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A Flawless Journey In Human Voice

Is there such a thing as perfection? If there is, how would we define it? It should be something more than a “lack of flaws.” And what’s a flaw? Based on what, who, and which perspective?

Perfection and other similar concepts have always been on my mind ever since my childhood—a time when I learned how to read and write by myself at an early age, focused on never making a mistake at school when everyone’s eyes were on me, and enjoyed doing everything he did (not just hobbies) in the best way he could. Fifteen years ago, I took over as conductor of the jazz choir of the music club at Boğaziçi University, where I studied mathematics, at an age which could also be considered early. I think it was around that time when I truly started facing this concept, and later, questioned its existence over the years. The first thing I did was to host a new audition. Must have been my understanding of the first step to achieve “perfection.” This was followed by a vast research period; hours and hours of long and draining rehearsals; repetitions for the sake of eliminating a tiny nuance in a scale; reviewing texts and concert schedules with a meticulous effort, examining every punctuation and space; putting together costumes to the finest detail and slides to be displayed on stage, along with the angles of the lights and stage décor— and that first performance.

How was it? Really good?

Was it perfect? Of course not.

So? We keep on…

I believe life has tested me with some of the hardest challenges I could ever face: quest for perfection and “human voice.” It’s unaccompanied choral music, which means it’s made solely with human voice, with zero electronic track or instruments. If there’s a path to perfection, then it must have been the thing through which we can directly communicate with arguably all kinds of beings in the universe without any other device, i.e. our own voice. Try to imagine it; in order to put forth something perfect with all those voices, each voice of the choir needs to be individually perfect as well. The conductor in particular! It all sounds so simple, doesn’t it? It’s not—not for me, at least, and I’m still not sure I’m comfortable enough. For instance, in any one of our concerts, when you look at the stage from your seat, you see a near-perfect symmetry whether it’s empty or not. You might ask why we’re so obsessed with visuality as musicians; but it’s all one thing—a complete performance that caters to many senses at once. I spend minutes, even hours, organising the stage. I take time to explore each corner of the stage, laying half-face on the ground to calculate millimetres, or assembling and disassembling the platforms we build on stage again and again. These stage organisations mostly looked amazing and provided great pictures, mesmerising the audience combined with the live performance. But was it all worth it, and what did it take away? Or weren’t there better examples already? The question, however, is this: Can you imagine the musical aspect of this intense visual preparation even for simple stage organisation? Days, nights, weeks, and months spent in pursuit of perfection… Rehearsals from day to night, loss of belief, dilemmas, restarts, new tries, feeling stuck, endless stress, fatigue, and low motivation…

An immense effort is paid for the most accurate and best vocalisation of a single note. The volume, resonance, intonation, articulation, before, and after of that single note; the unity of all voices of the choir; the singular harmony between different notes; and a whole work comprising thousands of notes similar to these ones… Is it over? Not by a long shot. You try to imagine the original time or place of composition; trace each word and read every sentence in many ways; look for the notes to fit each syllable; think about how many meanings a melody of words can have and discuss, for hours, how to express each meaning in the best, most accurate, and firmest way possible; try and fail on an endless loop; and find agreement or disagreement in those discussions. A never-ending, fine craftsmanship and process of “refinement;” it can be a studio recording of a single that lasted hours, or a concert performance featuring dozens of songs. While I used to regard music or art as a “flawless destination” I wanted to reach, I’ve come to realise over the years that this is, in fact, a process. A never-ending (or never-meant-to-end) quest for perfection—that journey is art, or better yet, life itself. The more I embraced this perspective, the more I started to enjoy the journey. I’m still pushing my limits, maybe a little bit more every day. However, I now know that there’s no terminal. Knowing this, I march on, taking in the delights of my quest—delving deeper into my work as I feel and make others feel the desire and passion for attaining perfection at a deeper level.

Scholar and author Ernst Fischer said it beautifully: “As machines become more and more efficient and perfect, so it will become clear that imperfection is the greatness of man.” How interesting; didn’t we learn that it’s the other way around? How can imperfection be the “greatness of man”? Maybe it is. When we listen to music or see a live performance, do we feel goose bumps; become misty-eyed; or turn to brooding or daydreaming? Can it “move” us? Maybe that should be the question. Aren’t flaws the very things that make us feel these things, that make us laugh or cry? Our beautiful flaws, “flawless” flaws. Going on an endless journey through a single note or voice, losing yourself in sound, following an uninterrupted line, a flow—touching the ground, firmly, with your feet while soaring high into the sky, with a connection to both below and above. What difference would there remain between us and machines if we got rid of our flaws? Today, we talk about machines, i.e. artificial intelligence, in art and music. We’re very excited about it but also concerned. Can artificial intelligence make “art” by itself? Think about it for a minute.

Considering all that, I believe that if there’s a type of perfection we can see or touch, it’s about chasing your passion and never giving up “no matter what.” It’s about using every ounce of your abilities to do your absolute best. It’s about getting up even if you fall a dozen times and marching on. It can also be standing up against everyone and walking your path by yourself when no one believes in you. It’s about opening up yourself and your heart; being able to stand naked and vulnerable, surrounded by everything and everyone, with your most intense feelings. It’s about accepting your flaws and coming to terms with the fact that this is what makes us human. It’s about apologising candidly and honestly. It’s about saying “thanks to” instead of “despite” and feeling grateful. Those who know me, or some of my friends, will find it hard to believe that I wrote this but this is the truth. My choir-fellow friends who spend hours and days for a single scale or note, or the tiniest thing about something. Where does it lead, and what does it teach us? A never-ending quest. The most important thing I learned throughout this journey is that it’s never worth breaking anyone’s heart. So, on our journey to look for “perfection,” I’d like to apologise to everyone whom I hurt and to myself. We’re better together!

Yes, maybe perfection in music doesn’t exist but we can still look for it even though we know the truth. Or can something like this exist in a place, in eternity maybe, where “none of us can see”?

Recommended music: Caroline Shaw, Partita for 8 Voices


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