"A recreational activity." "A sort of fraternity." A chance to "sing some songs."
Albert Jordan is traveling back in time, tossing phrases around to summon up the spirit in which he and three fellow undergraduates at St. Olaf College founded the male vocal ensemble Cantus 25 years ago.
In the quarter-century since, Cantus has evolved into a beloved fixture of the Twin Cities musical circuit, and one of just two full-time vocal chamber ensembles in the country. (San Francisco's Chanticleer is the other.)
While the coronavirus put its 25th anniversary celebrations on hold, the group convened before shutting down for a series of videos called "The COVID-19 Sessions," which it calls "a gift to our community and all those who find themselves alone and searching for inspiration and comfort."
Back in 1994, however, Jordan and co-founders Brian Arreola, Erick Lichte and Kjell Stenberg just wanted to have some fun singing.
"We were all in St. Olaf's freshman male choir, the Viking Chorus, and really liked the experience and the sounds," he remembers.
Returning as sophomores, the four banded together to sing for pleasure, with little thought about the future. "It certainly wasn't our goal at the time to make it a career," Jordan said.
But the group's special quality was soon evident. Michael Hanawalt recalls hearing them in 1996, when he arrived on campus as a freshman.
"I attended their concert in a dormitory lounge during Parents' Weekend that fall and was completely mesmerized by their singing," he recalls. "I auditioned a few weeks later as a tenor, and remained with Cantus until 2007."
Timothy Takach was another who joined the burgeoning ranks of Cantus in 1996, his freshman year at St. Olaf.
"They needed another bass, so on Day 1 I moved into my room and then headed over to the music building to sing through Franz Biebl's Ave Maria," he says.
"After we were done, the guys looked at each other and decided I could stay."
Twelve guys in a van
Well over 40 singers have been Cantus members over the years, with numbers ranging from a peak of 12 to the current eight-man lineup.
Its early days were marked by a pioneering spirit, and a sense of raw excitement about the path the group was taking.
"The first tour Cantus ever took, in the summer of 1998, was really special — 12 college guys, one 15-passenger van, a trailer and a cello," Hanawalt remembers.
"We had only four legitimate bookings in a six-week span — the rest involved singing at churches for freewill offerings, CD sales and homestays. But as young guys charting our way in the world for the first time, it was invigorating."
A decade later, Cantus was ready to evolve further, ditching the idea of a single artistic director and spreading responsibility for musical decisions evenly among the individual singers.
"It was a watershed moment," alumnus Adam Reinwald said. "All of a sudden, the singers had vast amounts of responsibility and weight on our shoulders, and I think we rose to the occasion. We trusted each other, and that was everything."
The artist-led approach is still how Cantus works today, decisions about style and interpretation being eked out gradually in long, collaborative rehearsals.
But across the years, the "Cantus sound" has been anything but an unchanging entity.
"You can hear it in the recordings," Takach said. "There was a handful of years in the mid-2000s when we were experimenting with our new 'big boy' voices, using free expressive vibrato. Then we pulled some of that out of the sound to achieve a simpler tone."
Whatever the precise ingredients, the main hallmark of the Cantus sound has always been sheer quality, and an unbroken belief in the special way that vocal music has of warming and invigorating the human spirit.
A palpable sense of joy
The group had to postpone its 25th anniversary gala and canceled all concerts for the foreseeable future.
To partly plug the gap, Cantus has released a set of 18 videos on its website, with more to follow, recorded live March 17-20 at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.
These "COVID-19 Sessions" show the group in prime form vocally, and amply reflect the joy they take in communal music-making.
It's a sense of joy that Takach feels the various incarnations of Cantus have always shared. And it will, he says, emerge again when the ensemble is finally able to resume singing in public.
"I remember finishing up a recording session in 1998 at midnight, and still wanting to go sing together under the arches on the Princeton University campus. Because we loved it. And even today, every time I listen to Cantus I still feel that they love it."
AND DON'T FORGET: 5 CANTUS ALUMNI
In Cantus: 1995-2006; now a senior human resources consultant.
His story: "I am just an HR dweeb now, practicing things like critical conversations, dispute resolution and project management. Despite all the schooling and corporate professional experience I have gleaned, I really learned all of those things in Cantus. It is the ultimate laboratory for experimentation and the professional social construct. I still perform from time to time, and also serve as a coach and adviser for a couple of a cappella groups at my wife's school. She runs the choral program at Kennedy High in Bloomington."
In Cantus: 1996-2004; now a university professor and conductor.
His story: "I was a tenor in Cantus, but I was also its first full-time executive director, so I learned an incredible amount both about choral singing and the nonprofit arts world. After Cantus I got my master's and Ph.D. and I've been conducting choirs ever since. I'm currently the director of graduate choral studies at Florida State University and artistic director of the Tallahassee Community Chorus, a 200-voice choir that performs major works with orchestra. This may sound cheesy, but I learned in Cantus that with the right mix of people, a lot of talent and some good luck, anything is possible."
In Cantus: 1996-2013; now a composer.
His story: "In 2013, I had a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old at home. Family life can take a lot of energy, and we were having a hard time justifying my time away from home with Cantus. But after 17 years I could tell that the group had the capacity to weather any storms and continue its upward trajectory. I was able to transition fairly quickly into a career as a full-time composer. I still take a handful of singing gigs every season with some of the professional choirs around the country. I'd miss it too much if I didn't."
In Cantus: 1998-2014; now an arts consultant and performer.
His story: "I was part of the group that brought Cantus from a student ensemble to a fully professional outfit. But in 2014 my wife and I had a son, and I was also ready to explore some new, self-propelled options in my career. So I jumped right into a position of assistant conductor with the National Lutheran Choir. I've shifted again, and am currently the owner of Beer Choir LLC, a community-building singing event endeavor. I also am an arts consultant for strategic and organizational development through my company Open Voices, and I gig around town with various organizations."
In Cantus: 2005-09; now a professional solo singer.
His story: "I learned a lot about my voice with Cantus, and wanted to explore more opera, recital and oratorio repertoire with other companies and orchestras. But when you have a group that works as hard as Cantus, there's unfortunately no room to take on other projects. So I decided to pursue my master's degree at Yale and explore the world of solo music. Since then I've traveled as a freelancer, singing operas, recitals and concerts with orchestras across the U.S., Europe and Japan."
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.