Singing at home

Raised sixths, and postmodern rootlessness

The first part of this week’s singing was the monthly “Other Book” singing, a time to sing from the Cooper book, Norumbega Harmony, Eclectic Harmony, etc. In the spirit of openness that has marked the Berkeley singings over the past several weeks, I saw a willingness of all singers to experiment, and of more experienced singers to do a little more teaching for the rest of us.

One subject came up that has been passionately discussed many times by singers of the urban revival. Towards the end of the “Other Book” singing, I asked us to sing Lebanon by William Billings, no. 2 in Norumbega Harmony. I had been playing through it at home, and noticed that if you try to raise the sixth, as is common Sacred Harp practice for songs in a minor key, at one point you get part of a diminished chord. So I was curious as to how we would sing the song. Unfortunately, since we don’t really know the song, we sang a fair number of wrong notes (I know I sang plenty of wrong notes), so I couldn’t be sure: did the experienced singers raise the sixth, or not?

Without my saying anything, after the song was over, some of our more experienced singers began talking about whether or not to raise the sixth; Mark asked Marsha what she though, and she replied that raising the sixth would result in a tritone, certainly not something you’d hear in Sacred Harp music. Mark and Marsha mentioned other songs (canonical songs from the 1991 Denson Sacred Harp) in which most experienced singers would probably not raise the sixth; these were mostly 18th century songs. The consensus seemed to be that traditional signers would learn whether or not to raise the sixth through the tradition; they would know what sounds right to them. (Discussion by Karen Willard and John Garst on the practice of raising sixths on minor tunes.)

Our Berkeley local singing always takes a break at 8:30, and we are supposed to reconvene fifteen minutes later, although recently our breaks have been going on for twenty-five and even thirty minutes. While we were at the Jolly Memorial All-Day singing in San Diego, Betty and Linda and I made a pact: we would begin the call-back promptly at 8:45. I reminded Betty and Linda of this, and we all sat down to begin the call-back song at 8:46. It took a long time for the other signers to return; I had to lead a second call-back song in order to get at least one signer in each section.

We do like to socialize with each other. But we live all over the Bay area — several of us drive for more than an hour to get to the singing. It’s hard to socialize before the singing because Bay area traffic keeps us from starting any earlier; and not many of us want to stay past 9:30, especially those of us with long drives home. So that fifteen minute break is our only time to socialize, and no wonder we want to extend it longer and longer. Yet if we extend our socializing time, we eat into our singing time.

For me, this dilemma reveals our postmodern rootlessness: we have only a tenuous connection with one another, with little opportunity to develop deeper relationships. By contrast, many traditional Southern singers will have known the people with whom they sing for years and years; singings become a time to renew old relationships, not try to develop new relationships. And then those of us in the urban revival are more likely to be geographically mobile; for example, I just learned that one of our best altos is moving to Los Angeles, and we won’t be seeing her any more. Our singers come and go, and sometimes we’re not even aware that they’ve gone until well after the fact.