This summer, The Frontiers of Neuroscience announced a discovery: When choir members sing together, their heart rates synchronize. It has a lot to do with controlled breathing. Exhaling activates the vagus nerve, a long nerve originating in the brain, which slows the heart’s pulse. In short, a choir that breathes together, beats together.
Beyond physiological alignment, members of The Esoterics, a choral group now in its twentieth season, share a feeling of social responsibility. Marking September as Suicide Prevention Month, the songs they showcased Sunday in a concert called ÆONIA were interpretations of poems by writers who ended their own lives.
A portion of the proceeds was donated to Beyond the Bridge, a foundation that works to reduce the risk of suicides among LGBTQ youth. I spoke briefly with Stacey Prince, the psychologist who cofounded the organization with her partner, Teri Mayo. She told me about her own experiences with suicide, how the foundation raises money, connects youths with help, and creates affirming spaces to reduce risk factors. According to statistics from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, a harrowing thirty to forty percent of LGBT youth have attempted suicide.
This is an issue that resonates with me personally, seeing as my own brother, Alex, shot himself in January of this year. He'd just had his heart broken and, at a vulnerable moment, he lost sight of all he still had going for him, which was a lot. I often wish I could go back in time and take him by the shoulders, make him understand the extent to which whatever he was going through, which I can only imagine was tremendously painful, was not in any way worth making this ultimate sacrifice. He was twenty-two.
Although he was not gay, and wasn’t anything of a poet (he was, in fact, a man of few words), for me, ÆONIA was about him.
For many of the singers, ÆONIA—a Greek word meaning everlasting—was about Dan-Eric Slocum, who took his own life in February 2012. Slocum was a friend of the choir, a local journalist at KOMO News, and a poet; he published in a blog called The Eternity Door (where his final entry is lightly shattering). For ÆONIA, Esoterics founder Eric Banks posthumously formed Slocum's writings into a 20-minute stream-of-consciousness meditation for double chorus a cappella.
Appropriately, Sunday's performance was in the Holy Rosary Catholic Church. There is nothing like sitting under the high arched ceilings of a church, the light coming down through stained glass biblical scenes, sitting in pews next to rows of flickering prayer candles, to feel in touch with the eternal.
I have a few memories of being brought to church as a child, and, at least aesthetically, the experience that The Esoterics offered with ÆONIA felt much the same. Instead of a sermon, they offered music, a gentle means of transporting an audience, allowing us a moment in which to be moved by beauty, as though to remind us that by interpreting that sea of vibrations into thoughts and emotion, we are the lucky ones. We are living.
As the choir, dressed all in black, emitted its ethereal, all-encompassing sound, the words of the deceased poets were projected onto the wall above them. From “Stars forever, while we sleep” composed by Donald Skirvin, based on the poem, “Let it be you” by Sara Teasdale (who overdosed on sleeping pills in 1933):
Say a “Goodnight” as you have said it All of these years, With the old look, with the old whisper And without tears.
You will know then all that in silence You always knew, Though I have loved, I loved no other As I love you.