Produced by the vibrations of the vocal cords, fueled by air from the lungs, the human voice is capable of incredible volume, range, and power. Through this instrument we can feel an expanded sense of ourselves, our sound moving outward into space during a wild karaoke sesh. Or we can feel deeply close to one another as we blend harmonies, pretending to be Pentatonix singing “Hallelujah.”
Singing is an undeniably a unique physiological experience, and for those who can’t help but sing, Central Ohio has plentiful opportunities to make that experience not just a source of personal fulfillment, but a mission in life as well.
As the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus began to grow, they began to receive requests from churches who not only loved the beautiful CGMC sound, but also wanted to become welcoming spaces for the LGBT community. The group began Illuminati (Latin for “the enlightened ones”) as an outreach, sacred music ensemble.
“I do believe that music has a power to build a bridge,” said Ken Harned, the director of Illuminati, which sings monthly at various houses of worship in the Central Ohio area as part of their services. “The connection with music is universal and sometimes it can have profound implications of somebody’s view of people who are LGBT.”
The gay choral movement began in the 1980s as a social safe space, and as a way for members to respond and care for each other during the HIV/AIDS crisis. Today Illuminati is a spiritual and musical home for men of many religious backgrounds, some of which have been personally hurtful.
“A lot of us—we weren’t welcome in our churches,” said Harned. “[It’s] healing for some of our people to have their religion back and be able to worship as who they really are, and not have to hide in the closet.”
While Illuminati provides a sense of belonging, the group is continually aware of the effect their presence has on people who hear their music, particularly within the walls of a sacred space.
“They can see the good in who we are. They can see that we sing great music…that we worship the same way they do,” said Harned. “The more [LGBT] people they know, the less afraid they seem to be. And we hope our music tells our story and connects with an audience on a different level.”
When a video from the Women’s March on Washington of a pop-up choir singing “Quiet” with MILCK went viral on Facebook in January of 2017, some commenters suggested bringing the idea to Columbus. Marlene Hartzler, the choir director at North Unitarian Universalist Church who was following the thread, stepped up to organize a rehearsal.
“So we just met. And I think the first time we met there were 35 people who showed up. And we thought: Oh my goodness. We have something here.”
Hartzler and her singers had found a place to channel their emotional and political energy. “Singing builds people up,” explained Hartzler. “It fires us up for the work ahead without draining us.”
Over the past year, Vocal Resistance has sung for town halls, meetings, the March for Science, a solidarity vigil for a woman facing deportation, and opened for the Silence is Death art exhibit at The Vanderelli Room, singing songs such as “America the Beautiful,” “I’m Gonna Walk it with You,” and “Imagine.” Their journey has been one to support each other, to spread empathy, and to change the face of political dissent.
The entire time, Hartzler has held the image of the Singing Revolution in Estonia in her mind. During the late 1980s, Estonians, occupied by the Soviet Union and forbidden by the government to sing their folk songs, gathered by the thousands in public squares to join in traditional Estonian song.
“I thought that was such a beautiful vision of nonviolent protest, of people joining arm in arm and singing instead of shouting,” said Hartzler. “And what a positive, creative force that brings a little bit of beauty in the world.”
Columbus Threshold Choir
Columbus Threshold Choir
For many years, Beatrice Haghiri had let singing get away from her. In 2007, she attended a regional gathering of seventy Threshold Choir singers in Yellow Springs, Ohio. She purchased a CD of the music, songs written to comfort those on “the threshold”—the sick and dying.
“I’d sing a little bit and cry a little bit. After a few months I stopped crying, and it just seemed like this was what my voice was meant to do.”
Shortly afterward, Haghiri, an intensive care nurse, became the leader of the Columbus Threshold Choir, a women’s ensemble that sends out small groups of 2 to 4 singers to be with those in the process of dying. Haghiri describes the music as not unlike a lullaby, providing a similar sense of serenity and soothing. Most of the songs are written by Threshold Choir members around the world.
Although the singing is gentle, the effect of the music is powerful—not just because of the vulnerability of the moment, but because of how singing seems to function as a therapeutic instrument.
“There have been lots of studies that have shown that for people who have Alzheimer’s or significant dementia, singing songs that they remember from when they were young can help unlock that door of the mind and can give them comfort,” says Haghiri. “So I think that it’s almost an innate thing. It’s a visceral experience.”
Death is stigmatized, yet Haghiri and the Threshold Choir singers see a special opportunity to be present at a most important moment of life: the dying moment.
“It’s the honesty of what that time represents. It’s the truth of the love that’s shared between people. We feel honored to be there. We feel that someone has invited us into a very sacred time and space.”