By Alexia Chandon-Piazza, who used to sing with La Cigale de Lyon under the direction of Anne-Marie Cabut. Now she sings the way she does most things, that is, without direction and with great eagerness. She has a website.
It was a late afternoon on the 5th floor of a primary school in the city centre. I was seated in the tier reading a comic book. My mum had always wanted me to learn music. I didn’t want to play the violin or the piano, so she suggested I sing. I was 6, and said okay. After one year she was told I should audition for a bigger, high-level choir that was in my city. So here I am, on a sunny day of summer, a few days away from the grandes vacances, reading my book, waiting for my turn to sing. Everybody else has sung, my mother is pressing me to get up. I close my book and walk down to the piano. The choirmaster asks me my name. “Alexia Chandon-Piazza,” I say, in the faintest voice. “WHAT?” she roars, putting her hand behind her ear.
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Choral music has existed since Antiquity, transforming itself into Gregorian, Renaissance, Romantic music and the like, and it has often been associated with Christianity. Yet — this choir was laic. Of course we sang many songs from different sacred repertoires, but there was no religious education around those pieces — we sang it for the beauty of the music, not necessarily for the message it conveyed. At least that’s how I viewed things, not being a Christian myself. I discovered through music the gems, though, old and new, as well as secular pieces. I discovered Benjamin Britten, William Byrd, but also Fosco Corti, Arne Mellnas and many other composers.
The first rehearsal. I’m on the left side of the tiers with the soprani, sitting between older singers — they’re 14, 15. I am handed a score. I don’t know how to read it but I don’t want to tell anyone, so I pretend to follow along. I get lost. It is the Litanies à la Vierge Noire by Poulenc. Not exactly the kind of music I’m used to. The lyrics go “Dieu le Saint Esprit sanctificateur, ayez pitié de nous.” I don’t understand anything. I leave the score on my lap and start listening. I am taken by surprise by the beauty, and while I cannot comprehend everything that is going on, I listen, open-mouthed. The choirmaster stops, adjusts the intention, the colour of a group of voice, the nuances. She sculpts the voice of the choir as if it were matter, hears the strand of voice that doesn’t go with the flow, adjusts, makes the choir repeat, again and again.
Entering the choir allowed me to travel the world more than many adults ever will. I went on tours in France, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Belgium, Ireland, and China. I stayed at people’s place and ate the food they made for me. We talked even if we didn’t share the same language. I got to sing in Arabic, Japanese, French, English, Chinese, German, Spanish, Gaelic — even in invented languages with Joiku by Jukka Linkola — all of this with more or less accurate accents. My mother and I welcomed foreign choir singers in our home and shared a few days with them. I overcame my shyness, both with the contact of all the amazing persons I met, as well as through the audience. I got to sing in front of many, many people, both small audiences and large ones. I sang in tiny churches in the middle of the French countryside, as well as in the Forbidden City, where three thousands spectators sat in front of us and behind us.
The chance to travel and to meet people from around the world is most definitely a great lesson in humanity and respect. Once, during a tour in Czech Republic, we sang Teče, voda, Teče, a Moravian folk song, apparently a favourite of the former President Masaryk. The family who was welcoming me in their home was of course in the audience. When the concert finished, I simply remember being lifted off the ground by the father of the family, and pressed against his heart while he tried to express how much the song had moved him. How could we, how could I, as small as I was, move a tall and strong adult man to tears, I wondered. I believe now that it was not simply the song or our probably clumsy interpretation that moved him. I think it’s the connection. To hear this song so dear to his heart, that reminded him of past struggle, of loss and joy, sang by children who had no idea of the struggle, the loss or the joy, who simply carried on the emotion contained in this song. I know it will sound way too sentimental, but in French, chœur (choir) and cœur (heart) are perfect homophones.
I grew up with this choir, both literally and figuratively. Some of the friends I made during these years will stay with me for life for all the moments and firsts we experienced together. It taught me the importance of transmission, responsibility and fraternity. When I was a child, I didn’t get the French national motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” The first two were simple and natural, but the latter I didn’t understand – fraternity was too complex a concept. Yet, with the choir I learned a lot about sorority. Young girls, young women taking care of each other, confiding in each other, creating and playing together. I remember the annual workshop in the countryside. We would meet in one of our dormitories, or sit on the bathroom’s floor, sharing sweets and stories. We would gather outside in the evenings, improvising music, sometimes experimental, sometimes rap, sometimes lyrical. On the last night we would chat all night long, whispering and lighting ourselves with the screens of our mobile phone, so as not to draw the adults attention to us. We would grow up, together.
Last but not least!