All-day singings & conventions New compositions

Composium at the Seattle convention

Kevin Barrans organized a “composium,” a singing of new compositions or newly unearthed old compositions, at the Seattle convention on Saturday afternoon. A little over fifty singers attended the composium, and the class sounded amazing, especially considering the singers were sight-singing, and considering that some of the new tunes were quite challenging.

I was able to attend an hour and a quarter of the composium, and enjoyed hearing 16 excellent tunes. Here are brief mentions of the tunes I heard, in alphabetical order:

New compositions

The latest issue of The Trumpet

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.

New compositions Singing at home

Something old, something new

Tonight’s class was smaller than usual, presumably because of the holiday, and had more than the usual proportion of new or relatively new singers. Of the four trebles, one was relatively new (so 25% new); of the four altos, two were fairly new (50%); of the four basses, one was fairly new (25%); and of the half dozen tenors, there was one new singer, two experienced singers, and several newer singers. Yet for the most part the class sounded really quite good. Rebecca did have to remind us again tonight to not sing too loud (and yes, i got sucked into singing too loud yet again); but for the most part, it felt like all the sections were very attentive to the other singers in their sections, and to the class as a whole.

I like the way experienced singers in our weekly singing support the new singers. Experienced singers often make a point of sitting behind new singers, or of putting a new singer in between two experienced singers; that way the new singers can hear what’s going on. Of course since Sacred Harp is partly an oral tradition, this is what has to happen if newcomers are going to learn. But I have sung with other practice singings that are not nearly so welcoming and friendly to new singers. So I feel we go beyond the basic requirements of the tradition.


For the Other Book singing, I presented a revision of a plain tune that I presented a few months ago at the San Francisco monthly singing. Last week, I had picked up this plain tune and immediately noticed one fairly egregious mistake I had made. I corrected that, went through the rest of the tune, and saw several places that could be tightened up. [Sheet music removed.]

New compositions Singing at home

More new compositions

Both Carl and Julian presented new compositions during the Other Book portion of tonight’s singing. Carl’s composition was “Sweet Accord,” which he had presented last month. I liked it last month, and I liked it better this month. It was also interesting to watch him lead the tune because it looked to me as though he went through some of the same things I’ve gone through when leading a new tune for the first time. We singers kept slowing down the tempo, in spite of Carl’s best efforts — the tune is in 6/8 time, but we sang it as though it were 6/4 time (and if Carl hadn’t kept pushing us to go faster, I think we could have slowed it down to 6/2 time). And our singing was a bit too tentative, we weren’t singing in our usual full-voiced way, so some of the harmonies didn’t sound the way I thought they should have done. On top of that, all evening we just weren’t singing in tune with each other.

Afterwards, I told Carl how much I liked “Sweet Accord,” and asked him what he thought of it. He said it didn’t come out sounding quite the way he heard it in his head when he was writing it. (This is something he and I have talked about before — you can write whatever you want, but the singers take it and make of it what they want.) Then I asked him what was different about the way we sang “Sweet Accord.” It was thin, he said, which I thought was a good concise description of what I had been hearing. Of course he mentioned that it was slow, and he also noticed the intonation problems. Marsha happened to overhear us talking, and she said that “Sweet Accord” deserved another hearing; we needed to sing it again, and she hoped Carl would bring it back.

Julian’s new composition, titled “Monterey,” was also quite nice. For whatever reason, I think he got a somewhat better reading of his tune than did Carl. Perhaps his tune was marginally easier to sight-sing, since it had a fair number of arpeggios and ascending or descending segments of scales. I didn’t get a chance to talk with Julian about what he thought about our rendition of his tune, but I’d be interested to know how he thinks we did with it.

I also presented a tune, and the singing did not go particularly well. The tune was, I think, a bit too experimental. I used a pentatonic scale, ostensibly a minor scale, it lacked the third and sixth degrees which made for an ambiguous tonality. That also made for some challenging harmonies. On top of that, some of the individual melodic lines were challenging, with big ranges and odd leaps. It sounded great on the piano, but it was not much fun for people to actually sing.  [Sheet music removed.]

One last point: the final judge of any Sacred Harp tune is the community of singers. We know that some day there will be another revision of the Denson book, and while I hope that revision doesn’t come any time soon, when it does come the songs that get left out will be the songs that we singers don’t sing much. And if any new songs get included, it will be those that the singers themselves choose to sing.

New compositions Singing at home

Advent song: “San Juan Bautista”

Another of the songs I presented this evening during the “other book” singing in Berkeley. Although there are Christmas songs in The Sacred Harp, there aren’t really any Advent songs; this is my attempt to write an Advent song. The text is Mark 1.2-3 from the King James version of the Bible. Although Isaiah 40 might seem to make more sense as a text for Advent, the prose in the KJV translation of Mark 1.2-3 was just too perfect to pass up, and preachers are wont to use bits of Mark 1 as texts during Advent (for churches that use the lectionary, Mark 1.1-8 is the gospel reading for the second Sunday in advent in lectionary year B). On the whole, the singing went pretty well. However, I had hoped that the singers would hit the block chords in measures 12-13 with more volume, and the fuguing section at the end (mm. 14 ff.) didn’t have quite the rhythmic drive that I was aiming for, so I may wind up doing some revision.

[Sheet music removed; a revised version of this tune was published in an issue of The Trumpet.]