High on my list of summer reads? Stacy Horn’s Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others.
The behind-the-scenes-experiences of a Greenwich Village chorister. Absolutely fascinating! (I didn’t know what to call that fragment of music that goes round and round in your head for days. It’s a “brain worm.”)
Imperfect Harmony is the memoir of a single woman, who, troubled in life and love, finds two precious hours of joy each week singing with one of the world’s most demanding amateur choirs, The Choral Society of New York’s Grace Church. She describes how the experience creates a sense of the physical body falling away – possibly due to the release of endorphins, dopamine, prolactin and oxycotin — and a feeling of literally merging with other humans. For a chorus, a performance is magnificently more than the sum of its parts. The effect is transcendence.
Imperfect is never self-important and much of it is touching and out-and-out hilarious. After singing about death (apparently sad oeuvres release empathy hormones), Stacy is overwhelmed by the plight of a pigeon dying in a gutter. She scoops it up in a box and takes it home, and then Googles “pigeon rescue New York.” Bingo. She connects with a “pigeon first responder, who turned out to be B-movie actress and Fifties pin-up girl Meg Myles, star of Satan in High Heels.” (The pigeon recovers and is packed off to a sanctuary.)
One passage I found particularly wonderful as it evokes so vividly the Village neighborhood in which it is set.
To get to Grace Church, I walk east on Eleventh Street from Seventh Avenue to Broadway. It’s a lovely walk that I’ve taken more than a thousand times. Some city streets are gray or brown but this particular stretch is a magical mystery tour of color, even at twilight. Nature and humanity have had a couple hundred years to settle into a luscious coexistence on these four blocks, and it’s like walking through a friendly forest that has been peacefully settled by people. In the spring and summer, boxes of brilliant flowers and strange plants crowd almost every apartment window, some with leaves so large they look tropical. Clover, wood-sorrel, crab grass, and violets sprout from the sidewalk cracks that are off to the side, and there’s always a sweet perfume that comes from either wisteria, pine or honeysuckle. Steam rises from the manholes like water escaping from a pot. Branches from each side of the street reach across, forming awnings overhead whose leaves sound like hundreds of tiny drums whenever it rains. In the winter, holiday decorations pick up where nature leaves off and the color comes from tasteful wreathes hanging on the windows and doors, and gates, railings and balustrades.
Rehearsals are every Tuesday evening from 7:15 to 9:30, so this is a walk I take at night, when my view is lit by the moon, street lamps and whatever light filters out from the first-floor parlor windows. It’s a very wealthy part of town and it shows. Sometimes I feel like the Little Match Girl as I pass by, forever on the outside, catching glimpses through lace curtains of the enchanting lives in the small palaces of glimmering chandeliers, floor-to-ceiling bookcases, and grand pianos In one window is a small sad painting of a gerbil with lettering that reads: In memory of Mr. Pokey, 2001-2003. In another is Paddington Bear. For as long as I can remember that bear has stood in the window, looking out, his outfit regularly changing with the seasons. It’s the beginning of January now, and he’s dressed in a top hat and tails, as if he’s making the party rounds…
The last two blocks before I get to Grace Church are filled with antique shops. I never once stopped inside any of them and I probably never will. The splendid gilded tables and French country armoires are much too grand for me. The very last block is relatively barren, the vegetation tapers off, and a parking garage takes up almost a third of the south side of the street. And then I come to Broadway.
Note: Stacy had an indispensable role in the publication of New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009. You’ll find photos of her below under “Happy Anniversary.” You can reach her at www.stacyhorn.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.