Billings in another context

I’ve been singing with the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) chorus — not impressive at it sounds; it’s a non-auditioned community chorus — and this fall I talked the director into having us sing some works by William Billings. It wasn’t hard to talk him into programming Billings, for a number of reasons: several of Billings’ works are staples of the college chorus repertoire; you can get free scores on the Choral Public Domain Library and other Web sites; and there are plenty of excellent performances on Youtube that choristers can watch to help them learn the pieces.

Only one of the works the director programmed is in The Sacred Harp: no. 254, Rose of Sharon. It has been fascinating to sing this familiar tune in a completely different context.

First of all, the Rose of Sharon that we have in The Sacred Harp is not quite the piece of music that William Billings published in The Singing Master’s Assistant in 1778. A few of the notes are different, e.g., in the bass part, the second note (“of”) in m. 70 may be sung as E below middle C, or the E below that; in m. 6 (“I”), only the treble part has an eighth note, while the other three parts have quarter notes; etc. A slightly more significant difference is in the repeat section: we repeat mm. 98-110; but Billings originally intended the repeat section to extend from m. 98 to the last measure. These are minor differences, however, that don’t change the character of the tune very much.

Differences in tempo, however, are significantly different. According to The Complete Works of William Billings, Billings intended the following tempi: in the 2/4 sections, a quarter note equals 120 beats per minute; that’s not much different from the tempo we would use in the Sacred Harp tradition. But in the 6/4 sections, Billings would generally give a dotted half note about the same value as a half note in a 2/4 section, i.e., a dotted half note is about 60 b.p.m.; this is noticeably slower than Sacred Harp practice. And in the 6/8 sections, Billings wants a dotted quarter note to equal 80 b.p.m., while in the Sacred Harp tradition we would tend to make a dotted quarter note close to 120 b.p.m.

Interestingly, performance practices between the CCSF chorus and Sacred Harp singers are not as noticeable as you might think. The CCSF chorus does sing the tune at written pitch, but we would not pitch it much lower here in the Bay Area. The CCSF chorus director is aware of early American choral practices, and encourages a full-throated, open sound, without any vibrato; he asks us to rehearse without a piano so we don’t get sucked into equal temperament tuning; and he does not have us slow down at the end of the piece. Oh, and since it’s a community chorus, the voices are a mix of pretty ordinary and really good, just as in Sacred Harp singings.

The big difference, from my point of view as a singer, is that in the CCSF chorus we get to work on Rose of Sharon for extended periods of time. The plain tunes and simple fuguing tunes in The Sacred Harp are pretty straightforward so there’s not much need to practice them, and besides when you sing multiple verses it’s like practicing the same piece of music three or four times. But an anthem like Rose of Sharon is a more complex piece of music, well worth spending time on going over tricky bits to get them just right, paying attention to timing and entrances and intonation, etc.

In fact, I suspect that that is just what singers did in the singing school tradition out of which the Sacred Harp tradition came: they worked on the more difficult tunes until they got them right. And in reality, many of us today do exactly the same thing — except that we watch Youtube videos or listen to audio recordings of Sacred Harp tunes, instead of working through the more challenging anthems with other live singers. Maybe it’s one thing if you grow up in a traditional singing family, where your parents make you learn how to sing and work you through the tricky bits of the more challenging tunes; I guess the rest of us will have to make do with Youtube.

Singing at St. Mary the Virgin

Carolyn organized a fifth Sunday singing in San Francisco, at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Since I had no duties at my congregation I was able to attend. The church is beautiful, and beautifully maintained — a late nineteenth century wood-frame structure. The ceilings were a little higher than Sacred Harp singers prefer, but nevertheless I thought the sound was quite nice. Indeed, the only problem with the sound was that out of about 25 singers, there were only half a dozen men — but that has nothing to do with the building.

What was particularly nice about this singing was that perhaps a dozen members of the church joined us, mostly members of their choir. They were all good singers, and seemed to pick up Sacred Harp singing quickly. As it turns out, their music director, Chip, has had them sing from The Southern Harmony, and some of them had even accompanied Chip to the Big Singing in Benton, Kentucky. So they knew what shape-note singing should sound like!

