Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Sacred Traditions, Gender, and the Choir that Ate Hot Chili Peppers

By Jacob Sagrans

On December 13, 2017, Danish entertainer Claus Pilgaard (stage name: Chili Klaus) released a YouTube video he made with the Herning Boys Choir, the main church choir in Herning, Denmark. Pilgaard explains that he grew up singing in the choir and is now returning “to add a little extra passion to the music.” He and the choir then begin singing the Christmas carol “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in a rather reserved manner. At the end of the first verse, the mood changes: the conductor holds up a chili pepper, the cue for the singers to take out their own peppers and ingest them. The description for the video alleges that they are ghost peppers, one of the world’s spiciest.<1> As the choir continues to sing, the boys increasingly feel the effect of the peppers: their faces go red, their eyes water, and they cough, pant, grimace, shift weight, and shake in discomfort. By the end of the performance, many are no longer able to sing, although some of the older boys manage to sing loudly and look unfazed. After finishing the carol, the singers frantically run off to get ice cream, milk, and bread in hopes of neutralizing the spice.

In the month after it was released, the video scored nearly 1.4 million views on Pilgaard’s YouTube channel. Classic FM also shared it with 2.5 million Facebook viewers. Popular newspapers, magazines, and websites ran stories on the video, including the Independent, People, and BuzzFeed. The video’s novelty and humor appealed to viewers. I also believe the video resonated by upholding sacred choral traditions, particularly the tradition of all-male sacred singing. In addition to seeing and hearing boys in a church, accompanied by an organ, we witness male bonding and competition through the challenge of singing after eating hot peppers. The stereotypical notion of a “real man” or “real boy” is one who is tough and can withstand pain, and the members of the Herning Boys Choir fit the mold by standing in place and singing (or attempting to sing) until the end of the carol. The choir, then, is not only exclusively male, but the singers behave as expected of boys and men (in other words, they “perform” masculinity in a traditional/stereotypical way). The overwhelming maleness of the choir can assure us that, at least in Herning, the long tradition of all-male sacred singing is continuing, despite greater participation of women and girls in church choirs and religious life as well as increasingly secular societies.

The ways in which the Pilgaard/Herning video evokes issues of gender and religious tradition become more apparent when it is considered in relation to similar depictions of other all-male church choirs. For example, in 2014, The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge released a prank April Fools’ Day YouTube video entitled “King’s College Choir Announces Major Change.” The college chaplain explains the “major change”: due to complex new regulations, the choir can no longer employ underage boy trebles. But thankfully, a chemistry professor came up with an ingenious solution to keep the choir all male—and no, not the surgery that produced the castrati that sang high parts in church choirs and opera in the 17th and 18th centuries. A quartet of undergraduate choral scholars demonstrate the “solution” by singing a verse from Allegri’s Miserere. Before the countertenor’s high C (a challenging note for even child singers and women), he breathes helium from a large yellow balloon, allowing him to reach the note, albeit with a comically squeaky sound. Over 3 million people have viewed this video, making it the choir’s most popular on YouTube. Like the Pilgaard/Herning video, the King’s College video is original and comical. It also draws attention to the all-male nature of the choir, although here the issues of gender and tradition are more explicit. The choir’s exclusion of female singers in an increasingly egalitarian age may be problematic, but the popularity of this video suggests that viewers/listeners value the tradition of all-male sacred singing and want it to continue.<2> Several other depictions of the King’s College Choir also reinforce the sense that the choir’s all-male composition means it embodies longstanding sacred choral traditions and that these traditions “should” be preserved.<3>

The Pilgaard/Herning video and the King’s College video are humorous and creative. They also bring our attention to the choirs’ male personnel and assure us that the tradition of sacred male choral singing is still going strong. It would be worth considering in more depth how all-male sacred choirs project their gender identity to foster a sense of tradition. One could look at other popular portrayals of sacred choirs of men and boys, such as the annual Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols service sung by the King’s College Choir and broadcast on radio and TV around the world. To what extent are all-male sacred choirs trying to reference concerns about gender and tradition (while also trying to be innovative)? How important are gender and tradition in attracting listeners to these choirs? How do sacred choirs with female singers negotiate concerns that they are breaking with tradition? More research is warranted, but based on what I have found so far, I believe that issues of gender and tradition greatly inform the modern performance and reception of sacred choral music.
<1>Pilgaard later admitted that some of the peppers were milder, specifically the ones given to the youngest boys.
<2>One could also read the King’s College video as saying it would be futile to exclude female singers “at any cost” and maybe someday girls and women will sing in the choir.
<3>See the discussion in my doctoral dissertation, pages 87–96.

Jacob Sagrans studies sacred choral music and traditions, the early music revival, and music and medievalism. In 2017 he received a PhD in musicology from McGill University’s Schulich School of Music, where he wrote his dissertation on “Early Music and the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, 1958 to 2015.” Jacob has taught music history and music appreciation at McGill, Tufts University, and Brown University. An active chorister, Jacob sings in Coro Allegro, Boston’s acclaimed LGBTQ+ and allied classical chorus. See more here.

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