How Can We Keep From Singing

In an interview later in his life, Graham Greene acknowledged that writing, which he saw as a means to fend off boredom, no longer sustained him. Writer/singer Joan Oliver Goldsmith looks at the flipside. She holds that in a world of watchers and doers, amateurs are doers who have fallen in love “not slowly, not gradually, but with that resounding whoosh that marks passion.”

For the author, making a living at it is not the point; bonding to choral singing/singers is. Living in Minneapolis and singing with the Minnesota Chorale, Goldsmith found herself at home with the music but unhappy at knowing her fellow singers as acquaintances only. With an unfunded invitation to sing at the Aspen Music Festival, Joan suggested to three others of the Chorale that they form a quartet—a carpool—to drive to Colorado. She admits to a kind of loving envy as an inevitable part of singers’ bonding: “Liz and Chris have VOICES. Sandra and I have voices—we’re choral utility players [but] God how we laughed. About conductors who are unprepared, about the tenor many thought was gay who emphatically wasn’t....”

For it is laughter that orchestrates How Can We Keep From Singing: Music and the Passionate Life. “If singing were all that serious, frowning would make you sound better.” So goes her fitting non-sequitur apropos practice, that necessity that Goldsmith views as music’s enabler and to which she devotes one of her three best essays. Another—“Conductor Watching”—is a worshipful profile of the late Robert Shaw whose tribute to choral music as “the only unity of humanity that doesn’t involve betrayal of the self [but rather] ennobles each of us” sounds this book’s theme.

Her longest—and maybe, despite a few homilies on war and peace, most original piece—exposes instances of “melodic retrofits” wherein, for examples, a World War I Tommy was heard to sing “Over there, over there” as “Underwear, underwear” and our National Anthem came to be sung to the tune of a popular English drinking song.