Between 1980 and 1982, I conducted Toronto's first lesbian and gay choir, The New Voice. At the upcoming Unison Choral Festival in Winnipeg, they're resurrecting an anthem I wrote for the choir. They've asked me for a brief text reminiscing about Toronto back then, the choir, etc. Here's the draft:
Toronto in the early eighties was a great place to be gay. The city was discovering its world-class potential, and pioneering activism had brought gay out of the shadows. Politics was in the air—a heady, sometimes fractious blend of social justice, feminism, and gay rights. A whiff of sixties militancy lingered. We still had ample reason to take to the streets. But when we did, it was as much in celebration as in protest. The tide was turning in our favour. We knew the fight would soon be done. The cloud that would be AIDS had yet to darken the horizon.
What I wouldn't give for such naïveté again.
Gay men's choruses were flourishing in cities in the States when Paul Endicott, a founding member of Toronto Area Gays, lawyer-activist Harvey Hamburg, film director Bruce Glawson, and singer Andrew Mullin sat down with me to knock around ideas for a choir in Toronto. It was typical of both the time and place that the first thing on the table was discussion of the choir's composition. Should it be all male, or mixed? In the States, only LA had a choir with what Robin, its conductor, called "a full-sized keyboard". As I recall, there wasn't much debate. We favoured mixed, and anyway the point was moot. I said I wasn't interested in working with a male-only chorus.
"Mixed" took on a bigger meaning when we held our first auditions. More than half of those who turned out couldn't read a note of music. A number were completely straight, albeit comfortably. I remember with special fondness Helga—married, in her sixties—who wandered into a rehearsal at The 519, the Community Centre where we practiced, and asked if she could join. We assumed she didn't realize the choir was gay and lesbian, which only goes to show how even the most liberal can sometimes get it wrong. "I know," she said, unruffled. "I just want to sing. The music sounds so wonderful." For me, she came to symbolize the spirit of the choir: music before politics, and everyone invited.
There was much discussion over what to call ourselves. The Toronto Gay Community Choir didn't sit well with women members. Adding lesbian not only sounded stilted, but would have meant our letterhead ran off the page. In the end, we chose the title of the anthem I composed for our first concert, The New Voice. The words, by Feir Jaros, seemed to sum us up:
We are new singers of an old song
We are new voices of an old way
The music is measured, the music is strong
A new voice, for a new day.
Teaching untrained voices how to sing as one is no mean feat. I'm not entirely sure anybody realized just how much work was involved. Preparing for rehearsals sometimes took me days. The fault was mine entirely. From the start, our repertoire was mostly a cappella, and not a little of it thornily contemporary.
The speed with which The New Voice coalesced was nothing short of wonderful. Our initial Christmas concert was a great success, followed in the spring by a programme that included Brahms and Pergolesi, and a new work written for the choir, again with words by Jaros. A man who'd sung with Healey Whilan came up afterwards and complimented our performance of his Missa Brevis, claiming it was just as Whilan would have wanted it.
The choir's rapid musical progress reflected the commitment of its members. Everyone was dedicated. No one skipped rehearsals. Even more remarkable, at least from this conductor's point of view, no one showed up late.
The group's capacity for learning and hard work encouraged me to push the envelope. When the Gay Community Appeal supplied The New Voice with funds for a commission, the work I wrote, based on poet Marge Piercy's femininist reflections on the Tarot deck, would have been a challenge even to professionals. Sad to say, the triptych, To Be of Use, was never sung in its entirety. However, the last song, The Seven of Pentacles, did receive a public hearing. Few would have guessed the singers deftly managing the complex harmonies and fluid rhythms were by and large untrained.
There were no cliques within the choir, no divisions. We were all there for the joy of singing, men and women, young and old, gay and straight. Music is a builder of communities. The New Voice proved it every time we raised the roof. Tolerance and pluralism aren't just words, our songs proclaimed; they're human, from the heart. The lyrics of our anthem said it best:
And now our time
Has found its space
I'm not sure why The New Voice didn't last. Friendships that sprang up have stood the test of time, but the choir itself was only in existence for two years. Perhaps it was the pall of AIDS. Joyous celebration sounded hollow in the shadow of what lay ahead. Perhaps it was because the era we were part of lost its relevance. Or perhaps there was no reason. Even the most marvellous of things can be ephemeral, their purpose mainly to remind us of the possible.
Myself, I know the memory of working with The New Voice has remained an inspiration to this day.