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Beacon Hill monthly singing

Some quick notes from the monthly singing at Beacon Hill Friends Meeting House:

Last time I was in the Beacon Hill Friends Meeting House was in 1999, when I went to meeting for worship and a peace witness just before Easter. I remember thinking then that it is a remarkable worship space: not large, but with a high ceiling, a surprising amount of light for a building on Beacon Hill in Boston, Quaker simplicity with lots of wood and plaster, and wonderful acoustics.

And now I know it is a lovely room for Sacred Harp singing: the dozen or so people who came to sing easily filled the room with sound, and the room warmed and strengthened the singers. I couldn’t help thinking that the residuum of several generations of Spirit-filled Quaker meetings also warmed and strengthened the singers, for it was definitely a Spirit-filled singing. If the monthly singing of Norumbega Harmony is wonderfully disciplined and controlled, this Beacon Hill singing was ecstatic and even transcendent.

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Norumbega Harmony

Some brief notes on the monthly singing sponsored by Norumbega Harmony:

I first sang Sacred Harp with Norumbega Harmony at the New England Folk Festival, and it felt like coming home to sing at their monthly singing once again after a lapse of half a dozen years. It was a somewhat different crew of singers, but the overall sound is the same.

I had forgotten how disciplined the singers of Norumbega Harmony are. They do not fudge notes, not ever; they seem to hit every note dead on pitch, and in perfect tempo. This discipline is coupled with very little ornamentation — the typical New England folk musician uses very little ornamentation, so this is a strong regional tendency — and the pairing of musical discipline and lack of ornamentation works especially well with eighteenth and early nineteenth century tunes. it is an absolute pleasure to sing along with Norumbega Harmony on tunes by Billings, Ingalls, Edson, or one of the other composers of the First New England School. This is not to dismiss their singing of later tunes, for they sound very good on those as well; but I feel they show an especial affinity for the New England composers.

It’s interesting to compare singing in the Bay Area with Norumbega Harmony. In the Bay area, the singing is most powerful when it is moved by ecstatic impulses (which can also make it a little wild, especially when the tempo is very quick). With Norumbega Harmony, the power comes through the discipline; it may be less intense, but on the other hand since the power is driven by disciplined singing it never seems to flag. There is I think a theological point here, something about the difference between the ecstatic or mystical religious impulse, and the religious impulse based on regular religious practice.

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Portland, Maine, monthly singing

Some brief notes on the Portland, Maine, local singing:

I was able to slip away from a professional conference to sing with the monthly singing in Portland, Maine. It was a good solid class, with (I think) 16 singers total. They tend to sing in a somewhat less ornamented style typical of eastern New England singers. The singers were loud and excellent — and if I might apply a term from the religious world, I would call them “Spirit-filled.”

While all the sections were good, I really enjoyed singing with the basses. In particular, the singer to my left (alas, I’ve forgotten his name) was a fabulous musician. I especially enjoyed his leading: he beat time with minimal motion but rock-solid tempo, and with that minimal motion managed to communicate exactly what he felt about a given tune, and also managed to get the best possible sound out of the class. Someday, when I grow up, perhaps I’ll be as good a leader as he is.

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Singing near the Temple of Hanuman

From my notes; posted more than a month after the singing

The drive to the Mount Madonna Center, a yoga retreat center, took me out of Gilroy, at about 200 feet above sea level, up Hecker Pass along narrow winding mountain roads, up into the Santa Cruz Mountains along Pole Ridge Road to over 1,800 feet above sea level, and then down a few hundred feet to the retreat center. It was getting dark as I pulled into the retreat center, and the Arati service was just ending at the Sankat Mochan Hanuman, or Hanuman Temple. I could smell the incense as I got out of my car and walked down to the community center, carrying my Sacred Harp book.

At the door of the community center, one of the Santa Cruz singers saw the maroon book in my hand, and told me where the singing was going to be. It was obvious that we were supposed to take off our shoes, so we did, leaving them in the shelves provided at the door for that purpose.

Pretty soon, people began to gather. I was glad to see Janet Herman, who knows Sacred Harp inside and out and is a darned good musician to boot. We were there to introduce the Mount Madonna residential community to Sacred Harp singing, so having someone like Janet was important. I was also glad to see Ed walk into the room; he’s got a better bass voice than I, and with him there I wouldn’t have to worry about holding down the bass section on my own.

Soon Aaron, also known as Rajeev, came in; he had learned Sacred Harp singing back East somewhere, and since he is living for a few months in the Mount Madonna community, he decided to introduce them to Sacred Harp. He got us organized setting up chairs, and said he was pleased to see so many of the regular Santa Cruz singers there — he had been worried about getting even one experienced singer on a part, but we had at least two experienced singers in every section.

