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My choral experiences prepared me well to adore Stacy Horn’s “Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing With Others,” her fifth nonfiction book and a seeming departure after embedding with the New York City Police Department’s cold case unit (in “The Restless Sleep”) and investigating the paranormal (“Unbelievable”). Horn is a member of The Choral Society, which performs at Grace Church. She first joined in 1982, after the end of a brief marriage and several half-hearted relationships left her “sitting on the floor in the middle of my living room, rocking back and forth and crying about yet another painful breakup.”
Making a list of things that made her happy, Horn called up long-dormant memories of when singing brought joy to her life. Weeks later, nervous that her pitch would go flat, she auditioned for the chorus, which held rehearsals every Tuesday night in the nearly 200-year-old church on 10th and Broadway; she got in, and she’ll remain “in the world that singing reveals for as long and as often as I can.”
Using her experiences with Grace Church as a foundation (and stand-in for community choirs across the country), Horn weaves in many historical anecdotes about choral singing. We learn, through Horn’s warm, breezy prose, about the choral society’s history: transformed from an elite-oriented group to one for the communal masses, irrespective of religion or creed. She sprinkles in past examples of communal music making, from Frank Damrosch’s idealized but short-lived People’s Choral Union for the working class and Francis Boot’s turn of the 20th century desire to fund new choral works, with varying success, to the down-and-dirty 1834 riots provoked by the Chatham Street Chapel group.
The book is strongest when it focuses on the musical process. I’ve never sung Morten Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium,” but Horn makes a vivid case for why that choral work has wowed audiences and singers since its 1994 premiere: “[T]he music is saying that no matter what there is to celebrate, there’s always this tragedy, this suffering underneath. Or equally true, no matter what tragedy occurs, there is always reason for joy.” As soon as I finished “Imperfect Harmony,” I pulled up a recording of the six-minute piece on YouTube and felt as powerful an urge as Horn’s fellow choristers to sing the piece. Similarly, Horn’s closing chapter description of trying to learn her part for Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir, inspired by a budding teen composer and spurred to fruition after a TED talk, straddles cringe, hilarity and knowing understanding of what it is to expose oneself.
“Imperfect Harmony” also allows Horn to be more candid about her life than she could be in earlier books, since for her, choral singing is intensely personal. And while I certainly empathized with her struggles, whether worrying over how to pay for mounting medical and veterinarian bills on dwindling income and mounting debt, staving off sour memories of relationships past or coming to terms with her own vocal limitations, I wished she could have reckoned more fully with an apparent, and deep-seated, lack of self-esteem. (For example, in the acknowledgments section, Horn says that without the help of key allies, the book would have been “a few pages about singing and the rest about what a loser I am.”)
Hold up your accomplishments and be proud, I wanted to shout, then I thought better. For all of us, at any age, get stuck or sidetracked by what life brings, and behavioral patterns won’t go away just because we want them to.
Singing, however, can chase away the blues, “similar to falling in love for the first time” as Horn describes. The bones of “Imperfect Harmony” may have some loose narrative and emotional joints, and at times the book resembles the slow panic of a performance where “the timing was just enough off-kilter that all the vocal parts had started to veer away from each other.” But just as Horn’s conductor remains unflappable and rights the ship, so, too, does Horn create a paean to the joys of communal singing that’s both familiar and thrillingly new, and worthy of the closing standing ovation.
Sarah Weinman is the editor of “Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories From the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense,” coming August 27 from Penguin.