Larry Bode is the Choir Organizer for the Greater Manchester Humanist Choir. This is an interesting depiction of the admixture of the arts and humanities and a secular life philosophy (Humanism).
Here, we talk about his life, work, views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is family background, e.g., geography, culture, language, education, and religion or lack thereof?
Larry Bode: I am the eldest of two boys born to ‘lower middle class’ parents in a leafy Cheshire suburb of South Manchester. My mother, especially, insisted on impeccable manners and behaviour. Our somewhat strict upbringing probably awakened a rebellious spirit within me. Religion was not high on the family’s agenda.
We occasionally attended Sunday School and our mother would take us either to the local Anglican or United Reform Church on special days in the Christian calendar. The weather dictated which church we attended; if it was raining, we would go to the nearer United Reform church. I was fortunate to pass the ‘11 plus’ examination and therefore enrolled at the prestigious local state Grammar School for Boys which had an outstanding academic record.
I was only the second member of both sides of the family to go on to University. On leaving University I pursued a career in Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery.
Jacobsen: What is personal background including the discovery or development of a secular outlook on life and philosophy?
Bode: At school, I hated sports. A childhood illness of poliomyelitis meant that my sporting prowess was somewhat limited. I particularly hated cross-country running. I just could not understand what the point of it was. Along with a few like-minded boys, I would run just out of sight and wait there until we felt it was appropriate to return to base.
Three or four of us would congregate beneath an oak tree and discuss the meaning of life. I remember vividly showering after ‘exercising’ when one of my peers shouted: ‘Bode!’ (in my traditional school none of us had first names). ‘Bode! You’re a Humanist’. This was the first time I had heard the word ‘Humanist.’
I was fifteen. I consulted various books and my colleague was indeed correct. I was a Humanist. I wanted to share the humanist worldview with others, so wrote an article for the school magazine. It was titled “Humanism…..intellectual twaddle?” Shortly after publication, the father of a first-year pupil contacted me and invited me to join a local Humanist discussion group.
Jacobsen: As the Choir Organiser for the Greater Manchester Humanist Choir, what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?
Bode: In 2013, following the success of the London Humanist Choir (formerly the British Humanist Choir), it was thought worthwhile setting up a Humanist Choir in the North West of England. Having difficulty uttering the word “no,” I agreed to oversee the administration of choir activities. Duties include engagement of musical directors, attracting new members, finding suitable and affordable practice spaces, and keeping a lookout for opportunities to perform. I also deal with the finances.
Jacobsen: Many see “choir” and assume “religious choir” or “spiritual music.” What is the status of the humanist music genre? Who were the first pioneers in humanist music or, at least, humanistic music?
Bode: I must say that when I first heard that there was a Humanist choir based in London. I thought the concept was a bit odd. I thought it would be a parody of a religious choir. It is not. On reflection, I realized that there are many types of choirs that have no religious connotations e.g. blues choirs, pop choirs, male voice choirs, and so forth.
Perhaps, a choir dedicated to Humanism was not so odd. In the UK, there are currently 3 Humanist choirs that I am aware of. I understand the hope is that further choirs will spring up. Music with Humanist sentiments has been around since time immemorial. For example, we enjoy singing a Karl Kramer arrangement of Seikilos Epitaph which is said to be the oldest piece of music for which we have both the words (Ancient Greek) and musical notation. This dates from around the 1st century CE. The rough translation is: Be joyous and dance and seize the day. We are only here until we are gone. And time demands to be paid. This is in keeping with the Humanist ideal that we should aim for happiness in the one life we have.
Jacobsen: What principles and values undergird humanist choir music? In other words, much of the classical music may have religious content, which, in some sense, may have interpretations as humanistic, or simply religious music performed by a humanist community of singers. Nonetheless, I wonder as to an expert on the nature of humanist music and humanist choir performances. Same tools of musicology and the same theory behind it, but different sensibilities and different interpretations (if not creations) of music.
Bode: Our Humanist choir’s repertoire is influenced by many different musical genres. Essentially the lyrics often refer to the many aspects of the human condition; love, joy, mutual caring, loneliness and so on. A few examples follow. ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon is popular with Humanist/Atheist audiences especially with the words ‘and no religion too’. We are happy singing the Jewish ‘Shalom Havayreem’ -‘Glad Tidings we bring of Peace on Earth’. The Shakespeare sonnet ‘Fear No More’ provides the lyrics for a beautiful arrangement by William Morris. This piece was specially commissioned by the British Humanist Association. ‘If I can dream’ by Walter Earl Brown was popularized by Elvis Presley and takes the famous Martin Luther King ‘I have a Dream’ speech as its inspiration. ‘All Things Dull and Ugly’ a Monty Python parody on the hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ is a popular item in any Greater Manchester Humanist concert. ‘Streets of London’ by Ralph McTell is a contemporary folk song which asks, ‘How can you tell me you’re lonely’ and relates the dire straits of the London homeless and dispossessed. Just a few examples from our repertoire.
Jacobsen: How large in the Greater Manchester Humanist Choir? What are the demographics of the Greater Manchester Humanist Choir?
Bode: We are a small choir of around 8 to 10 members. We have members spanning a wide range of ages (20 to 70 years old). Despite our hard efforts it has proven difficult to recruit new members. We are working on this problem.
Jacobsen: What makes the Greater Manchester Humanist Choir unique in its dynamics and performance style compared to other choirs of the area?
Bode: This is a difficult one to answer. I suppose the very name ‘Humanist Choir’ is intriguing. Apart from the choir’s aim of producing entertaining performances we hope to encourage discussion and thought about Humanism. We hope the choir stimulates an interest in Humanism and perhaps our audiences might be inspired to investigate further the concepts of Humanism.
Jacobsen: Where has the Greater Manchester Humanist Choir performed in the past? Who have been distinguished performers or guest-listeners to performances of the Greater Manchester Humanist Choir?
Bode: We have performed at local and national Humanist gatherings. We have been invited to sing at Sunday Assembly meetings. Sunday Assembly is a non-religious organization meeting to celebrate life with songs, readings and words of wisdom. We have also sung in Unitarian chapels as part of Sunday services. (Curiously I am also a Unitarian lay preacher who likes to give a Humanist take on life; I am often surprised how accepted my atheist views are). At Christmas, the choir sings at the Manchester Christmas Markets and raises money for charitable organizations. Our proudest performance was singing at the 2014 World Humanist Congress which took place in Oxford. We sang in the 17th century Sheldonian Theatre in front of an audience of around 900 which included many world-renowned Humanist leaders.
Jacobsen: Who are some humanist composers to listen to now?
Bode: We particularly like the humorous but often profound songs of the Australian Tim Minchin. Songs such as ‘White wine in the Sun’, ‘Thank you, God’ and, ‘Pope Song’, are popular but somewhat irreverent.’
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion?
Bode: I feel the concept of a Humanist Choir is in its infancy. We have much to learn. The London Humanist Choir is already making great strides and we hope to follow their example. Thanks for asking me to talk about the Greater Manchester Humanist Choir. It is been a pleasure speaking to you.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Larry.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists,American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
Image Credit: Larry Bode/Greater Manchester Humanist Choir.