It turned out to be a good singing room, and I do enjoy singing with the Santa Cruz singers: they are tuneful, enthusiastic, and fun. Some members of the Mount Madonna community wandered in; some joined in singing, some sat with us and listened with their eyes closed, and some just stood at the door and listened. We had some good, powerful singing, especially considering that there were only a dozen or so experienced singers. But we did notice when Janet, our strongest leader, had to step out to chase after her toddler.

I left right when the singing ended; it was an hour and a half back to my house, and I had to get up early to go to church. As I drove out past the now-dark temple, I thought a little bit about the incongruity of singing Protestant hymns near a Hindu temple — the Protestant tradition does not look kindly on graven images. I still remember sitting next to my mother when my home church started lighting a candle at the beginning of every Sunday service; “Graven images,” she muttered under her breath; and we were very liberal Protestants. I decided that it is a mark of both our postmodern era, with its dizzying religious diversity, and a mark of northern California culture, that there could be a Sacred Harp singing next to a temple to Hanuman — and it didn’t seem all that incongruous.

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Portland, Maine

During a recent four-week drive across the country, I got to sing in Portland, Maine. This was written back then, revised and posted three weeks later.

About a dozen people came to sing in the monthly Portland (Maine) singing: at one point I counted two tenors, two trebles, three altos, and five basses, though those numbers changed somewhat during the course of the afternoon. The venue, Portland New Church, a Swedenborgian church, was a small wood-frame building; we sang in the main auditorium, a room which was open up to the roof. Despite the high ceiling, the sound was lovely — perhaps the reverberation time was a little longer than would be preferred by many Sacred Harp singers, but more on that later.

It was a real pleasure to sing in eastern New England once again. Sacred Harp singers in eastern New England sing the way people used to sing in the church I grew up in outside Boston: no vibrato, little ornamentation, and a strong but restrained sense of rhythm. When I got into high school and started hearing New England contra dance bands, it was the same kind of sound as my church — simple, un-ornamented music. In addition, eastern New England Sacred Harp singers tend towards a tuning that sounds to my ear (for want of a better term) very pure; some kind of just intonation, I guess, that produces lots of harmonics; whatever the exact musical term, the block chords all sound wonderfully rich to my ear.

Hearing this sound again made me remember the first Sacred Harp convention I went to: the 2008 New England Sacred Harp convention in Walpole, New Hampshire. I drove up with Ken, a treble and a delightful man whom I had run into previously at church events, the New England Folk Festival, and dulcimer conventions. It was a prefect New England fall day, and we sang in a picture-perfect New England church on a town green. So I was predisposed to love the whole experience even before the convention began. And the singing was indeed lovely from the beginning. But then, midway through the morning someone stood up to lead a Lowell Mason tune — I think it was 147t Boylston — and I was immediately transported back to my childhood church. We had sung a lot of Lowell Mason in that church, and we sang it just the way the New England Convention sang it that fall day in 2008, only the Convention sang it better because in my childhood church not many of us knew how to sing anything but the melody. I think that moment in 2008 was when I got really hooked on Sacred Harp, and knew it was something I’d be singing for quite a long time. People talk about various southern Sacred Harp singing styles, they talk about the Western Mass. style, or Chicago style of singing, and these are held up as the “best” singing; but I’ll take the warmth and simplicity of eastern New England singing over anything else.

I noticed that the Portland singers tended to sing slower than we usually do in the Bay area. They sang slower, and their tuning was excellent, and they dwelt on sustained block chords. Perhaps the long reverberation time of the Portland New Church pushed them a little in that direction. But it also felt like a lot of traditional New England music: not too fast, not overly ornamented, taking time to enjoy the music. My limited experience of traditional southern singing is that it can tend towards the urgent expression of religious passion; from a religious standpoint, New England singers strike me as more inclined to the meditative; and, mind you, while they are different, both are equally valid expressions of the religious impulse.

When I stood up to lead a tune, I admit to feeling a little like a bull in a China shop. I have become fully indoctrinated into the fast and furious Bay Area style of leading. I apologized in advance if I led a song too fast; they told me that as the leader I got to choose the tempo; and then of course, I set a tempo that was faster than they were used to and they tended to slow down. I let them slow down; regional traditions should take precedence; and I enjoyed it when they did slow me down.

When I got back to the week-long church camp I was staying at, someone asked me how the singing was. “Fantastic,” I said. “Better than I could wished for.”

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Singing in Surf City

I’m on study leave this week, which means that I don’t have to be in the office. Carol was going to drive down to Santa Cruz, where she occasionally works in the office of an engineering firm. We decided that I would ride along and work in the public library, and after work we would go to the Santa Cruz singing.

