By Natalie Hyacinth
Space for Peace is a series of interfaith musical events that gathers together a diverse range of faith groups, choirs, communities and individuals to sing for and reflect on peace. First conceived by Reverend Professor June Boyce-Tillman MBE in 2005, the events are markedly innovative in their approach. The event sees a varied collection of faith, choir and community groups occupy a space in a place of worship where they sing songs or chants for peace of their choice. Emphasis though is placed upon the harmony and unison between the diverse groups through the shared experience of singing intercultural peace chants in what is aptly called a “musical vigil for peace”.
One of the distinctive markers of Space for Peace is that there is no real, traditional ‘audience’ as such. The audience are very much mobile and thus active participants in moving around the space and exploring the singing of each group of their own accord. This is rather different from traditional musical services where an audience is mostly static and focus is centered upon one sound. Thus instead of a traditional programme, attendees receive a “map” that illustrates where each group is situated throughout the space.
I attended this year’s annual Space for Peace event with my supervisors, Professor David Gilbert and Dr Henry Stobart on Wednesday 27th January, Holocaust Memorial Day. Held in Winchester Cathedral, a vast, breathtaking pre-Norman building, it was a truly mesmerising experience. The evening began at 7.15pm with a short opening ceremony by the Dean of Winchester. I was really touched by a prayer the Dean recited that was found beside a victim of the Holocaust, it read;
“Lord, remember not only the men of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted upon us. Remember rather the fruits we have brought, thanks to this suffering: our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart that has grown out of this. And when they come to judgment, let all the fruits we have bourne be their forgiveness.” –
Anonymous, Prayer for Yom HaShoah
The prayer was followed by the massed, unified choir made up of around 120 people from the diverse groups singing peace chants from a number of different traditions. Present was an Imam, a Rabbi, devotees from the Southampton Vedic Temple, the Baha’is of Hampshire, Brighton & Hove Interfaith Choir, children from two primary schools and more. “Shalom” and “Salaam” were the central, unifying chants which we were all encouraged to sing along to. Each group then made their way from the nave to their space around the cathedral, passing through and among us on their way. I felt this produced a wonderfully paired sonic and visual sensation where I could intimately follow the slow movement of each group through the audience with both my eyes and my ears. When a group passed directly beside me it was interesting to hear the resonance of their voices in motion. A really lovely moment occurred when one of the primary school choirs processed past me with the little uniformed students singing the famous Beatles song, “Let It Be“. Very cute indeed!! The slow procession of each group from the nave to their space around the cathedral marked the beginning of the singing and chanting of individual pieces. There were 17 groups in total dotted around the cathedral along with a roaming solo singer, saxophonist and dancers from the University of Winchester’s Dance and Choreography degree.
I thoroughly enjoyed visiting each group’s unique space while also exploring the striking interior of the cathedral. Walking from each group to the next provided an opportunity to experience a diverse range of repertories and singing styles. I particularly enjoyed listening to the beautiful songs of the Vedic temple devotees in a small cove towards the back of the cathedral.
The King Alfred Singers, the University of Winchester’s principal choir, included “Softly” by Will Todd as one of their songs which reminded me of my memorable time spent learning this song for St Thomas’ the Apostle Nine Lessons & Carols Christmas choir event in December. I also thoroughly enjoyed watching the dancers glide through the vast space and improvise elegant and captivating movements to different pieces.
The most moving moments were when voices from different groups blended such as the poignancy of hearing the soft chants of the Imaam and the powerful singing of the Rabbi fuse to create an integrated and uplifting soundscape. Thus the diversity of voices, chants, feelings and movements meant an affecting, multi sensory experience enhanced by the spatial splendor of the cathedral.
After 45 minutes of singing, each group made their procession back to the cathedral’s nave, lighting a candle along the way. Once all gathered together again, the massed choir holding their lit candles, provided a stunning visual image. The evening concluded with the hundreds in attendance singing in unison once again, followed by a moment of reflection and prayer.
The event is thus a significant experience of communal interchange through song, chanting and feeling. I think the event is important for me not just in terms of engaging with an interfaith narrative for my research, but also in thinking how music can be used in such an inspiring way and how to be innovative with the use of space.
Reverend June, inspired by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, has often stated that we must give “difference a dignity”. I truly believe that an event like Space for Peace greatly inspires this ideal and helps stimulate lasting peaceful bonds between those present and beyond.
I would like to thank Reverend June for her kind hospitality, openness and the time she has given in explaining to me the concepts and ethos behind Space for Peace.