Fifteen years ago this month, my friend David dragged me to spend an afternoon singing. (Longtime readers may remember him as the friend who gave me the tefillin I'd blogged about wanting, as a gift for my thirtieth birthday.) I was a freshman in college with no formal background in voice, but he knew I liked to sing, and he had spotted a notice that folks would be gathering to sing madrigals in the Rathskellar, a basement hang-out space in what was then Baxter Hall.
The vicissitudes of my first year of college had gotten me down, that month. Initially I didn't want to go. I didn't even know what madrigals were! But David insisted. So I went. What I couldn't have imagined then was that that afternoon of singing was going to change my life.
The group that sang together that Winter Study had so much fun we decided to keep on keeping on. We held auditions, and intense conversations about how we wanted to tread the fine line between singing beautiful music really well and having a ridiculous lot of fun while doing it. That's how the Williams College Elizabethans -- purveyors of madrigals and sundry chansons -- were formed. We performed at May Day that year, in Renaissance costumes we'd borrowed from the theatre department. The following year we went on tour for the first time: fifteen collegiate madrigal singers crammed into a college van, with our stuffed animals and our props, our baggage of all varieties, off to sing in churches and at colleges and sometimes in subway tunnels and culverts and restaurants, anywhere one of our merry band could hum an opening note.
At first we worried that we might not find others who wanted to carry the torch from year to year, but boy did that fear prove unfounded. We discovered over time that there's a certain type of person who chooses to sing madrigals (and sacred music, medieval chant, settings of folk tunes, and the occasional snippet of Monty Python) -- and that folks who fit that bill tend to like one another, even if they cross the arcane social strata of campus life. Outside of 'bethans we were theatre geeks and Christian Fellowship regulars, queer activists and martial artists and swing dancers -- but inside 'bethans we were colleagues, and more than that, we were friends.
I sang with the 'bethans for a record five years: my four
years of college, plus the year immediately thereafter (when I
was working at the bookstore in town and still knew enough students
that I didn't yet feel like an interloper on the campus I had
once called home.) We got into the habit of having reunions every January, so that current students and the old fogies like me
could meet, share backrubs and stories, and sing. Five years ago,
to mark the group's decennial, we held a reunion concert:
forty or so Elizabethans of varying collegiate generations,
bringing our voices together in celebration of life and of
music and of the reality that we are, together, so much more than
the sum of our parts. To me, we felt like
the Pan-Bethan Tabernacle Choir. It was awesome.
This weekend we're celebrating our fifteenth anniversary, and we're gathering to create a concert again. (If you live locally, come and see us: 2pm, Thompson Memorial Chapel in Williamstown, Sunday afternoon!) My great thanks to the local journalists who wrote such wonderful articles about it, and about us: Modern Madrigals, in the Berkshire Eagle (written by Kate of Spring Farm Almanac fame) and 'Bethans Are Back which features quotes from yours truly!
It's hard for me to believe that it's been fifteen years since this adventure began. I feel so blessed to have been a part of the organization: to have known these people, and sung with them, for so much of my life. I'm excited about spending the weekend getting to know a whole new crop of Elizabethans -- in the best possible way: by joining together our voices in song.