“More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they encountered natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death. It was a ritual the indigenous people had been practicing at least 3,000 years.” (taken from an article by Carlos Miller of The Arizona Republic on www.azcentral.com) Commonly known to Americans as the Day of the Dead, it is a mostly Mexican tradition honoring the lives of those who have gone before. Dia de los Muertos. It coincides on November 1st and 2nd with the Catholic holidays known as All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, which eventually turned into Halloween.
Choral Chameleon will not be setting up ritualistic altars with skulls and bones, or laying down the deceased’s favorite foods across the floor of 4th U, but we will be singing songs that are centered around the subject of human mortality.
In having a conversation with model, singer and visual artist Leigh Trifari (of the Choral Chameleon alto section) I realized that many of us in the group have lost loved ones recently, which makes this concert especially precious and personal to our ensemble and to its audience. I asked Leigh to share some thoughts on how the November 1st concert is going to touch her life.
Leigh Trifari: “For me, it is a way to honor the dead, both known and unknown (but especially those near and dear to me). When I say Halloween is my “favorite holiday”, what I really mean is that it is a MAJOR holiday in my personal faith (not unlike Yom Kippur in another faith). In spite of being a massive candy fest these days, I believe that Halloween marks that time when nights grow long, and shadows cast themselves on my light and my spirit. I enter “the dark months” and not until February do I generally feel a return to light. Because my birthday falls on the Spring Equinox, I feel especially tied to the solar calendar and I am very sensitive to the changing of the seasons.
October is a time of introspection and solitude (while Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s all clamor for my attention). Not to be morbid or anything, but the flip of life is death, and death (even symbolic death) is inevitable and necessary. I have experienced “near death”, cried and mourned the passing of thousands of deaths on 9/11, survived my own brush with death and watched my father battle his own fear of dying in a hospital ward.”
Last month, my grandmother and my uncle died within a couple of weeks of each other. I had 24 hours to fly from New York to Iowa, go to my grandma’s funeral, spend the night with my family, and return back to New York the following morning. While saddened by her death, I was so busy while it happened that I never really thought much about it. I made the travel plans and figured it would all be over before I knew it.
As I drove the rental car from the airport to the funeral, I suddenly started to remember things about Grandma Feltz I hadn’t thought about for years. Childhood memories began to resurface, and I felt myself welling up with tears as I looked out at the Iowa landscape, Grandma Feltz’s homeland as long as she lived. As I drove, I realized that the reason I was so caught up in the sadness of everything was because I was listening to a song that talks about someone dying. It’s a Rachael Yamagata song called, “Little Life.”
With my grandma, JoAnn Feltz in 1990.
Lyrics: When all of this makes the news
Will they remember to tell it right
Or will devils make off in the night
Can you tell me why I got so high as I was flying?
As she lays in bed in her piece of ground
Will they remember her blessed soul
Or just that she lost all control
Can you tell me why she had to die alone?
And people wake up, people get moving
There’s a life waiting here
Get up, people start doing
There’s a life waiting here
When all our time spent away
We remember the loves of our past
Or just that love never lasts
Can you tell me why this little life goes so fast?
I then realized how powerful music is to express emotion, particularly that which we tend to contain and bottle within ourselves. There is no other outlet than music to directly confront unspoken, lingering human conditions. I got out of my rental car, and headed inside the church to my grandmother’s funeral. Instantly when I walked into the church, I saw her corpse in the coffin, right in the lobby of the church. I froze, I was stunned. I didn’t expect to see her dead body before I even got to say hello to my family. That image has not left my mind for the past three weeks, and I’ve rarely spoken of it to anyone. Who wants to hear about death, about pain, about feeling scared, or weak and insignificant?
It’s of great importance to have outlets where people can express themselves, and where people can come to terms with death. You can’t go to a funeral and expect to have achieved closure by the time the funeral is over. It’s an ongoing thing, dealing with death. Why not use music to explore the perplexing puzzle of death? Why not achieve some sense of closure and healing through celebrating life, one “concert” at a time?
In a recent publicity meeting I attended, the question was asked, “How are you going to describe your choir to a publicist to get them interested?” I found it to be an excellent question, for I always think of the quote “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” (Somehow, my music theory professors never seemed to share the sentiment) How can you explain innovation to someone? How can you explain beautiful, sonic harmonies that touch the soul? How can you explain an ensemble filled with people who have suffered personal tragedies and the loss of loved ones, who then turn that energy around to create an uplifting, profound choral experience that speaks to the very heart of human nature, to the very questions of life and death that have perplexed humanity since the dawn of time? This concert is more than just a choir concert. It’s a conversation, a question. It’s a musical ellipsis on death.
Leigh Trifari At Peekskill's Annual "Open Studios" 2008. Photo by Cathi Locati.
As Leigh Trifari says, “Life is worth LIVING, because it’s too short, and we deserve to be happy and satisfied for the brief time we are here on this earth.”
The Choral Chameleon blog is maintained by Andrew Cook-Feltz, baritone and Singer Representative (ex-officio) to the board.