The power of lament and song

The idea of lament feels strange as it is ancient. There are images of it in biblical times, of people wailing and gnashing their teeth.

It feels like the season for wailing now: wailing about the demise of positive politics, about political strategy trumping real solutions and about the early death of human rights. Haven't there always been things to wail about? Yes, but now we live with unceasing streams of media exposing us to the world's pain as never before and an ugly kind of tribal politics that makes resolving differences seem impossible.

Song is a place to go, to sit with lament and to release it.

Canberra's Chorus of Women sprang out of a deep lament in 2003 as prime minister John Howard took Australia to war in Iraq, despite an overwhelming majority of Australians opposing it.

About 150 women, not then a formal group, broke into song in the marble foyer of Parliament House. They cried in unaccompanied song for the people of Iraq, the inevitability of death, and the folly of war: "Open the doors of the chambers of your heart, Open your minds to our song ... Hear the wisdom of women, Hear our song."

Parliament's security manager said protest wasn't allowed. "This is not a protest, this is a lament for people who will die," songwriter Glenda Cloughley responded. He let them sing their song.

Last month's conclusion in an official report that Howard joined US president George W. Bush in invading Iraq solely to strengthen the US-Australia's alliance didn't surprise the women who sang.

Invitations to perform flooded in. Fourteen years later, the repertoire of A Chorus of Women (that's what it is now called) continues to grow as the need to say something grows.

At a fundraiser last year for the Climate Council, the chorus sang to echo a palpable grief in the room about a lack of action on climate change. It will join crowds at next month's March for Science in Canberra, a local response to an international movement and a reverberation of the historic Women's March in January.

Lament, says active chorus member Johanna McBride, creates space for hope. "Lament is not depressing. When I go through lament, I might cry a lot and be hugely sad but I also feel alive. I am true to my feelings.

"Lament in song is an embodied and vital thing. It is part of the natural cycle of the human psyche. If you are allowed to lament, as needs to happen, then there's some kind of renewal. If you squash it, then everything freezes," she says. The chorus aims to re-balance the noise of the public square with song that also celebrates and inspires.

McBride recalls the tradition of the Klageweiber, the "grieving women" in Central and Eastern Europe, whose role it was at funerals to voice collective sorrow, but also as sing as a force of nature. "They announced that the sad are not alone."

An accomplished music director and conductor, McBride is a Hungarian refugee who was separated from her mother when she fled to Austria at the end of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. A German family that took her in was kind to her, but it took till her adult life for her to lament that separation. "I had to accept that that was how it had to be but that doesn't help you as a human being."

In a strange and beautiful way, sad songs offer nourishment. Love is lament's potency. Singing, any shared music making, is fundamentally social and altruistic. It's a facilitator for authentic social interaction. It is music in a deep and basic sense. It is a language children and adults, across cultures, understand. Even when the words are not easy to comprehend, it connects.

The meaning of music, like other art, lies in what it does, rather than what it represents. I have also come to appreciate the work of the chorus and any public singing as an antidote to the competitive and private communication we increasingly inhabit online.

(Image of Johanna McBride care of Fairfax Media)

First published in The Canberra Times, March 11, 2017

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