Eighteen hours after finishing the Wicklow Way, Vox Peregrini stood in Christ Church Cathedral, which sits in the city center of bustling Dublin. The ensemble was dressed in professional concert attire. Their hair was in its place. Make-up on. Shaven and trimmed beards.
"This is who we are. This is our comfort zone," one pilgrim told me. "Out there on the trail, all we felt was discomfort."
We met nine days ago. Today was the first time I had seen them in anything but hiking gear, ponytails, sans cosmetics. For me, seeing them in performance mode, was the reality of returning to the normal world. A world in which I feel less comfortable with every pilgrimage. The mask of "normality" fills me with dis-ease. The group seems a bit unsettled as they began the performance.
After the concert one pilgrim recommended that for the next Vox Peregrini group it would be best to give them a day of recovery before the first performance. However, as a sort of anthropologist of pilgrimage, I wanted to see them in performance mode as soon as possible after they finished walking. My desire was to see a raw pilgrim try and perform to an audience.
Their self-reflective critique of that first concert was harsh.
"I coudn't hear anyone so I was afraid to sing out for fear of being too loud."
"I felt like I was trying to sing for the audience. It didn't feel right."
"We made some serious mistakes."
They had just finished walking 100 miles a few hours before. Their bodies were aching. Feet still blistered. Knee and ankle braces still worn. The jarring effect of returning to the bustle of life after eight days of almost pure nature filled silence was still rattling their souls. They preformed out of what described as their pre-pilgrimage paradigm. And it "didn't feel right," to them.
Twenty-four hours later, at St. Patrick's Cathedral, just a few blocks down the street, Vox Peregrini stood in place to sing their second concert. Before they could begin, however, their director had to ask a tour guide, and her loud voice, to move her tourists off center stage. I wondered about the irony.
The Vox Peregrini choir seemed be standing closer together than yesterday. John had rearranged who stood where in the now tighter half-circle. As they performed, it was apparent he had also changed the order of the pieces of music.Their voices were much stronger. They appeared less inhibited by the noisy wandering tourists. They swayed, more at ease with themselves and one another. They smiled at one another. They seemed to have found a new voice.
After the concert I asked John to compare the first performance with the second. "Yesterday was like watching TV. Today was like making out with your girlfriend."
A member of Vox Peregrini told me that just before they walked out to sing, John encouraged them to sing for themselves. Sing like you sang on the Way. "Listen to wind," he said, "Sing in rhythm with the trees."
Vox Peregrini completed the Wicklow Way. Up some extremely difficult hills. Down into some steep valleys. They walked through the deep dark forest. They trekked across the bald White Hill. They sang in the forest. They sang for themselves. They sang for Frank from Germany on the side of a hill. They sang for Mark and Roz from Australia high in the Wicklow forest. At St. Patrick's Cathedral they sang in tune with the natural world. I wept.
I can't say how the pilgrimage has affected the members of Vox Peregrini. They haven't had time to process. I have asked them to share some reflections with me during the next few days, weeks, and months. How, if at all, has the pilgrimage changed their solo and ensemble perspective of performance as well their creative craft of music? There will be much to learn from them. As for me, I too am processing. I will write one more blog for Vox. One more reflection. One more in the line of a life time of memories and reflections they have sang into my soul.