This Sunday morning, as I was walking home at sunrise after spending 14 consecutive hours in Thompson Memorial Chapel, I was filled with the knowledge that I had been a part of something awesome. Beginning at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, over 130 people came through the Chapel at some point in the night to participate in the first-ever All-Night Marathon of Voices event.
Lyell B. Clay Artist in Residence and Director of Choral/Vocal Activities Brad Wells was inspired to organize this festival of vocal music by a similar event held at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco by vocalist Bobby Ferrin on New Year’s Eve in the ’90s. Wells and College Chaplain Rick Spalding worked with student organizers from the College’s Concert Choir, Alex Dickinson ’17, Nathan Leach ’17, Claire Leyden ’16 and Daniel Potter ’16, to bring together musical groups from the campus and the larger Williamstown area.
As a member of the Choir myself, I was really excited to be a part of such an ambitious task: to keep the Chapel ringing with voices all night. What follows are some of the highlights of the long night, reported in real time.
6:25 p.m.: Local musician Doug Paisley taught us a Georgian song. Now he’s performing Corsican music with College vocal teacher Kerry Ryer-Parke. Despite it being in another language, everyone’s laughing when they sing about a flea biting in all the wrong places.
6:32 p.m.: PSA: A baby is roaming the chapel. She’s the real star of the night.
6:39 p.m.: Aforementioned baby has stormed the stage during a student’s performance.
7:02 p.m.: St. John’s Episcopal Church Choir performs, followed by the First Congregation Church Choir. The group consists of a mix of community members and a couple of College students. This is exactly in the spirit of the night, to bring the larger community together to make music.
7:33 p.m.: Chris Winters ’95 and his two young daughters perform. We see the first costumes of the night, as they are sporting some snazzy cowboy hats. Also, I get my first bowl of free chili.
7:58 p.m.: Everyone who can sight-read music (or at least can pretend) is invited to the stage to read Wells’ favorite Brahms quartet, accompanied by Ed Lawrence, the College’s resident organist. “We’re a worldly enough group that we can fake the German,” Wells quips.
8:09 p.m.: Paisley and friends perform a Kentucky Appalachia jam and some sea shanties. Possibly the first time the word “whore” has been sung in Thompson Chapel.
8:35 p.m.: Spalding introduces the new Muslim Chaplain, Sharif Rosen, and his kids. The kids sing a beautiful song in Arabic and English, and the chaplain himself performs Arabic poetry.
9:00 p.m.: Concert Choir sings again! We’re bringing back the Rachmaninoff set that we performed in our fall concert. The pieces are part of the “All-Night Vigil,” especially appropriate for tonight.
9:40 p.m.: Student band Long Island Sound leaves its instruments behind to sing some spirituals.
11:00 p.m.: A cappella power hour! A new barbershop quartet made up of a few Ephlats and Springstreeters folks performs.
12:00 a.m.: The lights dim and everyone crowds around the piano with candles to ring in the next day with John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
12:10 a.m.: Local folk band Long Journey performs.
2:00 a.m.: Sight-reading of Icelandic music. More chili.
3:16 a.m.: We’re attempting to throat sing and standing in corners to hear ourselves. Wells has tried to teach us many times and a few people are shockingly amazing at it. I am not one of those people. Yet.
3:31 a.m.: After 10 hours of sitting in wooden pews, a massage train begins among some of us as others learn to yodel.
4:00 a.m.: We’re now sight-reading all of Fauré’s Requiem. It’s seven movements and takes us half an hour to finish.
4:33 a.m.: A fight breaks out over shape-note singing. There is no winner. It’s 4:33 a.m. We’re arguing about shape notes.
5:00 a.m.: Beatles hour begins. There is STILL chili. Like this night, it is endless.
6:32 a.m.: The choir gathers in the dimmed church as the light begins to filter in through the stained glass. We welcome the day and close the event with “Amazing Grace.”
What I love most about vocal music is how accessible it is. The voice is an instrument that almost everyone has, and with some training and encouragement, or even just passion, singing can become a very pure expression of feeling. What I was lucky to see throughout the night of Marathon of Voices was people coming forward to share that expression, no matter what their age or experience. Winters mentioned that he hasn’t done much singing since his days as a student in the a cappella group Octet, and it was a sweet sight to see him take up an old stage, and his daughters also now can discover the magic he had found years ago. Paisley told us how long it had been since he sang the piece he taught us with his old Georgian friends, and how nice it was to hear it sung again.
For all the organizing that went into the night, spontaneity still abounded. All silences were filled with rounds led by whoever wanted to, and many listeners took the stage to sing a song special to them. I’m a fairly sentimental person, but I think anyone who was there, even for just a few minutes, would agree that it was a night of joy and true celebration. No matter the hour, there was still excitement to perform.
I knew this College liked to sing when we were led up Stone Hill during Previews and stood around a fire singing “Wagon Wheel.” Hopefully, the Marathon of Voices will become another classic College tradition, with more seats filled by students and more singers on the stage.