50 Stories, Week 40: The Public Domain

Four sweltering summers ago, I was meandering the streets of Nolita. My sabbatical was coming to a close and I was interviewing for a new job, so I wanted to relish every last minute of purposeful aimlessness. I stopped for an ice cream, then turned down Mott to stand in front of Old St. Patrick’s. The basilica was under scaffolding yet there were dozens of people funneling themselves through the front door. I thought it was strange for 5pm on a Tuesday afternoon until one of them handed me a flyer which read:

“Singers wanted. No experience necessary.”

So I followed the flock inside.

Now, I love a good church, practically and structurally speaking. A gathering place, a communal space, somewhere we can give and be forgiven. There is a special place in my heart for the big, old Roman Catholic churches of my youth. Even though I do not believe in God as I was raised, I have always been fascinated by the religious faith of others – and the Catholics do not disappoint. 

I assumed the singing flyer was for the church choir so I knew I wouldn’t stay long. Traditional morose Catholic organ music was not my jam. Back in San Francisco, I used to love attending Glide Memorial Church for their incredible gospel performances. Perhaps this church would be different – it was in a cool NYC neighborhood after all. And besides, what else would compel this many people to be here on this night, in this heat?

We were all ushered into the recreation room where there were multiple registration tables set up with signs that read “Sign up here for the Public Domain!

It sounded like an ad for a terrible cult or an even worse 80’s band. 

I began to turn around, but the one-way momentum provided no detour. Someone kindly guided me towards one of the tables and asked if I was excited. Or maybe nervous. She went on to tell me she’d “never been a part of such a collection of beautiful souls before. You’re signing up, right?” 

Before I could answer, I heard music. Simple, repetitive, whole notes on a piano. The crowd silenced and then a man stood up on a box in the middle of the room. The music stopped and he introduced himself as Simon Halsey, conductor of David Lang’s new piece: the public domain. Lower case p and d, which assuaged my fears. I had stumbled on an open call for singers to participate in a public outdoor performance. Mr. Lang, most well-known as a Pulitzer-prize winning composer, had been commissioned for Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart festival. Given the political divide post-election of 2016, he chose to create a piece based on humanity’s harmonious collective experiences… our voices, our time, our love of music, our pain. And he needed 1,000 singers to bring his vision to life. So I said yes.

That is how I found myself, with just a few weeks of rehearsal, at Lincoln Center’s fountain on August 13, 2016. All three thousand of us – singers and spectators – in the blistering 95 degree sun, repeating and reverberating and resonating. 

The idea of participating in something like this today seems absurd. Thousands of people, open mouths singing in close proximity in the heat… unthinkable. But that day, with the intent of connection and all that we have in common, it felt like anything was possible.

I miss meandering… purposefully, aimlessly. I miss discovering things spontaneously. I miss not being afraid. It won’t always be this way, I know. And in the meantime, I can recall these times in my life when I let myself go.

(You can read all about it in the NYT review here or watch the whole thing here – some good moments are at about 9:00 + 17:30 in.)

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