Birds in Concert
Nobody, myself included, can pinpoint the time people lost the ability to sing. It started disappearing gradually before anyone noticed and was completely gone before we finally did. It happened the way it would in a dated science fiction film.
By that time I was already well into my twenties. Part of me was relieved that the capabilities of my voice, a sound that always made me uncomfortable, had been diminished. I suspected I wasn't alone in feeling secret relief. Others, people like you, I imagine, felt no such thing.
Music didn't die. We turned to it with a new and different desperation. Unlikely pairings of instruments and "found noises," people coughing and whispering, dogs growling, recordings of tornados: these became music's new sounds. Artists toiled to find our new voice without stopping. No other art mattered. Only our loss. Just recently, (so says journalism) audio production technology got closer than ever to recreating the human voice. If you bother to turn on the radio anymore, that's the kind of music you'll hear. The synthetic singing voices of faceless, unknowable singers. A new, contemporary canon of technical excellence. The music of today.
My guess is that you are the kind of person who still bothers with all of that.
As for me, I'm like everyone else. I'm like my mother's generation. We cling to nostalgia. We are fearful. We bristle at the desperate attempts to return to who we were. Only kids with short memories can stomach the singing of machines. The "new" art. Only the artists want to hold their ears up to the din of the world we live in now.
Records from my mother's era, the ones with real voices, became eerie sounds. Old music rattled people like visiting ghosts. Listening to old records became a furtive, solitary act if you did it at all. Sound was something to be careful about. I don't know if we started to listen more carefully, but I believe some of us made effort to try.
After it happened, I started going to church with my mother. I was never a believer, but I thought she needed me there with her. She had always been a believer and, at one point, a singer. I can still remember one of her Easter solos. Her favorite time to sing. I went to church with her so she didn't have to mourn her talent alone.
This era was a preacher's paradise. Their lives got busier, their pulpits seemed sturdier. They asked us to face ourselves and what we did to have this natural, god-given gift taken away. To start healing humanity's wounds, they said, we had to save ourselves first. After singing disappeared, religion became the loudest way to plead for forgiveness.
I didn't mind watching church, and I especially enjoyed the choir. Evangelical churches like my mother's kept them in the service. It was creepy, but something about it pleased me. They stood behind the altar, robed and ravenlike, and responded to the preacher's call.
Out of darkness
-There was light
Out of emptiness
-He made life
For he will heal us
-We lift up our praise
For his forgiveness
-We raise our voice
I don't think my mother knows many people at the church, but she always insists we go into the fellowship hall for coffee after. She speaks to the preacher's wife who touches my mother's arm when we say goodbye. I'm not sure what my mother feels at church or after it. At some point she stopped praying out loud.
It was on a Sunday after church that you showed up again. I found you in the backyard. You said you wanted to take me to a concert. There were no signs of how you arrived. I guessed you crashed into town and needed a ride out of it.
I refuse to see any DJs. The first words out of my mouth. I was referring to new music. You laughed. The sounds rustled the air around us.
You had become an artist. I thought that's what you came to tell me, but it didn't need to be said. I didn't think you'd be back in the place we grew up before it was true.
Hey, you said, reaching for my arm. This will be different.
I stood there in my mother's little yard and looked at you for some time. Your wildly out of style clothes, your lack of nerves. At first I thought you said: This time it will be different.
We arrived at what used to be an opera hall. Gilded, enormous, softening into elegant decay. We took our seats in a full house. Everyone in the audience was beautifully dressed. I searched the stage for harps or a grand piano. There was no program for the show, the marquis was empty. I told you I should have worn something else and asked about the ticket price. Sweat slicked my palms and I folded them under my legs.
As soon as it starts you won't care, you said. The instant the lights blackened, the audience fell silent. For a moment we sat up in the dark theater with the alertness of nocturnal animals.
The curtains withdrew and revealed two simple, gold birdcages on opposite ends of the stage. The left cage held two birds no bigger than plums. One yellow and blue, the other mostly yellow with dark flecks. A man soundlessly walked onto the stage— he was gloved, impeccable—and stood beside the cage.
Everyone's eyes were on the birds. In the silence of the theater their movement was perfectly audible. They hopped and twitched, they fluttered from their perch to the sides of the cage. They seemed to be playing off one another. Their movements and noises were not unlike the opening scenes of a play. A couple moving about the set of their house.
The man then opened the door to the cage and removed the yellow and blue bird. Cupping it with two hands, he took the yellow and blue bird and closed it inside the far cage. Both of us felt the audience stiffen.
We watched as the man stood perfectly between the two cages. He didn't move, but looked out at us staring at some point indirectly above. I reached for the sleeve of your blazer as the yellow and black bird stood still on his perch and began to sing. The ordinary birdsong pierced the air of the theater.
We all waited on edge until the speckled bird answered, a mournful song, but crisp and beautiful. They sang together in an ethereal harmony you could feel at the top of your spine.
But what I can remember best about that night was how as the song went on, I was able to somehow see the entire theater, a sea of bodies almost touching. Suspended in momentary hope.
I forgive you, I whispered, when the song was over and everyone else was stirring in their seats. You took my hand, smiling, and began saying something about a flight and I realized I was unsure if I had even opened my mouth at all.
Charlotte Hammond is a writer and editor based in Seoul, South Korea.