Classical: Shock of the Old

Peter Hallock turned medieval tradition into a contemporary phenomenon.

After 53 years of leading the Sunday-night services that have become a local cult phenomenon, Peter Hallock's stepping down from directing St. Mark's Cathedral's Compline Choir is less a retirement than a shift from one of his guiding interests to another. Hallock's lifelong infatuation with sound—he calls himself a "sound freak"—has led him in two divergent, though for him complementary, directions.He grew up in Kent—not a suburb during the 1920s and '30s, but a village of about 2,500. "It was like Our Town," he says. "Everybody knew everybody else." Aside from piano lessons, the nearby Episcopal church provided "about the only live music in town" to feed his early musical hunger. Steered toward the organ at 12, its complex mechanism intrigued him: "Most of the organists I know, especially the male organists, all agree that the reason they started playing the organ was because they loved the gadget aspect of it...and especially because you could play loud." Hallock played for church services from age 14 through his first year of organ and composition study at the UW—interrupted when he was drafted for World War II service and sent to the Okinawa campaign. Which proved a boon, since the GI Bill not only paid for his final three years of college but for postgraduate study at the Royal School of Church Music in Canterbury, England, where he immersed himself in the centuries-old Anglican liturgical tradition. As he recalls, "You're really living in that cultural milieu...in the building Thomas à Becket got murdered in."Then as ever in English cathedrals, only males sang in choral services, taking even the high parts. This was new to Hallock, since there hadn't been any countertenors in Kent. But hearing the great male alto Alfred Deller inspired him: "I'd never heard such an outrageous thing. I was absolutely mesmerized...I knew that I physiologically had some resource for that kind of head-voice singing." Though Hallock became quite proficient—enough to replace Deller when he moved to London—career opportunities for countertenors in America were obviously limited. That, and the fragility of the voice ("It's not going to last beyond age 40...it's like being a football player"), led Hallock to take a more stable path when he returned to Seattle, founding the Compline Choir in 1956.For its first decade, the Choir catered to those like Hallock who wanted to preserve the tradition of sung evening liturgical services; listeners were few. But sometime around 1965, the Choir's performances became a hit: "All of a sudden, the place was full, and they were all young...it came out of Haight-Ashbury, and somehow struck a nerve with that age strata." New interests in Eastern spirituality, Age-of-Aquarius tribalism, and altered states of consciousness (natural or chemically induced) led many to seek the Compline services' meditative mood—"the dim lights, all the space, the music beautifully sung."But they've been consistently popular for 45 years now; every Sunday night sees St. Mark's full of listeners sprawled around the reverberant sanctuary in silent contemplation. Hallock agrees that in today's hyper-wired, ever-distracted culture, there's a need "just to go someplace and be quiet for half an hour." Freed from their iPhones and Twitter feeds, "people are surprised by silence."Hallock, though, is far from a technophobe. With Doug Fullington's Tudor Choir, the 85-year-old is recording his earlier works, relishing the editing and production processes. (One piece, descriptive of the Last Judgment, involves a complex interplay of choir, organ, and percussion, plus a carillon that had to be recorded at a church in Detroit.) Like Glenn Gould, Hallock believes a recording can do much more than merely replicate a concert experience. Discussing the possibilities for combining live and electronic sounds, his references range from the audio system used for the original Fantasia to the emotional effect of the spatial placement of the musicians in Bach's St. John Passion and at Princess Diana's funeral.Hallock cites his Te Deum from the early '60s, which calls for a small choir to represent cherubim and seraphim. For the premiere, he had a pioneering idea: "We'll record the heavenly-chorus stuff separately, then when we perform it in the cathedral, we'll put up this surround-sound" array of speakers, installed in what was then St. Mark's attic. "When that moment came, [there was] this big buildup of brass, then everything stopped," and the prerecorded choir track floated down from above. "It was out of this world."Few studios are set up to deal with this sort of surround-sound recording, though Hallock found such a facility at SoDo's Clatter and Din. He speaks of this project with the same bubbling enthusiasm that has sustained him all these decades: "The result, when it's finally done, is really awesome."gborchert@seattleweekly.com

 
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