Massed Voices and the Charismatic Encounter

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It is a feature of charismatic leaders that they are most famously depicted surrounded by crowds. Hitler addressing his rallies, Jesus feeding the five thousand: one of the ways we recognise charismatic authority is by its power to galvanise large groups.

But I have been thinking recently about how the large groups themselves may be part of the dynamic that generates the charismatic encounter. If we consider Raymond Bradley's conception of charisma as a property that emerges from a group with a particular set of beliefs and relational structures that attribute the extraordinary powers to a particular person or social position, it seems that the crowd is as important as the leader in creating the experience.

I have been thinking about this in particular in relation to the phenomenon of massed-choir events. These may be a feature of festivals, of civic events, or as one of the commercial ventures that have sprung up in recent years that offer participants local preparation over a number of weeks leading up to a concert in a major venue. If you lead a choir, you will get reasonably regular invitations to bring your singers along to participate in these.

My observation of these events is that they often feature the key elements of Bradley's category of communion: intense bonds of love/brotherhood, optimism, and euphoria. And it strikes me that the experience of communion that massed choirs offer is much the same in process and structure as that offered by a regular choir, but intensified by iteration at an extra level.

The processes involved include:

  • Separation from everyday life: The regular choral rehearsal is often configured as an experience bracketed off from our day-to-day activities. It has its own particular space with its own special layout; the act of warming-up is not just a matter of vocal technique, but is also a ritual by which we leave the outside world behind and step into our choral identities. But regular experience can easily habituate us, and ritual slips into routine.

    The massed voice event re-invigorates this dimension by separating singers from their regular rehearsal spaces and placing them somewhere marked out as significantly more special than the social spaces choirs occupy as a matter of course: concert halls, cathedrals - large spaces that a provide cultural focal point to a significant size of regional population.

  • The reputational effect of a special leader: Bradley identifies the existence of shared beliefs in extraordinary powers as a primary facilitator of charismatic experiences; the followers need to be ready-primed to be inspired in order to hand over their executive control to a leader.

    The role of conductor is richly imbued with mythologies of extraordinary powers, which frame the relationship between director and choir. But the more conspicuously public figures who lead the massed voice events have a significantly greater promotional infrastructure behind them to generate this halo effect. This is partly to do with the set-up of their appearance: their inspirational reputation is often a key element in the advertising used to attract singers, and the event itself will place them at the centre of attention. But it's also to do with the way the singers don't have the opportunity to develop a longer-term insight into their feet of clay as they do with the directors they work with regularly.

  • The merging of individual egos into the group: All choral singing involves a process of de-inviduation through coordinated activity - it is inherent in the activity itself, and we have a whole panoply of rehearsal techniques we use to promote it. (Though we tend to call it by musical terms such as blend, ensemble or section unity.)

    At a massed choir event, this merging works in two layers. The individual is merged into their normal choir, and the different choirs are merged into the supra-choir. The effect of this merging is partly driven just by the larger group - the more people there are, the less any one individual counts, so this is an area in which the sheer weight of numbers has an effect. And of course aurally and vocally, the bigger the sound that surrounds you is, the more you feel buoyed up by it, carried along by the stream of sound.

    But also, and perhaps counter-intuitively, the greater anonymity of massed-voice events enhances the feelings of love and brotherhood. The group is bound together emotionally not by their mutual acquaintance and shared history, but by the shared experience in the moment. The niggles of choir politics and personality clashes melt away in the new context, superseded by the imperatives of the occasion.

And those imperatives are key. Not all massed-voice events turn into charismatic encounters - they still need a cause and crisis to create the spark.

For instance, the Welsh premiere of Karl Jenkins' The Peacemakers back in July was in many ways configured as a charismatic encounter, but it didn't in fact ignite into one. You could hear it in the voices: it was a good quality collection of singers, but there wasn't that clarion ring to the sound you get when a choir is really lit up.

Now, this event had many of the elements needed: the massed voices, its placement at the heart of a festival that itself is well-structured to create communion, the use of video imagery from previous Eisteddfods at Llangollen to further build emotional bonds between participants and audience members, the reputational aura of the composer himself conducting.

It had a clear cause, too - the desire for peace has that quality of an abstract, moral good that underpins all charismatic movements. But it lacked the urgency of a crisis - both text and music focused exclusively on the desideratum of peace, without showing us why it was important to strive for it. The programme notes likewise gave a brief, sad comment that the world seemed no nearer to peace than a decade ago, but that wasn't enough in itself to act as a call to action.

(Don't get me wrong, it was a successful concert with much musical beauty. But it didn't get into that transformative state of euphoria that marks a charismatic encounter.)

Contrast this to the tales of the performance of Jenkins' The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace with its accompanying footage of the carnage of war. I've not seen this, but everyone I have talked to who has speaks of it with the kind of light in their eyes and ring the voice that betokens a peak experience. And they all identify the friction between musical beauty and harrowing imagery as key to their emotional response.

So, just collecting a big crowd about you won't guarantee a charismatic encounter. But if you have collected the elements to generate one, the more people you have there, the greater will be the intensity of the experience.

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