After the break, Chip, the music director, led us in a couple of tunes by William Walker from the Southern Harmony. He told the altos that at the Big Singing, altos were not supposed to sing with the basses, and usually sang with the trebles. I love William Walker, and it was both interesting and fun to sing several of his tunes in his original arrangements — makes me want to go to the Big Singing myself some day.

2014 Palo Alto All-day Singing

Once again this year, the third annual Palo Alto All-day Singing was a pleasant low-key friendly singing. Sure, I like the excitement of big singings and conventions. But I also like the singings with forty or so people, because in the course of the day you can actually get to talk with everyone. And the Palo Alto church lends itself well to socializing.

We had about 42 adults and 8 kids. We think of this mostly as a regional singing, and we had people from the following local singings: Fresno, Davis, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Palo Alto. Even though this singing is aimed at those of us in Northern California who have a hard time traveling to other all-day singings, we always welcome a few out-of-town singers, and we were pleased to welcome southern California singers, a New Yorker and a Pennsylvanian. We also had a Polish singer, a musicologist who is spending a year at Stanford, and I felt pleased that I could introduce him to an anthropologist who has done some study of Sacred Harp, and a folklorist/performer.

We sang something like 93 songs, with two song lessons in the morning, and one song lessons in the afternoon. (This is another benefit of a small singing — you get to lead more tunes!) We had a couple of new singers, and at least one singer who’s been singing since the 1960s (though I think she started with the Christian Harmony).

Here are some photos of the day:

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Above: Jeff leading in the morning. We had a really good bass section today, and you can see many of them in this photo.

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Above: Linda, one of my favorite leaders, as seen from the bass section.

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Above: Dinner-on-the-grounds outdoors on the patio, in perfect Northern California summer weather. Just out of the frame to the left is little Cecil, who, though not quite three years old, is already learning how to beat time while saying “Fa, fa, fa, fa, fa….”

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Above: Chris Thorman, our chaplain, leading a tune. One of the highlights of the day for me were Chris’s prayers: very much in the Sacred harp tradition, they warmed my soul.

Union Musical Sacred Harp Singing Convention

A little before ten this morning, Carol dropped me off at Big Creek Primitive Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Georgia. The church has been engulfed by upscale suburban sprawl — office parks, gated communities, tasteful shopping malls, impeccably maintained four-lane roads — but once you get on the church grounds, you enter into a different cultural landscape. The church, a plain and attractive brick building, is surrounded on two sides by moss-covered gravel parking areas shaded by trees; quite a few cars were already nestled in shady parking spots. Behind the church was a cemetery with quite a few older gravestones, and some gravestones that looked very new.

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Above: Big Creek Primitive Baptist Church, Alpharetta, Ga.

Inside, the church was quite plain, as you’d expect in a Primitive Baptist Church: little ornamentation, plain white walls, simple but attractive pews — and no musical instruments. Fifty or so singers were gathered up at the front of the church. I went to sit in the bass section, and noticed that in the hymnal racks on the backs of the pews were hymnals, Bibles, and fans in case it got too hot. I opened up my copy of The Sacred Harp, and got ready to sing.

The singing, the 146th session of the annual Union Musical Sacred Harp Singing Convention, belonged to this other cultural landscape, removed from the gated communities and office parks. It’s music that’s meant to be performed and shared, not consumed; it’s a democratic musical tradition where everyone sings, and anyone can lead a tune if they want to. The singing rose up into that plain white sun-washed church, loud and triumphant. It had that old-time lonesome sound that lets you know that in spite of all the sorrow and troubles we face, God is in heaven and all is right with the world.

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Above: View from the bass section, 146th session of the Union Musical Sacred Harp Singing Convention

A seven year old girl got up to lead “Africa,” an old Isaac Watts hymn — a hymn seems to me to express a Universalist theology of hope and assurance — set to music by William Billings in the late eighteenth century. Between the words to the hymn and that self-possessed girl leading the other singers so well, I got a little choked up and couldn’t sing for a bit, and maybe there were some tears running down my cheeks.

Lunch was served in the time-honored custom of dinner-on-the-grounds. There was a small kitchen building behind the church. Extending from that was a long table, perhaps fifty feet long, built on concrete blocks. Everyone who had brought food to share laid it out on this long table. Over the table was a roof to keep the sun and rain showers off, and between the posts holding up the roof were boards set at a height where you could put your plate while you stood and ate and talked with everyone around you. The woods stood near at hand, and some people from the church instructed us to through any food that was left on our plates out to the varmints in the woods.

