Silent night

I was down at the Third Street Promenade last night at a time when I am usually well into winding down for the day and getting ready for bed, that is to say 5:00 PM. There weren’t many people there because we had had horrible weather all day Sunday. Several hundred rain drops, a couple of puddles, four clouds, a light breeze, and shuddering temperatures in the low 60’s had shattered the normally calm and pleasant weather of LA.

A few sturdy Angelenos were walking up and down the Promenade in their $500 North Face Sub-Zero parkas, or huddled together sipping steaming coffee to get heat to their frozen limbs.

I walked down the Promenade, pushing my bike. There were several buskers, all hooked up to various amplifiers that blasted their music out much farther than their thin voices could ever have done. Something about amplified music is so much uglier than the naked human voice.

Towards the end of the street there was a choral group clad in conservative Christian dress. The women had their hair in buns and were wearing pretty, long dresses. Most of the men had beards. They were singing Christmas music.

I remember when we had Christmas programs in class. I was an atheist, we had two Jews (Robby Bluestein and Joy Silverstein–I thought all Jews were named “Something-stein”), there were two non-Christian Chinese kids, Wei-Ling Wei and Lou-En Hua, and everybody else was an old school Texas Christian.

I loved Christmas even though I didn’t believe in any of it. I loved the Jesus story, the Christmas play, the decorations, and especially the music. We had a Christmas program up through junior high, and Ms. Givens, the chorus teacher, made us sing, in public schools, 100% religious music.

None of it ruined me or caused irreparable harm to my constitutional rights, near as I could tell. Instead, it taught me how to sing.

I loved all of the Christmas songs, but especially the deeply religious, non-secular ones. They had a beauty and power and musicality that “Frosty the Snowman” didn’t. Fifty kids praising the lord with “In excelsis Deo” has an effect that no other music has, not even a little kid on a mic on the Promenade dancing and belting out Michael Jackson hits into a huge amplifier while his dad hustles for tips.

I stood and listened to the singers in Santa Monica.

At first their voices sounded small compared to the other howlers, but if you stood close they actually drowned out every other singer and every other SOUND. You could hear the fine, beautiful harmonies between trained singers hitting different pitches, the bass of the men, the soprano of the women, all tied together with deeply religious words that had been passed down over the millennia, not manufactured in a studio.

Everything else was quelled, became silent, as their voices filled the night.


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