About a dozen people gathered to sing in Shelley’s living room to sing. There were just three men — one other bass, and a tenor. Several of the singers were new, including one woman who was singing for the very first time; but there were also some long-term experienced Sacred Harp singers, including Janet and Shelley.

I’m always interested in the slight differences you can hear when you go to different monthly and weekly singings. The Santa Cruz singers tend towards a more moderate tempo and somewhat lower pitches than the Berkeley singers; the Santa Cruz singers are more like the Palo Alto singers in this respect. The Santa Cruz singers sometimes slow down a little at the end of a tune; and they are not quite as loud and relentless as other classes I’ve sung with. Shelley said that when they started singing, they had a singer who grew up singing seven-shapte music in Tennessee, and he had strong ideas on how they should sing. I think of seven-shape singers as being a little mellower than us four-shape singers, and I wonder if that accounts for part of the sound of the Santa Cruz singers.

We sang for an hour and a half; this being my fourth straight day of singing Sacred Harp, I was just about out of voice at the end of that hour and a half. Then we went out into Shelley’s back yard and sat around a fire talking and eating snacks for about an hour. As we were leaving, Carol said, “That was a sweet little singing!” I thought that was a good way of characterizing the singing: sweet singing with friendly low-key people. I wish we lived closer to Santa Cruz so we could sing there more often.

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The post-singing singing

More than once, I’ve experienced some of the best singing at a weekly or monthly singing right after an all-day singing or convention. That was the case today. I managed to get off work early, and Carol and I drove two hours to arrive half way through the monthly singing at the old Felta Schoolhouse in Healdsburg. In addition to the Healdsburg singers, and several Bay area singers, there were four out-of-town singers, for a total of about twenty singers. And I experienced one of the best fifty minutes of singing I’ve had in a long time.

Part of the beauty of the singing today came from the old Felta Schoolhouse, which is the best-sounding room of all the rooms in which I’ve sung Sacred Harp in northern California. Part of the beauty of the singing today came from our hosts in Healdsburg, who are always friendly and warm and get us into a good mood for singing. Part of the beauty of the singing today came from having out-of-town friends sing with us. And part of the singing today came from having the music still vibrating in our bones from yesterday’s all-day singing.

This was Sacred Harp singing at its best: good people, good singing, music to heal body and soul.

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Davis local singing

We finally had a free Friday, so Carol and I decided to drive out to Davis to sing with local singing there. It’s a new local singing, organized by Matthew when he went out to attend graduate school in Davis. We were pleased to see some familiar faces: Matthew of course, and some other singers who live in the Central valley and occasionally make it in to the Berkeley weekly singing, or to the Golden Gate All-Day Singing. And there were two people I hadn’t met before: a tenor who has been singing with Davis pretty regularly, and a treble who had only sung from the Sacred Harp once before. All together, there were eight of us gathered in Matthew’s living room: three tenors, two basses, an alto, and two trebles.

Matthew and I were both singing bass, and we both have big voices. We were both holding back, but even so I began to feel that maybe we were too loud. I was sitting next to the tenors and tried singing with them on one tune, but my voice just wasn’t going to go up that high. So Matthew and I exchanged places in the bass section, and he switched back and forth between singing tenor and singing bass.

Aside from feeling I was singing a little too loudly, I thoroughly enjoyed singing with the Davis folks. They are friendly, just the kind of people you’d want to spend an evening with. They sound good, and are great fun to sing with. And they sing for a good long time — we started at 7:00 and it was 9:45 p.m. when we finally headed back out to our car.

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New Hundred Forty-eighth

The second of two tunes I presented at today’s second Sunday Palo Alto singing:

New Hundred Forty-eighth. 8.7.8.7.D

The class sang this tune well, even though it’s challenging to sight-sing — there are lots of notes to sing, and each part does a few unexpected things. Not only that, but the tune should go pretty quickly (quarter note equals 120-144 b.p.m.). So we sang through the shapes twice, and by the last time, the class gave a very nice reading. I felt this tune would be worth singing again: after a few repetitions, a class could get the tempo up even more, which would be a lot of fun.

Notes: Peter asked about the unusual metric indication; the “D” means “doubled.” Melody inspired by Julia Wolfe’s “Steel Hammer.”

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In which I talk about the Palo Alto singing, and then digress at length

Ellen hosted the fourth Sunday singing at her house; her living room makes a very nice singing room. We wound up with thirteen singers: just two tenors and two trebles, four altos, and five basses. As much as I prefer the lower voices, we really were heavy on the basses and altos, and it could have been awkward. But it wasn’t awkward: the singers listened to each other, and responded to what they heard other singers doing. I suspect we were also aware that we had four relatively new singers, and it felt to me as though we were all making sure the newer singers could hear what was going on around them.

And now it’s time for a long digression: