In my recorder ensemble this term, we are playing “Ave Regina Coelorum”, a piece by Isabella Leonarda. Her music is some of the oldest known compositions written by a woman. It’s rich and layered, and when played with soprano, alto, tenor and bass recorders, sounds like a choir or an organ. Outside of rehearsals, I’ve been listening to choral arrangements for context on how my part fits into the whole, and it’s gotten me thinking about choral music in general, and why I and so many others are drawn to it, even if we aren’t particularly religious.

My friend Nina and I attended a unitarian church service last summer. It was the same church Nina had grown up attending, and they wanted to see what it was like as an adult. I’ve been searching for a church-ish experience where I can feel like part of an intentional community without a lot of the god stuff: a sort of humanist, nondogmatic atheism based on critical thought, community activism, and kindness and generosity in all things. Even better if I could sing in a choir.

After the service and several rounds of singing, Nina said something like: “I don’t know what it is about that kind of music, it just gets me every time I hear it.”

I agreed. Even with all my ambivalence about institutionalized religion, the singing is still just incredible. I used to feel confused about that: why did I love the act of singing religious music in a group but feel so disconnected from religion itself?

This may not be a revelation for most, but it was for me. When I stopped feeling weird about it, I realized it was the human voice I loved. The sacred is in the sound of voices, trained or otherwise. The rising and falling of voices in a place that is spiritual to so many, and has been for centuries before, will always give me a slightly choked-up feeling.

Same with my “Ave Regina.” If I stop to consider it, it’s staggering to be playing music over a thousand years old. Most amazingly, it is still vital with life, and it will outlive us all.

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