Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Voices united in joy


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A Queerly Joyful Noise: Choral Musicking for Social Justice by Julia "Jules" Balen; Rutgers University Press, $24.95

This past October, in an olive-branch tour in light of Trump's election, the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus visited five southern states (AL, TN, SC, NC, MS) in seven days "to share SFGMC's mission of community, activism, and compassion, supporting our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, not looking to argue, to preach or be angry, but rather raise awareness, spread acceptance and harmony through song." This is the type of musicking that Julia Balen, in her new book "A Queerly Joyful Noise: Choral Musicking for Social Justice," would reference as fulfilling a social justice objective of changing hearts and minds. Balen, a professor of English at California State University, Channel Islands in Camarillo, who has sung in various LGBTQ choruses, charts how queer choral singing can be personally transformative and "a meaningful form of protest through celebration." She uses her own firsthand observations, interviews with choral members, and sociological research to show how LGBTQ singers have made themselves heard, and used their music to oppose oppression.

GALA (Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses) in 2016 lists nearly 400 choruses from around the world. As one artistic director reminds his group, "The joy you share in making beautiful music together melts away the doubts or fears. We heal ourselves and those who come to hear us of the damage from the hatred that some still preach." For Balen, queer choruses create a shared public voice that "makes our identities more socially legible." Some members describe their chorus as family, inspiring them to work for social justice beyond the chorus. The chorus helps singers develop a counterstory that challenges the oppression they have felt, establishing healthier self-identities. Dennis Coleman, artistic director of the Seattle Men's Chorus, lists four nonmusical goals of choruses: "(1) to structure a musical community that provides emotional and spiritual support for its members; (2) to nurture positive self-esteem and pride; (3) to care for member singers affected by HIV/AIDS and other traumatic life experiences; and (4) to build bridges of understanding, respect, and cooperation between the lesbian and gay community and society as a whole."

Balen outlines how the labor movement and civil rights struggle developed the template for how music can have an impact. She gives the example of the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus reworking a children's book, "Oliver Button Is a Sissy," into a mixed-media movie, "Oliver Button Is a Star," based on the story of a boy who likes to sing and dance rather than play sports. This project was later used as their response to the "It Gets Better" antibullying campaign. She notes how choruses change lyrics to fit political contexts, and commission new compositions. She cites SFGMC singing a Mendelssohn hymn the night of Harvey Milk's murder, which expressed the community's grief as well as their right to live and sing together as a form of protest.

Few books have been written on choruses, almost none on LGBTQ ones, so Balen's work is a landmark contribution. She critiques the vast majority of choruses as being white, male, and economically privileged, urging them to bridge racial, class, even gender differences, as many choruses are single-sex. A chapter on the history of LGBTQ choruses and how they were first formed would have been helpful. The book should have included more interviewee comments. But Balen is excellent at showing how choruses celebrate queer values, creating safe spaces so members can "hold different identities together in sonic embrace."

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