We lost more than music in the year when choirs were banned | Music

Bbefore Covid, Polyphony was a community choir in Sydney that hit well above its weight. We filled the halls of the Museum of Contemporary Art and Eveleigh Works with Baroque and Gothic harmonies, and filled Surry Hills’ Giant Dwarf to deliver a hilarious, fast-paced, and moving musical. Our repertoires were original, adventurous and very often arranged by our members. Under the direction of bold and super talented singer-songwriter Jack Colwell, we have pushed our own limits and gained confidence and professionalism every moment.

When the pandemic hit in March, Polyphony decided to move all of its operations to Zoom. I remember sitting at the small desk in my bedroom on the third floor of an old apartment complex in west-central Sydney and singing the lower half of Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone over and over again. My roommate, a few feet down the hall, improvised a soprano harmony and for a moment I thought the Zoom choir might work well. I asked myself: maybe the neighbors will want to join us? Or, maybe we’ll get some complaints? But Zoom is not made for singing together. Trolling internet connections and microphone returns turned the group singing into a messy mess. We could learn the bare bones of a song with each of us muted, but that was as far as it could go.

I thought back to those first months of the pandemic when I heard that restrictions on group singing had been relaxed in New South Wales. As of Saturday, up to 30 people can sing together in a hall (instead of 5), which makes the choir rehearsal viable again. But for bands like Polyphony, as excited as we are to restart, it’s not as easy as picking up where we left off.

What we lost in those first few months was more than the ability to practice singing. Our choir was a meeting place for people of different ages, careers and backgrounds. It was a space to meet new people (or partners, in my case), forge deep friendships and be part of a collective creative project that was more than the sum of its parts. The choir offered an alternate rhythm to the usual patterns of everyday life – a new cycle of anticipation, preparation and celebration to punctuate the weeks and months. And for those who were employed by the choir – our conductor Jack and accompanist Paula, among others – it provided regular income and job satisfaction. The choir was an ecosystem: a testament to the power of community.

For me, the choir was a rediscovery of belonging. Growing up in a deeply religious community, I was very involved in my church group. Rehearsals and performances were opportunities not only to improve my musical skills, but also to connect with my friends and serve a larger community. Becoming homosexual made this arrangement less tenable.

Moving from Sydney’s biblical belt to the city, I tried to find that sense of place in the usual places – Oxford Street in Darlinghurst and King Street in Newtown – but between the effects of gentrification, the foreclosure laws and the often intense instances of objectification that occur in Sydney’s high-level queer spaces, belonging has eluded me. There is only one very specific type of community that can be cultivated in a nightclub. As Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby asks in her Netflix comedy special Nanette, “Where are quiet gays supposed to go?”

It was only when I was invited to join Polyphony by a friend from college that I regained the sense of belonging through the music I was missing. Like any community organization, the social makeup and dynamics of a choir are just as important as its achievements. Polyphony – which isn’t exclusively queer but extremely queer-friendly – has become just as valuable to me as a queer space as it is for music.

To build organizations that encourage belonging and intimacy with others, we need the right social, regulatory and material conditions to do so. These “infrastructures of intimacy”, in the words of theorist Jan Filmer, are deeply felt and precious. They don’t just apply to queer or creative communities, they’re relevant to everyone. This has never been more evident than when singing in groups became officially illegal.

There is no doubt that the Covid restrictions of the past 12 months have saved many lives. And it is only through the hard work of scientists, frontline workers, military medics, and the sacrifices of the general public that we can return to a phase of life where we can all stand in one room together and to sing.

But don’t let anyone underestimate how important this change is or how grateful we are. I am delighted to meet my friends and make music together. I’m excited to take a deep breath together. Glad to make eye contact with someone in the middle of a song and smile at an inner joke. I can’t wait to hold a band harmony and I can tell you it’s going to be as euphoric as any night on the dance floor. I look forward to providing regular income to the creative professionals I care about and performing together again.

James Gardiner is a writer, researcher and doctoral student whose work focuses on gender and sexuality, youth, belonging, literacy and housing.

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