Exploring Music, Space, and Unity during Covid: An Interview with Earle Peach

By Klara Huebsch

How does the interplay between music and space shape our connection to one another? How has COVID changed our relationship to sound through the virtual environment? And what does this say about us?

Of all the types of group activities that were forced to adapt to the virtual world during COVID, choirs may have taken the strongest impact. As a singer who sang in choirs in high school, my first ever virtual choir meeting with Vancouver’s Rainbow Singers group completely surprised me. When singing, we had to go on mute because our computer speakers couldn’t share our voices all at once. I couldn’t hear our layered voices and it didn’t feel like a choir at all! But as I watched each choir member on the screen sing to themselves, it still felt like a beautiful synchronous moment. In this unique experience I wondered, what can we learn from the ways that covid has forced us to adapt our musical experience? 

To explore this topic further, I interviewed the director of the choir, Earle Peach. Earle has always created a community in the Vancouver Music Scene. He used to host a cabaret at the Carnegie in the downtown eastside, where 40-50 people sat around round tables each taking turns performing on stage. “We created a little start system. We recognized one another not as individuals, but musicians,” Earle shared. He noticed he had an ability to bring people together and create communities around music. Earlier this year, he did a Songwriting Together Series with the Vancouver Arts Colloquium Society to share his talent and passion for music education. He also runs three singing groups – The Rainbow Singing Group, the Highs and Lows mental health choir, and the Solidarity Notes social justice choir. In adjusting to the virtual choir environment in the light of COVID, Earle reflected “One of the primary adaptations to zoom has been the fact that you can’t hear other people singing. You don’t get that benefit of what choral music is all about, which is: harmony! Particularly, harmony in the same space.” It seems undeniably true that the virtual experience is just not the same. 

So what is it about harmony in a particular space that feels so important to us? To Earle, it is a matter that starts with experiences in the body. “I have this almost semi-mystical belief that it organizes the molecules in the room to have the maximum physical benefit for anyone who is listening to that, ” he shares. Earle reminisced about in-person concerts and described his first time experiencing his body in sound during a pipe organ concert in a giant church in Mexico on one of his choir tours.“It was as if sound had occupied every inch of space in the room, you could not escape it. The only thing you could do is sit down and let it wash over you. And I just became aware of the fact that it was physically affecting me.” You may have noticed this yourself if you have ever gotten goose bumps from an evocative musical performance, what is also known as frission, aesthetic chills, or musical chills, as a neurological pleasure response to sound. Such experiences are especially found when a space, such as a church or concert hall, allows sound to be a medium that takes up the container we are situated in. Why is it important for a listener to feel this washing over experience as Earle had described? Does the expansiveness of momentary sound in space remind us of the transient nature of the external world beyond our minds? How does sound merge our personal subjective experience to something of shared higher beauty? 

Earle believes the sound transfer from the outside to inside is something physically healing, sharing that “a case where there’s a beautiful harmony going has to be arranging your insides in a way that is beneficial to us.” The neurological benefits of making music have indeed been known to lead to certain physical benefits. One study found that people who make music together have increased endorphins, a neurochemical associated with decreased pain. Their findings suggested that there is a scientific benefit of music making in musical groups, which can be taken advantage of to increase group bonding. Maybe it is the combination of this sense of communion with others and our ability to express ourselves in such divinity that drives our desire to fully experience sounds, together. To Earle, this is what draws people to making music, for it “allows the possibility of people to experience themselves creating beauty. And that’s the most powerful experience anyone can have. Like this came out of me.” 

Have you ever experienced yourself feeling a moment of awe in creating beauty? Why is it so important to have these experiences and why is it different with music? Maybe it is because harmony allows our souls to soar to higher heights of freedom, where we lose ourselves in the moment of connecting with everything that cannot be said with only words. The music allows us to tap into our secret selves that we cannot even understand. Maybe we are reminded that there is an underlying beauty to life that stays true despite our sorrows and turbulence. Music is there to help us during every personal challenge, making us feel everything will be okay because there’s always some higher relatability connecting us beyond our individuality. It is through making music together, like in a choir, where we can collectively understand one another’s feelings that we cannot talk about. Singing together allows us to feel the healing of our insides at the same time, as we feel the harmony move our hearts in the same way. “The collective coordinated expression of emotion amplifies amongst each of us. Our ability to project that and represent it out of ourselves and have it surround us like an envelope is almost infinite,” Earle said. 

Earle has seen this sense of the infinite be felt by audiences during his performances. When the Solidarity Notes sang for a local politician’s memorial they got a standing ovation, even though they did not sing anything remarkable. Earle thought to himself “what public speaker could they have brought in? Who else could have gotten that reaction from a crowd? The reason they were reacting was because they were hearing themselves on the stage, in the beauty.” This may be the exact reason why the virtual zoom choir meetings have felt so off – you can’t directly hear yourself in the group’s beauty. We are reminded that the magic of a choir comes not from hearing your own voice contribute to the group, but how the group’s voice contributes to you. 

Earle did however find a way to share the group’s voice, by working with each individual in the choir to get video recordings of their parts, which he then compiled into a mosaic-like video called a “quarentune”. Ahh, the choir members could finally hear what the harmonies sound like! When he told me about this videoing technique, I thought of YouTube videos like this where singers from all across the world come together to make a single harmonious song. My personal favourite was the Wellerman Sea Shanty TikTok that trended during Covid. In this case, it is the virtual context that allows the common passion for sea shanties (which I must say is quite niche) to turn into a grand wonder where it may not have emerged before. This example pushes me to question how we should see “spaces” for inhabiting music, where the asynchronous virtual environment is not seen as a limiting factor, but an opportunity to make music in completely new ways. 

Earle also shared the ways in which virtual choirs still lead to bonding interactions amongst the group. “It shakes up the normal set-relations, everything is turned upside down, it forces us to speak to one-another in different ways,” he shared. In my experience in The Rainbow Singers group, it seemed that everyone was genuinely happy to be there, even though they weren’t really “there,” and the bits of banter amongst the singers were really quite endearing. Earle shared how each time a “group of people show up again and again and they get to know one another and care for one another’s stories, they learn a little more, and they keep track of each other.” He found this particularly in the Highs and Lows mental-health choir. When someone is sick, the group compiles a nice message for the person, and when they return, everyone is delighted to see them again. When Earle told me about this, it made me question if the social benefits of being in a choir are found more so by the existence of having a space to gather, rather than with the quality of sound. “Just being able to get together and share music is a lovely, lovely thing,” shared Earle. 

Adapting to the virtual choir environment has taught us that beauty in life is found by hearing yourself in others. As life returns to normal and choirs can finally hear their voices ring together, the spacess that hold sound can remind us that we should cherish the realms that allow for our senses to be felt through one another’s presence. While Covid has reminded us of our emotional yearning of connecting through music in person, we simultaneously have experienced the higher potential of the virtual sound environments. New connections have been made where they might not have occured made before, and this could only be the beginning. Post-covid, how will our increased desire for interpersonal connection form new musical spaces? What would those spaces look like, both in-person and online? How does humanity’s evolving quest for social harmony evolve musical harmony itself?


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