Essay No. 1: Experienced Diversity in the 13th Annual Baha’i Choral Festival of North America

“Intone, O My servant, the verses of God that have been received by thee, as intoned by them who have drawn nigh unto Him, that the sweetness of thy melody may kindle thine own soul, and attract the hearts of all men….”
-Baha’u’llah

A few weeks ago, I had the distinct honor of participating in the Baha’i Choral Music Festival of North America. This was the thirteenth iteration of this event, in which singers have been gathering in the Chicagoland area to worship together through choral music. While the majority of the 160 singers were American Baha’is, the festival had participation from singers outside the United States and outside the Baha’i faith. The 2019 festival began on the afternoon of Thursday, May 23 and the final devotional concerts were on Sunday, May 26. In the days leading up to the devotional concerts, the diverse community of festival participants rehearsed twelve choral songs, shared in Baha’i devotions, and discussed pertinent Baha’i topics, such as racial unity. Van Gilmer, the choral conductor and festival director, organized a varied program for the devotional concert featuring songs from the Baroque, Romantic, American folk, and contemporary Baha’i choral styles. Gilmer also included a few compositions of his own on the concert program which pertain to the Baha’i Gospel style, a subset of Baha’i choral music of which Gilmer has been pioneering over the past three decades. While the festival’s schedule and structure may have been oriented toward the final “performances,” many participants noted the spiritual significance in the rehearsal process itself, where the coming together of diverse voices became an expression of the oneness that is at the core of Baha’i teachings.
Unlike other choral festivals that I have participated in, each segment of rehearsal began with a devotional presentation of Baha’i-related writings, such as the words of Baha’u’llah or ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Biblical excerpts, Native American prayers, etc. These were done by various members of the choral festival and each member brought his or her own unique styling to the presentation of Baha’i teachings. For example, some devotions were read in the participant’s native, non-English language, some devotions were sung or chanted, and some devotions were recited with multiple participants at once. In one of my favorite devotions, three participants sang “My name is Abdu’l-Baha,” which is an three-part vocal song that harked to the musical stylings of contemporary R&B from late 20th century American popular music. The pre-rehearsal devotions gave an equal opportunity for voices of all backgrounds to be heard and gave the festival members a chance to witness the diversity of the group, as unified through the formal structure of Baha’i teachings. These devotions often set an intention to the following rehearsal by providing a thematic frame through which the music could be experienced, for example global unity and justice. Similarly, Gilmer would often take time out of musical practice to relate a song’s lyrics to social issues or would feature discussions on American injustice during a meal break. With this, the festival itself contributed to the Baha’i movement toward human equality, as it presented a platform for productive multiracial conversations on the often taboo topic of social injustice. This is one explanation for why the rehearsal process itself carried much spiritual significance for the participants, as approaching the choral music with a Baha’i intentionality transformed the rehearsals into an exercise of worship and a lived experience of Baha’i teachings.
The devotional concerts occurred during the standard devotional times for the North American Continental Baha’i House of Worship (9:30 am and 12:30 pm). The Baha’i Choral Festival Choir sung in front of the attendees on the ground floor; every other Sunday, however, the Baha’i Temple Choir, a choral ensemble of about twenty singers from the area, sings from a “mezzanine-level” choir loft which has a wall that blocks the attendees of the devotional service from seeing the choir. According to Gilmer, the visual blocking of the Temple Choir exists to deemphasize the ritual and performative aspects of devotional music and turn the focus toward the meditative experience of the service’s attendees. While having the Festival Choir positioned on the ground floor may have been due to the limited space of the choir loft, Gilmer noted the importance of the visual element of our music making. By putting the 160-singer choir center stage, the attendees would witness Baha’i teachings on global unity both symbolically and literally, as people of various races, nationalities, ages, genders, and hair colors were singing together in harmony. The devotional concerts not only metaphorically conveyed the pleasures and powers of diverse concordance, but they embodyed Baha’i teachings of divinity through community.
The program of choral music itself was greatly varied in style, giving participants and audience members a diversity in the physical experience of the music. Gilmer actively chose music with a wide range of styles, tempi, layerings, and cultural origins to create auditory diversity throughout the devotional concerts. For the singers, rehearsing and performing European Baroque music, such as “Worthy is the Lamb” from Handel’s Messiah, required a much lighter and more agile vocal technique than that of the African American spiritual music, such as Dawson’s “Soon Ah Will Be Done.” Similarly, given the compositional traditions unique to each genre of music, the audience could experience this diverse program of songs in various physical ways. For instance, the Baroque music may lead an audience member to a more acute auditory attention to the independent vocal lines, whereas the African-American Spiritual style, with its powerful cadences, may be experienced more viscerally, as the vibrations seem to physically shake the performance atmosphere. The engaging physical experiences of the concert’s program reflected Baha’i practices of witnessing global diversity, and the intermittent devotional readings united the program’s experiential diversity within a Baha’i frame.
