Two months ago I wrote about a concert at Dornoch Cathedral, after which I declared that – rather than “thought I had died and gone to heaven” – I was very much alive .
How easily music can do that for me, if by “easily” I mean: without conscious effort, without wanting, without “attachment to outcomes” – and not in a predictable way.
Just as an unexpected, unbidden gift.
Last week a new friend Diana – with whom I share plant-hunting expeditions here in Sutherland – suggested another concert in Dornoch Cathedral, featuring nine singers from Aberdeen Vocal Ensemble and their conductor. If The Beloved (who has been up here for a holiday) and I were going, might we offer her a lift?
At the end of a long drizzly day, when we had been occupied with wet tents (mainly the Beloved) and blethering (mainly me) at the Brora Hub community market, I wasn’t at all sure I wanted another outing. But he offered to drive, so we collected my friend and headed south to the cathedral built by St Gilbert de Moravia in the 1230s, now home to an open-hearted Church of Scotland congregation.
On the way into the concert, we stopped by in the graveyard. Near to the north transcept, one of the”gravestones” was a stone slab bearing two metal markers, whose distance apart was an ell, a traditional measure of cloth.
The audience was streaming in through the west door, and the light of the evening sun through the western and northern windows. (We are nearly 58 degrees north, after all). We sat in the nave, facing the chancel.
This time there was no printed program, no instruments other than the conductor’s tuning fork, no preamble. Other than the nine singers, in turn, stepping forward to introduce the next two items. Each of six women and three men, individual in voice and appearance, unified in musical excellence – in melody, harmony and rhythm – as they and their conductor transported us through the centuries…
From Hildegard of Bingen to contemporary 21st century music, via Edward McDowall, William Walton, Arvo Part (again! why does his music so often appear in my heaven?) and many others.
I sat back and gazed at the shadows accumulating in the lofty ceiling of the nave, as the outside light faded behind the coloured glass of Faith, Love and Hope in the chancel windows (created by Christopher Whitworth Whall, 1849-1924).
Recalled the times I’ve sung in cathedrals, college chapels and concert-halls, small rural churches and school assemblies, village halls and private homes.
Fondly remembered those I’ve joined in close-harmony arrangements, often unaccompanied, through the receding decades:
with dancers and contact-improvisers, with our bodies as the resonators;
with members of the Sangha, by candlelight, at Cambridge Buddhist Centre;
'Bluebird'-ing (courtesy of C.V. Stamford) at Swavesey Village College with Ian Wilson, an inspirational GCSE music teacher;
as part of a small quartet selected, from Morpeth Deanery Choir in Northumberland, by the late Peter Heselton, as part of a Holy Week offering in 1993;
at Willingham Church in 1980s with Janette Mullett and friends;
breaking the gender barrier with friends from New Hall/Fitzwilliam Music Society in the early 1970s, in the Minstrels' Gallery at Fitzwilliam College's Commemoration of Benefactors celebration for (exclusively male) Fellows - including a close-harmony version of 'Baa baa black sheep' sung after dinner to some "very weary revellers";
in an upper room at The Old Music School in Cambridge, where I attempted - and did not succeed - to 'hold my line' in an impromptu sing-through of Tallis' 'Spem in Alia', with other members of CUMS;
at school madrigal group (where I was one of the tenors, and the bass - Mr Compton the physics teacher - was the only male) where I was introduced to 'Fair Phyllis' and 'April is in my mistress' face';
with my musically talented friend Pauline, who introduced me to Mid Herts Wind Band in the late 1960s (and, incidentally, to drama and to "choral speaking");
with my sister Sue in the back of the family car, two-part improvising on what we'd learned at Girl Guide camp, or remembered from 'The Sound of Music' and 'Mary Poppins' at the cinema...
Sue herself is coming to Brora the week after next, and we plan to relive old times and invent some new ones. Perhaps like the Owl and the Pussycat (of Edward Lear) we will dance “hand in hand, on the edge of the sand” (of Brora’s long northerly beach) under the light of the moon, laughing like drains until we cry for the very heavenliness of it all.