Sing to Live

Gay men’s choruses across the country, including Perfect Harmony Men’s Chorus in Madison, have provided places of comfort and revitalization for Arthur Durkee.

We sing because we love
We sing because we must

The experience that sparked a lifelong love of singing in men’s choruses occurred when, as a college freshman, I joined the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club. The Club went on tour in Europe for several weeks the next summer, and won first place as the best male chorus in the world at the annual International Choral Eisteddfod in Llangollen, Wales.

Music has always been the core of my life and creative work. My mother was a concert pianist and teacher, my father an opera fan. I began music lessons very young, and wrote music from the beginning. I eventually graduated from Michigan with a degree in music composition.

Years later, after I came out, I joined the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus, then the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. I worked with excellent artistic directors and was surrounded by musicians.

That’s how I discovered the GALA Choral movement: LGBT people singing to make a better world. I dove in and never looked back. It’s not often that you can combine your activism with your artistry. It was heaven grounded in making music. I hope to always sing in a GALA Chorus, wherever life’s journey takes me.

We sing because we suffer
We sing so we can fly

In 2006, I left California to become full-time live-in caregiver for my parents in Wisconsin until their deaths. There was a GALA Chorus in Madison, but I knew little about it. I’d lived in Madison in the 1990s and was active in the improvised music scene, playing in jazz and rock bands. But being a caregiver leaves little time for your own needs, and moving from San Francisco to small-town Wisconsin meant going from feast to famine. Some time passed before I contacted many people with whom I used to play music. 

Then, just as my parents passed over, I was diagnosed with a life-threatening chronic illness. That was the last straw, pushing me past being able to cope. I felt isolated, lost, afraid. I needed a social outlet as well as a musical one. I was shattered by illness, grief, depression, and an uncertain future. I needed to come back to life again. I needed to sing.

I sought out Perfect Harmony Men’s Chorus and signed up.

When we sing
We feel alive
When we sing
We are free

Singing is full-body music-making, inherently somatic and spiritual. It has deep power to unify groups through the body’s rhythms, muscles and blood and soul all dancing together, as natural as breathing. I can enter a sung performance tired and weak, and come out energized, alive, and aware. Music unites.

Renewing social and musical connections through joining a gay men’s chorus was healing and fulfilling. When I first discovered the Radical Faeries, I felt like I had come home. When I joined my first GALA Chorus, I came home, again, to a large, noisy extended family of cousins and brothers. As a boy I was painfully shy, bullied for years just for being different. I can still be socially awkward, so some days I marvel at this direction my life has taken.

When we sing
Nothing can hurt you
When we sing
You are safe

I now believe that singing in Perfect Harmony saved my life.

As I was journeying through chronic illness that became life-threatening, Perfect Harmony commissioned me to write words and music for “Heartlands,” a large choral work telling the stories of members of the Chorus: what it is like to grow up and live as LGBT people in the rural and small-town Midwestern heartlands. During the writing period, I went through major surgery. Working on “Heartlands” gave me reason to get up in the morning, and reason to keep going, through all the medical hell and depression I was experiencing. Without exaggeration, I can say that writing “Heartlands” literally kept me alive.

I continue to feel supported by Perfect Harmony. I write new choral works and songs, and we keep on performing them. I sometimes get introduced nowadays as our “resident composer,” which makes me both blush shyly and feel proud.

I know how lucky I am, and grateful beyond words to convey. And so, I write music to give back, to pay the favor forward. To pass on the welcoming acceptance I have received. To give comfort, to inspire.

Writing music for the LGBT choral movement is both activism and artistry. We sing to make a better world.

Music comes from Heaven
It gathers in our skies
With stars above us wheeling
We sing the world to life.