Gilmer furthered the experience of diversity for both singers and attendees through his selection of soloists in the devotional concerts; with soloists of different races, language backgrounds, and styles of vocal training, Gilmer created a another platform to convey the choir’s diversity, this time through the individual voice. An attendee listening to the multiracial, soulful duet of Adrienne Ewing-Roush and Emily Taub, the beautifully sung Spanish of Tommy Kavelin, and my younger, classically trained voice may experience a variety of individual sounds, which expresses the variety of individuals that came together for the festival. This aspect of the devotional concerts, similar to the individual devotional readings during festival rehearsals, aligns with the Baha’i cultural attitudes toward individual celebration within diverse communities and resists cultural homogeny. Gilmer interestingly decided to omit solo singing from the rehearsal process, only having solo singers emerge during the last rehearsal and the devotional concerts themselves. This choice added to the choral singers’ devotional experiences, as they could experience the novelty of the varied solo voices with the attendees.
With music that was not originally written for Baha’i Houses of Worship, Gilmer reshaped the compositions to fit these songs into the Baha’i atmosphere for the devotional concert. For example, both Handel’s “Worthy is the Lamb” and Brahms’ “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place” had their orchestral accompaniment removed so that these songs would abide by House of Worship sound regulations that only permit the sound of the human voice. Similarly, Gilmer changed the lyrics in Dawson’s “Soon Ah Will Be Done,” which was originally written for an African-American Christian community, so that it would feature many Baha’i-recognized divine manifestations and not just Jesus. Gilmer’s changing and reframing of traditionally Christian music expresses the Baha’i teaching of progressive revelation, as the Baha’i presentation of these songs makes their musical divinity universal and transcendent of their Christian contexts. Continuing, with original compositions in the Baha’i Gospel style, such as “Justice,” Gilmer expresses Baha’i teachings by musically setting Baha’i texts to a compositional style that is characteristic of 19th century African-American slave communities. Combining this musical revival of America’s history of grotesque racial inequality with Baha’i texts, Gilmer implies the universality of human suffering and the global responsibility to work toward racial justice. On his concert program, Gilmer repurposed Christian musical compositions and styles in a new Baha’i context to be expressive of cyclical manifestation and Baha’i teachings on racial inequality.
Gilmer’s also chose to include contemporary choral songs with Baha’i-related texts, such as Wolcott’s “Blessed is the Spot,” Atkins’ “Greater is God,” and M. Levine’s “Refresh and Gladden my Spirit.” Compared to the “Art music” songs from the Baroque and Romantic choral canons, these originally Baha’i selections tended to be homophonic (with harmonized voices moving rhythmically together) and the vocal lines tended to be stepwise. The relative simplicity of this music gave the singers more liberty of vocal technique without the fearful tension of singing a complex vocal line incorrectly or a prescribed performance practice of “lighter singing.” This technical freedom in vocal production allowed for a more “authentic” sound from each individual singer, which emphasized each singer’s individual connection to the vocalized Baha’i texts, while also heightening the vocal diversity in the collective choral sound. The act of singing these Baha’i-inspired choral songs, given their compositional style, became an expression of Baha’i teachings on spiritual connectedness and oneness of a diverse globe of people. An audience member, seeing this choir of visually diverse singers and hearing the unified sound of many different voices, would have experienced the effect of diverse concordance through both sight and sound.
Academic assessment aside, the four days of the 13th Annual Baha’i Choral Music Festival were easily some of the most meaningful days of my time in the Chicagoland area. I am grateful for the degree of hospitality that many festival participants showed me, even from the moment I (quite nervously) walked into the rehearsal room. Mr. Van Gilmer was generous in creating platforms for me to grow into this community, including making me the assistant tenor section leader, assigning me a solo on his premier composition of “Justice,” and allowing me to speak about my upcoming research trip to the entire festival choir. I was overjoyed to meet and speak with many fellow choristers and take in a beautiful variety of perspectives from this blossoming musical and spiritual culture. And while some chords may not have been perfectly tuned and some starting pitches may have been somewhat confused, the experience of oneness–that chilling rush that could only come from the consonance of diverse voices–was undeniable.