I sing with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, and we started rehearsing tonight for our Christmas carol concert. One of the pieces we’ll be singing is The Huron Carol, in Robert B. Anderson’s arrangement.
As soon as we started singing it I was in the still calm of a Christmas Eve somewhere in my past, any one of many I’ve lived, outside in the crisp Alberta air with snow lightly here and there, house lights, Christmas lights, the beautiful calm and the sense of quiet anticipation – not of getting presents; the commercial side of Christmas is increasingly repellent to me – anticipation of, well, comfort and joy and new beginnings. And, honestly, I just love beautiful nights filled with silence and music. As we sang, frissons ran over my skin – not chills, not from the frosty air; we were, after all, singing inside where it was light and warm; simply the nerve endings and the little hairs up and down standing up to look up at the starry sky.
Christmas Eves aren’t like that anymore. And never have been. I know perfectly well that every one of those Christmas Eves felt like a normal enough evening at the time, pleasant but not really matching the strength of memory. Well of course. One might as well say that speech is not like singing, does not produce the same frissons. But in both cases it is, I think, not a question of something being added that wasn’t there. It is a case of distillation.
You know what distillation is. It’s what we use to produce purer water, purer alcohol or more intense liquor… Not to add what is not there, but to keep what we most especially want and remove most of the rest. How? Let it evaporate, turn it to steam, let the most volatile, the most savorous, the lightest, the most desirable parts slip up and away from the weighty watery hold of gravity; and once it has flown, has known the freedom of swirling in its little hot empyrean, has slipped the surly bonds of earth, let it come against the glass that will keep it from escaping, the wall it could see through but never surpass; and let it cool into tears, weeping for its lost chance, dripping down again into a pool – but a pool only of those spirits that escaped, a pool so much purer than what had been before. In this metamorphosis, the flying part is the chrysalis, while the shimmering butterfly returns to gravity.
Does that seem overwrought? Do you know what distill comes from? Latin distillare or destillare, “drip or trickle down”; the Oxford English Dictionary gives the first meaning of distill (in English from the 1400s) as intransitive, “To trickle down or fall in minute drops, as rain, tears; to issue forth in drops or in a fine moisture; to exude.” From which we ultimately came to our sense referring to the purification process that makes use of distillation in the first sense. But rain falls because it has condensed around dust; tears are salty as they roll down your face; but the distillate that drips at the end of the purifying process has left such things behind and has only condensed because it could not be free.
And so our memories, the experiences of our minds, the most volatile elements, capable – like alcohol – of carrying flavours so much more strongly, are distilled. Even as we experience these things, that spirit of emotion is there, a subtle current weaving through or just a dilute mood barely noticeable, tasted at best perhaps as a faint yearning. It comes through in the still of memory, spirit condensed on the glass of the window through which we view the world.
It is so with music too. Our speech tones carry some emotion, but it is scruffy, everyday emotion, like a once-beautiful antique chair hiding under a dust cloth in a rumpus room, or a hint of whisky in a glass of ginger ale. Perhaps it comes from a pure source and is watered down; perhaps it comes like alcohol from fruit juice, not there from the beginning but a product of what is there. But words want to distill; the tones of our speech want to fly loose and make their page the stained glass window of song, condensing on it in tears. You doubt? Meet the speech-to-song illusion: a spoken phrase played back enough times begins to sound like music.
And what will we remember or sing of this word distill? What spirits does it carry? You see every letter but the coiled and fluid s reaching up away like steam. You see in its alternate form, distil, a partly turned pistil – the female, receiving part of a flower, which gestates the new flower seeds. You see till, which is a temporal or pecuniary expectation – “We will sell till we fill our till” – with negating dis before it, rendering it free of future time and money. You see still, calm, peaceful, hushed like the [st] in the heart of this word. These are the parts I will take with me and savour quietly much later from the crystal flask of memory; the rest I can leave behind.
When the feeling of song, the deep heart full enveloping being of song distills a thousand memories down to one moment of utter assurance I am very small standing between my mother and father in a church pew. It is a little church of very fundamental worshipers, people who don’t “believe” in musical instruments (I never quite got that), but by golly they sing. It is a four part harmony of old fashioned gospel songs and even at my young age I know these songs by heart. My mother has a crystal clear soprano and my dad sings in beautiful tenor and standing between them I am a like a tuning fork resonating their joyful noise, but there is another voice somewhere behind me, mellowly, boomingly, carrying the bass line. Like the voice of God reverberating through me. All of those voices on all of those Sunday mornings all seem distilled down into the voices of my mom, my dad and the voice of God.
I don’t believe what they believe anymore, but I will always be moved by their songs. “I’ll fly away O Glory, I’ll fly away . . .”