, and then share that to an impersonal mass of “friends” via social media, our very existence has no legitimacy.  When I scroll down my Facebook page – which I do with rather disturbing frequency – I promise myself that I will do something more productive the moment I encounter the first photo of a cute cat, dopey dog, boisterous baby or foul food.  I never do simply because that is usually about the second (if not the first) item I find.  People I have never met, never heard of or who have never shown the slightest interest in me, regale me with endless pictures of their hideous kids, their ghastly pets, their obnoxious dietary fads, and of course selfies, often adorned with cartoon-like frames reinforcing my notion that they do not exist in real life at all. 

But I chose to sign up to Facebook (after all, why should I be alone in denying the Russians, the Americans, and every Middle-East terrorist organisation access to my bank account, my passwords and every last detail of my personal life, friends, family, address and occupation?).  Part of the reason I do so is a prurient fascination in the mundane lives and dreary interests of mediocre people who I would never rub shoulders with in real life.  In short, social media, for me, represents an entertainment and a diversion from my own reality.  What troubles me is that so many see it not as a diversion, but as reality itself.  Too many foolishly use it as the forum for expressing deeply held views of some personal import.  Because of the nature of social media, these deeply held views are invariably ridiculed and diminished by others who feel empowered to comment because they have been given equal access to ideas and notions even though they lie way beyond their comprehension.

Thus it is that, despite the fact that choirs have been meeting, rehearsing and practising in pubs for centuries, it only becomes reality when it is posted on social media and attracts “followers” (ie. bored people with nothing better to do with their lives).  Working as an editor for a Hong Kong musical organisation, I encounter many young and enthusiastic people who, keen to learn, nevertheless find the boundaries of their learning defined by what is available on the internet.  Frequently, when I write something original about a composer or a piece of music, I am asked; “How do you know that?  I don’t see it on the internet”; the inference being that if it’s not on the internet, it doesn’t exist.  A former Malaysian student doing some research on nerves in music performance asked me for some guidance as to suitable materials.  I pointed him in the direction of an excellent book written by one of my former tutors at Cardiff sometime in the 1970s.  I gave him the details, but was told I had to be wrong as the book didn’t exist.  “It does”, I told him, and “I have a copy on my shelf at home”.  “You can’t”, he retorted, “There’s no mention of it on Amazon or any of the other sites I checked”.  Preparing reading lists for my own students, I continually find uniquely valuable published resources which are not available on the internet other than in plagiarised extracts included on free-to-access sites.  If I refer to a site for which payment is required, students routinely refuse to access it, arguing that they can find all they need (as if they know) on Wikipedia and other freely available sites.

At a meeting the other day, one academic suggested that he saw a time when libraries would no longer exist as physical resources; “Young people can find with a few key strokes more material online and more quickly than we ever have been able to through books and CDs”.  I chose not to suggest that the material they thus found might not be of equal value and quality, instinctively knowing that I would be accused of being a dinosaur, of living in the past, of holding on to obsolete and old-fashioned notions in the face of unstoppable technological advances.

Yes, I am a dinosaur.  I do prefer physical books and physical CDs (even LPs and 78s!), and I continue to subscribe to a number of print journals which mostly end up in the recycle bin.  But I also spend most of my waking hours online, researching, reading and learning.  We live in an age when we have wonderful opportunities presented to us by the sheer amount of information available to us from a plethora of sources, and by our ease of access to it.  But we cannot process so much as individuals and need to develop skills of selectivity; not simply dismiss old technologies and unthinkingly accept social media and online resources as the sole repositories of legitimacy.

Like the BBC report, if we do that, we lose that vast wealth of accumulated knowledge which remains in the memories of so many, yet has never quite found its way on to an online resource.  We run the risk of allowing future generations to believe that nothing in music existed before the internet.

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