I’ve been reading through the latest issue of The Trumpet, the year-old online publication that features new tunes in the Sacred Harp tradition. The new issue meets or exceeds the high editorial standards of the first two issues, which is to say all the tunes seem well worth singing.
Several of the tunes caught my attention, and I spent a little more time on them, playing them through on the piano and/or singing individual vocal lines (within the limits of my narrow range). I’ll discuss them each briefly in the order in which they appear in The Trumpet.
“Bright Morning Star” by G. J. Hoffman has an upbeat affecting melody that nicely matches the poetry. Each of the other three voices has melodic interest and forward momentum while remaining harmonious with the melody and with each other. There’s an interesting fuguing section where each voice has a melodically different entrance, yet all sound part of a unified whole. My only complaint is that there’s only one verse; this looks like a tune that will be worth singing through more than once.
“Catalina” by Leland Kusmer is a tune that I had a chance to sing when the composer was in the Bay Area briefly. With pleasing harmonies and plenty of melisma, it’s not only fun to sing but sounds great.
“Traveler,” with both poetry and music by Micah Sommer, has the feel of a folk hymn, with a folk-like melody in the tenor line, comfortable easy-to-sing lines for the other three voices, and a refrain that sounds not unlike a camp meeting song. I especially liked the poetry: it’s clearly within the Sacred Harp tradition, but it also sounds contemporary and fresh.
In fact, the whole thing sounds like something a contemporary singer-songwriter would produce. Sure, I want to sing this tune with a Sacred Harp group; but I also couldn’t resist grabbing a guitar to try and work out some chords in order to sing it solo in true singer-songwriter style.
“Altamont” is another tune with both new poetry and music, in this case by Penny Anderson. It’s a parting song in the tradition of “Parting Hand,” but more explicitly written for singers. Though the tune is notated in E minor, it really starts out in G major, then shifts back and forth between major and minor, before ending in E minor. This movement is appropriate for the subject: the move from the sweet major sound into the sorrowful minor sound reminds us that parting is sweet sorrow.
“Okolnik” by Zofia Przyrowska and Jacek Borkowicz is perhaps the most interesting tune in this issue. It’s a setting of a Polish translation of poem by Herman Melville from chapter 9 of Moby-Dick. Set in the key of E minor, “Okolnik” matches the eerie sensibility of the poem through use of unexpected dissonances and harmonic changes, and contrasting rhythms in the four voices.
The rhythmic excitement begins in the first measure, where the tenor and treble voices have a dotted quarter/eighth-note rhythm while the altos and basses sing in straight quarter notes. The voices come together for the cadence at m.3; after m.4 everything begins to separate again. The altos and tenors evolve into a sort of fuguing passage through mm. 6-7, while the basses and trebles hold together until the end of m.8. The voices finally come back together again halfway through m.9, the penultimate measure.
The harmonic excitement also begins in the first measure: the first chord is a I chord with no third, moving on beat 3 to a I7 inversion with no third (or perhaps a Vm-add4?) which puts a dominant seventh between the tenor and alto lines (a major second with the higher voices of the tenor section); since these chords lack the third, they could be either minor or major. This moves to an eerie-sounding I6 with no third, thence to a VI7, and into a IVm for the cadence in m.3. The unsettled feeling continues throughout the tune, with dissonances on strong beats (e.g., beat 3 of m.4) and further unusual chord progressions. The final two measures take us firmly to the ending with a more calming IVm-Vm-Im progression.
Playing this through on the piano, my feeling was that the tune sounds within the Sacred Harp tradition, while pushing that tradition in some interesting new directions. I really want to try to sing it, but I admit I’m intimidated by trying to pronounce the Polish words. In the mean time, I created an electronic version of the tune, which repeats four times so you can try to sing along (rendered in the notated key, E minor, which should be a reasonable pitch for most singers; quarter note = M.M. 108):
In short, another great issue. My only complaint is that I want to know a little more about the composers; I especially want to know where they live, and where they sing, because I’m curious if regional variations are perhaps emerging (certainly “Okolnik” sounds different from a traditional Southern composer like Raymond Hamrick!). But that’s the merest quibble, and I enjoyed this issue, filled once again with songs that I want to sing.