Carol had come to the singing by now, and we got our dinners: ham, pulled pork, collard greens, fried okra, perfectly ripe cantaloupe, broccoli casserole, and some of the best layer cake I’ve ever eaten. We stood and ate and talked. I talked with Henry from Alabama, with whom I talked universalist theology. I talked with Nathan, an art historian who’s moving to North Dakota, who specializes in spiritual painters in the southwestern U.S. in the early 20th century. We talked with Shawn and Natalie, who live in Melbourne, Australia, and who sing Sacred harp there. I can’t remember who all we talked with.

The singing was just as good in the afternoon session, in not a little better. During the afternoon break, I got involved in a brief and somewhat technical discussion with a couple of fourth- or fifth- or maybe sixth-generation Sacred Harp singers on the proper tempo for “David’s Lamentation,” a William Billings composition. The piece has become a standard in the repertoire of college choirs, where it is often sung at a slow tempo, and apparently some people have tried leading it slowly at Sacred Harp singings. But the three of us all agreed it should be led at a fast pace, which is both the traditional way to sing it in the South (and not coincidentally, the way Billings clearly preferred it to be sung).

The singing ended. Jeff offered to give me a ride back to the motel. We pulled out of the parking lot, leaving behind a cultural landscape devoted to shared experience, democratic traditions, and matters of the spirit, and re-entered a cultural landscape dominated by consumption and competition.

 

Crossposted from here.

10th annual Golden Gate All-Day Singing

In brief: 94 tunes, 72 leaders, about 115 registered singers from 8 states and two countries (the United States and the United Kingdom).

But was it a good singing?

The new singing space, Trinity Lutheran Church in Alameda, was wonderful. Now Bay Area Sacred Harp singers can have strong opinions about singing spaces, so there may be negative opinions out there — but I’ll be opinionated, too, and say that negative opinions are wrong. The singing space sounded good: a bright yet warm sound. The grounds of the church are beautiful, so there were lots of nice places to eat dinner outside. The space was big enough to hold all the singers we had today, with room for expansion if we return there next year (last year’s space was just plain overcrowded) — and it was accessible to people with mobility issues. Finally, there was a great kitchen with an industrial quality dishwasher, which made clean-up much easier for those of us on the kitchen committee.

We had a good-sized contingent of singers come down from Washington and Oregon, as well as a good-sized contingent of singers from southern California — visitors are always welcome, but these were especially good voices and especially nice people. We also had lots of fine local singers — regulars from the practice singings in Berkeley, Davis, Palo Alto, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz, and lots of other northern California singers.

Carol and I were the kitchen committee, and I’ve decided that this is just about my favorite job at an all-day singing. What’s not to like about being on the kitchen committee? — you get to lay out all this really good food (and scope out what the best dishes are), you get to clean up afterwards, and during peak allergy season I just don’t want to sing for six hours anyway. Miranda, who is 11, joined the kitchen committee to help us set out the food. Linda from Fresno joined Miranda and I after dinner, doing clean-up in the kitchen, and we all had fun. Miranda and I ran the industrial quality dishwasher (with a 90-second cycle!), and we both had a lot of fun, even though we each got a little wet from the high-pressure dish sprayer.

So yes — it was a good singing.

Santa Cruz all-day singing announced for July

The local singing in Santa Cruz has announced that they’re going to host an all-day singing this summer. From a recent email update sent by Ed Rice:

“In other news, we’re having a Santa Cruz all-day singing on July 12 from 10-4 at the Live Oak Grange. More details will emerge as that date gets closer.”

I’ve long thought that Northern California has needed more all-day singings. The next closest all-day singings are in Los Angeles, 8 hours away by car, or Portland, Oregon, which is 10 hours away. There are plenty of us singers who love all-day singings, but who don’t have the time or money to travel much. Plus, more all-day singings means new singers don’t have to wait as long to get the full Sacred Harp experience — which in turn would likely mean that more new folks would stick with Sacred Harp singing. Kudos to the Santa Cruz singers for helping fill this need!