Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Stacy Horn talks about Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing With Others, singing about the glories of God as an agnostic, why imperfection is beautiful, and so much more

Stacy Horn's book, Imperfect Harmony, is the kind of book you carry around with you, not just because you want to keep reading it, but because you want to show it to  friends, and even though you can't possible give up your copy, you want to encourage them to go right out and buy their own.  Imperfect Harmony is really about rescue, about finding yourself even as you lose yourself in singing music. Singing, says Stacy, can make your life better. 

Stacy's warm, funny and a fabulous writer and she's the one person who makes me think maybe I should sing, too (I cannot carry a tune.) She's also the author of Unbelievable: investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena from the Duke Parapsychology laboratory, The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad, Waiting for My Cats To Die: A Morbid Memoir. She's the founder of the online community Echo, where people come on to talk about love, life, work, everything. I'm so jazzed to have Stacy here!

How did you get involved in singing? Did you sing as a child? Did it take courage to join a choir, and what was that like at first?

I was in my twenties, and every area of my life was just bad. Divorce, a job that had nothing to do with anything I loved in life, the usual.  I could see this tunnel to depression opening up and I was desperate to find a way to close it.  Rocking back and forth on my living room floor sobbing and smoking Camel cigarettes wasn’t doing it.

So I was looking for ways to get happy.  Fast.  It had to be something that would last more than a night or two, and wasn’t tied to things I didn’t have any control over, like falling in love.

I remembered singing in a choir one Christmas in high school and how much fun that was.  I loved the Christmas carols, the rehearsals, the performance in a church glittering with holiday decorations, everything.  So I found a beautiful church and a community choir (you didn’t need to be a member of the church to join) the only problem was I had to audition.  Terrific.  Just what you want to do when you’re at one of the lowest points in your life.  “I know I don’t have a particularly nice voice,” I pleaded with the director at my audition, “but I can sing in tune and I promise to always sing very, very quietly.”   After I sang, he looked at me and said as gently as he could manage:  “It’s true you don’t have a beautiful voice.  But you can sing in tune.  Welcome to the choir.”

At the first rehearsal someone handed me a copy of Handel’s Messiah.  I’d never seen anything like it.  The score is hundreds and hundred of pages long. “But, but, what about O Holy Night??”  I panicked.  I don’t think I even opened my mouth for the first ten minutes.  But in time I got the hang of, and while I will always love Christmas carols, they can’t compare to singing masterpieces like The Messiah.  It was astounding.  When you sing, you’re not just listening to a masterpiece, you become the masterpiece. It’s a rush.  No matter what mood you’re in when you walk into a rehearsal, you come out of it drenched in happiness (which I would later learn is due in part to all these great neurochemicals coursing through your body when you sing).

What made you want to write this book? What were the joys in the writing and what were the perils?

I had to write this book because I know about this great thing out there that will make your life better, both emotionally and physically.  It’s practically free, it easily accessible, (just show up for rehearsal) and I am living proof that you don’t have to be a great singer to get all the benefits.

I still can’t get over the luck I’ve had in my writing life.  If only time travel were real and I could go back to my twenty-five year old self crying on the floor and say, “Guess what? Your writing dream is going to come true.  You’re going to get to completely immerse yourself in subjects you love for years at a time and get paid for it.”   I’d leave out the part about our abysmal love life.

The only peril for this book is the fact that every person in my choir who reads my book is now going to know some very personal things about me. I don’t mind strangers knowing, but people I see every week? Awkward.  Plus, if any of them don’t like the book that will break my heart and it’s inevitable that some won’t.  Note to fellow choristers: just don’t tell me.  Lying is kind.

It's fascinating to me that you neither have to be religious or even Christian to sing in the church choir, yet there still is something very holy about it. Would you agree?

I felt weird at first, singing about the glories of God week after week as an agnostic.  But by the end of that very first rehearsal I couldn’t help but be grateful that religion has inspired and nurtured what is arguably the most beautiful art our species has ever produced.

Singing is the ultimate communion, connecting you with your fellow singers, the audience, but also with the composer and whatever faith he or she was trying to express.  As I said, when you sing you become you sing.  Here’s how it works.  Randall Thompson wrote music for the words, “Ye shall have a song and gladness of heart.”  That’s from the Bible, Isaiah 30:29. Now, Randall Thompson was a gifted composer.  He wanted me to feel gladness of heart when I sing that line and I do.  So much so I burst into tears the last time.  Feeling that good is almost too much to bear sometimes.

In this way, music becomes the greatest ambassador, capable of bridging people from different religions or no religion at all.  “This is church for me,” a fellow choir member told me.  Another said “If anything is God-like it's singing; it surrounds you with love, friendship, comfort, and beauty.” I may interpret the faith I sing about differently, but I feel the beauty of the expression just the same, and I marvel in the faith and heart that brought forth such exquisite harmony.

Why do you think that imperfect harmony has benefits that perfect harmony might not?

One of the things I figured out in my twenties, in addition to “singing good, getting drunk every night bad,” is that perfection is an impossible and stupid goal and imperfection is beautiful. 

I’ll never forget one year when I took voice lessons, trying to get past my insecurity about my voice.  One night we listened to a recording of my choir, The Choral Society of Grace Church.  “We sound fantastic!!” I said to my teacher. She looked at me and said, “Your voice is in there.” 

The Choral Society is made up of people of varying talents.  There are a lot of truly great singers in there, but there are also people who, like me, will never be invited to sing a solo at the met.  But the final sound we produce—made form a combination of both perfection and imperfection—is stunning.

What was the research like, and what surprised you about it?

I had lots of exciting and surprising moments researching this book, but one stands out. I came across this amazing and horrifying story about a riot in a New York City church in 1834. A white mob had gone inside and dragged out the black congregation that had gathered to sing and celebrate the day slavery had been outlawed in New York. The only people arrested were four black men who were among the victims.  Insane!  I wanted to see if I could find out who those men were in order to write something about what their lives were like after that terrible night. 

I went down to the Municipal Archives, where many of the City’s historical records are kept.  It was a long shot because 1834 was before we had the formal New York City Police Department we have now.  I pulled out the reel of microfilm containing the Police Office Watch Returns for that night and loaded it onto the reader.  The arrest record was there.  One name was illegible, two were names like “John Smith,” so they’d be impossible to find, but thankfully one of the men had an unusual name. Even better, at the end of his life he wrote an autobiography, and in that autobiography was his account of what happened that night.  Of all the accounts of that night, his rang the most true.

I was also able to find out that the people who had dragged that congregation out of the church had sung Handel’s Messiah just weeks before.  For anyone not familiar with the piece, you’re singing the praises of “the prince of peace.”

What's obsessing you now and why?

The Municipal Archives.  Every book I’ve written has led to the Archives at one point or another.  I love that place.  So I’m working on a proposal for a book about this amazing repository and what’s inside.  You wouldn’t believe the treasures they hold, and it’s not just for writers.  True crime, war, the history of terrorism in New York basically, your family history, it’s all there.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

- I have a million dollars to give you, where should I mail the check?
- I think I know the perfect man for you, is it okay if I give him your number?
- Oh my god, I love your hair cut, who is your stylist?
- I think every one of your books would make a great movie, is it okay if I bring them to the attention of all the big, important movie people I know?
- How is it that of all the cats in the world, your two cats are the cutest?
- I heard that at your pool you are currently in 3rd place in the New York City Parks and Recreation contest to swim the most miles by August 30th.  Is that the reason for your brimming-with health-look, in addition to your fabulous hair of course?

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