“The TTC’s sound system was the last thing on our minds”: This LGBTQ choir is behind the Pride Month subway chimes
When riders heard the choral arrangement garbled through the TTC’s PA system, mass confusion ensued. Noah Witenoff, the vice president of Singing Out, on being at the centre of a transit scandal
Earlier this month, the TTC debuted “Pride chime,” a sound takeover initiative that saw the usual subway chimes replaced by a choral version, performed by members of Toronto’s largest non-auditioned queer choir, Singing Out. A great way to celebrate Pride, in theory, but in reality certain technical difficulties (read: the TTC’s prehistoric sound system) led to a less-than-perfect debut. Criticism of the new sound—one person compared it to a “bloodthirsty rooster”—got so intense that the TTC nixed the chimes, promising to fix the problem and reinstate them in time for parade weekend. Here, Noah Witenoff, vice-president of Singing Out, explains what it’s like to be at the centre of a transit scandal and why not all tweet critiques are fair game.
How did you first get involved with Singing Out? Were you a kid with Broadway ambitions?
Ha, no. I did some musical theatre as a kid but was self-conscious about singing in public. For years, I did most of my belting in the shower. But in 2019, a friend told me about Singing Out. In the past, I’d been too nervous to try out for choirs, but Singing Out is non-auditioned. So, I registered and that was that. I was part of a few live performances before the pandemic hit and then, obviously, we had to go online for a while—singing in a room with more than 100 people is the opposite of Covid protocol. I’m not going to say that singing into a Zoom call is ideal, but the weekly gatherings were a fun way to maintain community, which is a big part of our mandate.
Can you tell me a bit about the choir’s origins?
Singing Out was formed in 1992 as a protest choir—at that time, whenever queer people were singing and taking up space in public, it was a political statement. Sadly, we’ve seen a rise in anti-LGBTQ incidents over the last few years, so creating safe space is still super important.
Do you have a signature number?
Every year we come up with a different repertoire based on a theme. This year’s was “better together.” We did a version of “Happy Together” by the Turtles, which I really loved, and we found this slowed-down four-part harmony version of “How Will I Know” by Whitney Houston, who’s obviously beloved in the queer community.
When did the TTC first approach you about the Pride chime idea? Did you have to audition for the gig?
It was actually the TTC’s ad agency, Publicis, that approached us. They’d seen our work on social media. Their idea was a sound takeover of the TTC where our voices would replace the usual chime, the one that rings before an announcement comes on. We also recorded a jingle that plays throughout the day, and posed for posters that are up at a bunch of different stations this month. The idea was to celebrate Pride and share our voices across the entire GTA. We’re a small non-profit, so this kind of exposure is huge.
Can you tell me about the recording process?
Basically, it was a vocal treatment of the usual chime tune, sung in four-part harmony. We recorded it last month at a studio downtown. There are about 120 people in the choir, but because of the studio size, we could only have 12 of us there, plus our artistic director, Jody Malone. We arrived in the morning and spent a couple hours listening to the tune and then singing it back. Most of us had never been in a recording studio, so that in itself was cool. We did several versions. I think there was a la-la-la, a do-do-do and a nah-nah-nah.
Were you concerned at all about sound quality?
Honestly, we were just so excited about the exposure and the opportunity. The TTC’s sound system was the last thing on our minds. Plus, there was a lot of other stuff going on. On May 31, a group of us got to perform the chimes and the jingle on CP24. From there, we all boarded the TTC’s Pride Bus, which drove us to the company headquarters for their launch event. We got to perform and see the raising of the Pride flag, which was a lot of fun.
When did you get a sense that there were, shall we say, some technical issues?
Well, the thing is, we got a lot of positive feedback after the chimes started running on June 1. I went down to Wellesley station myself to hear them. I thought we sounded great. I’ve heard that certain stations are worse than others, with the sound coming out very muffled—which isn’t that surprising when you think about how garbled TTC announcements can be. So, I guess people who heard that version were not impressed, and some made that clear on social media.
Right. I saw one tweet comparing the Pride chime to a “bloodthirsty rooster.”
I saw that one too. It’s not like we don’t have a sense of humour about it. We don’t have any control over how the recording sounds on transit speakers, so we haven’t taken it as a reflection of our sound. One comment that I really loved was something along the lines of, Hey, even Whitney Houston would sound like your grandpa’s car alarm. Of course, we’re disappointed about the mixed reaction, but only the homophobic comments really bother me. Things like: We get that it’s Pride, but do you have to shove it in our faces? Or people saying they’d boycott the TTC until the chimes stop. Those kinds of comments are very loaded and disheartening.
Mind taking a second to put the haters in their place?
The bigoted comments are just evidence of why Pride still needs to exist. A lot of folks outside our community don’t think twice about walking down the street holding the hand of the person they love. They don’t have to second-guess how they behave based on whether the space they’re in feels safe. The more public space we take up, the more we’re seen—that’s how we create a world that’s inclusive, so that’s what we’re going to do. If you don’t like the chimes because of how they sound, you can just say that. And if it’s more than that, then maybe we need to have a conversation about it.
I understand the TTC has removed the chimes, pledging to work out the kinks.
That’s the plan. From what I know, they’ve adjusted and remastered the recordings to work better with their PA system. Obviously there are limitations, but I hope people are able to appreciate the joy and symbolism of the music, even if the acoustics aren’t perfect. We’re just happy that our chimes will be back in time for this weekend. I’m hoping to get to a subway station to hear them before the parade.
Will you be marching?
Yes, Singing Out will be marching together. We’ll wear our T-shirts and carry a banner. We plan to sing, but it’s a loud environment so I’m not sure how well anyone will be able to hear us.
Ha! No, no float. We are a community choir on a budget, so that’s not going to happen.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.