Singing at home

Of fungus and microtonality

Les and Patti, two singers from Illinois whom Carol and I met at Camp Fasola, were in town; Carol and I drove over with them from San Mateo to Berkeley. Traffic was extraordinarily light, and we arrived twenty minutes early, so we showed Les and Patti a limited view of the Golden Gate a block from All Saints Chapel, but with the fog coming in from the Pacific, all we could see was the tops of the two towers of the Golden Gate Bridge.

As we started walking back to All Saints Chapel, a woman stopped us and asked if we would like to see “the fruiting body of a rare mushroom; well, not a mushroom, exactly, since it doesn’t have a stipe and a cap; it’s more of an ear.” We said we would like to see this rare fungus. She told us its name — Otidea smithii — and she showed it to us: small, brown with a cool purple tinge, with a shape that was indeed ear-like (according to a government environmental management paper, the shape resembles “a plastic cup melted on one side, or a spoon, or a rabbit’s ear”). People you meet in Berkeley are rarely boring.

On to the singing, which turned out to be pretty good tonight. However, although others were singing well, I wasn’t: it had been a difficult day at work, I had a hard time focusing. So I put more effort into listening than into singing. Towards the end of the evening, I suddenly began paying attention to microtonality: not all the notes we sing are precisely tuned to a conventional scale.

For example, often when a given section sings notes that are at the extreme upper end of their range (particularly when they ascend to that note skipwise instead of stepwise), they will tend to sing those high notes slightly flat. In one major-key tune this evening, the trebles consistently flattened the highest notes by about a quarter tone, i.e., those highest notes were a little more than half way from the note as written, to a minor second lower. I wish I had thought to make a note of which tune it was, and now I can’t remember; but the note they were flatting was a high G, the tonic “fa,” and the resulting chord sounded interesting and good. We basses did the same thing to our high notes in no. 513 “Joyful,” though we were less consistent within our section; at least one of us was singing the notes right on pitch while I was down a quarter tone; yet this lack of consistency lent a kind of spice to those high notes. This slight flatting of the highest notes doesn’t always happen, but it happens often enough to sound like a familiar part of Sacred Harp singing.

We Sacred Harp singers include other kinds of microtonality fairly consistently in Sacred Harp singing. We are also somewhat prone to singing neutral thirds; that is, we sometimes sing the third degree of the scale such that it’s between a minor third and a major third; although I can only remember this happening in minor key tunes. We use ornaments, such as sliding into notes from below (and more rarely from above), that involve microtonality. And sometimes we just sing badly; our voices are tired, we’re not paying attention, whatever; I heard myself and others slipping into this last kind of unintentional microtonality more than once tonight.

By the way, in case you’re wondering: when Les asked if Oditea smithii were edible, the woman who showed it to us said yes, probably, but that we wouldn’t want to eat it.