Other events

Trumpet singing

I managed to change my work schedule so I could attend tonight’s singing from vol. 2 no. 3 of The Trumpet, and I was glad I did: this was a particularly good issue with lots of good music. Fifteen of us gathered in Carolyn’s living room in San Francisco, with three each of trebles, altos, and basses, and the rest in the tenor section; we had some very good singers in the class, so all the tunes got a good reading.

Since I’m a big fan of the New England School, of course the highlight of the singing was the anthem “The Radiant Band of Music” by Stephen Jenks. Jenks had left the treble part unfinished at his death, and in 2001 Nikos Pappas completed the tune. The added treble part was very sensitively done, very “Jenksian” if you will. I love singing Jenks: he can be quirky and odd at times, but his tunes are satisfying to sing. Some of his later tunes seem a little too much influenced by Lowell Mason and the Better Music Boys; and on the last page of this five-page anthem, Jenks uses conventional chord progressions that are definitely too reminiscent of Lowell Mason. But in the four pages before that, there was enough New England School quirkiness to satisfy me, including: odd time signature changes (e.g., mm. 18-21); descending unisons / parallel octaves that break apart (mm. 22-25); antiphonal singing over drones (top system, p. 94); etc. Great fun to sing!

Among the fuguing tunes, I particularly enjoyed Contrition by Rebecca Wright; when you’re sight-singing, it’s hard to listen to the other parts, but the bass part sounded just right to my ears. I also enjoyed singing the plain tune Bremen by Wade Kotter; I especially like the dotted quarter-eighth note slur in m. 10, which felt just exactly right. And Hurricane Creek by D. W. Steel was a blast to sing — my only complaint is that it needs another verse. I also think it needs to be sung with an unwritten repeat going back to m. 12; you don’t want the tune to end, and I want the leader to have the option of taking the class back to sing the ending one more time.

Will Fitzgerald, one of the editors of The Trumpet, was at this singing. At the end of the singing, I told him that I thought this was perhaps the best issue yet. Full disclosure: one of my tunes is in this issue, but since I’m always unhappy with my own tunes, its inclusion would tend to make me like this issue less. Thus it’s possible that this issue of The Trumpet is better than I think it is.

A big thanks to the editors and production team who put The Trumpet together!

Singing at home

Trumpet singing, vol. 2, no. 2

We gathered in Carolyn’s living room to sing through the latest issue of The Trumpet. We had a good turnout: 3 trebles, 3 altos, 3 basses,
and half a dozen tenors. And there were enough good sight singers to give every tune a pretty good reading (though we basses needed help once or twice; thank you, Marsha!).

We pretty much all agreed that this was the best issue of The Trumpet yet. The average quality of the tunes was quite high, and a few tunes were very pleasant to sing. I’ll mention just a few of the tunes the I found most fun to sing.

Plain tunes first: I enjoyed singing Laurelton again, a long meter plain tune by Deidra Montgomery (I had sung it once before at the pacific Northwest Convention this past February, led by the composer). It’s a good well-crafted tune that sounds like a contemporary version of a late eighteenth or early nineteenth century tune. Joshua, an plain tune credited to Glenn Keeton and Chris Ballinger, is a very singable tune in the style of the mid-nineteenth century Southern tunesmiths. Gerry Hoffman’s Allegheny is a fun short meter tune with a lovely poem by Philip Doddridge. I’m a sucker for Doddridge, and I liked the interplay between folk-like melody in the tenor, and the bass part.

On to fuguing tunes: Runyan, by Micah Sommer, was a real standout long meter fuguing tune. Each part had some challenging places that were great fun to sing. For example, between measures 11 and 12, the bass section jumps up a major sixth to middle C (the highest note for the basses in the tune); that leap up a sixth is a bit unexpected, and when we didn’t hit it, it sounded terrible and we threw the other parts off; but when we did hit it, we made a lovely major triad with the other parts, which was worth the effort. After the singing, i was talking about this piece with Marsha, who felt it was one of the best tunes in this issue of The Trumpet; but we couldn’t decide whether this tune would sound good to an audience; i.e., was it more singers’ music, or would it also succeed as listener’s music?

Finally, I want to mention the anthem Now I Was Free by Jesse Pearlman Karlsberg. It was a very enjoyable tune to sing; we had enough time at the end of the evening to sing a couple of tunes over again, and the class chose Runyan and Now I Was Free. In the second singing, while I enjoyed the music, I found I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the matching of text to music: when I hear Harriet Tubman’s words I hear joy but I also hear a sharp commentary on a society that could keep people in slavery;* for me, the music in Now I Was Free has more triumph than I hear in Tubman’s words. But to be critical in this way is to pay the tune a high compliment: it is clearly communicating emotion, and the composer has clearly thought about what he’s trying to get across. I may not fully agree with that emotion and thought, but the fact remains that it is a well-constructed tune that communicates something clearly and definitely. We need more composers writing tunes we can talk about this seriously.


* The Tubman quote comes from Sarah H. Bradford’s 1886 book Harriet, the Moses of Her People. The material Bradford puts in before and after the quote seems to support my reading of Tubman’s words:

All these visions proved deceitful: she was more alone than ever; but she had crossed the line; no one could take her now, and she would never call any man “Master” more.

“I looked at my hands,” she said, “to see if I was de same person now I was free. Dere was such a glory ober eberything, de sun came like gold trou de trees, and ober de fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.” But then came the bitter drop in the cup of joy. She was alone, and her kindred were in slavery, and not one of them had the courage to dare what she had dared. Unless she made the effort to liberate them she would never see them more, or even know their fate.

Of course Bradford makes her own interpretation of Tubman’s words in her book (e.g., Bradford puts Tubman’s words into the stylized literary Negro dialect of the late nineteenth century); just as I have my own liberation theology interpretation of Tubman’s words; and Jesse Pearlman Karlsberg’s composition is yet another perfectly valid interpretation of Tubman’s words.

Due to demands of my job, this was posted a week and a half late.

Singing at home

Trumpet singing

Tonight, Carolyn hosted about 18 Bay area singers in her home to sing from the latest issue of The Trumpet, the thrice-yearly online publication of new tunes in the Sacred Harp tradition. We started with the first tune, “Freta”; and with at least a few good sight-readers in every section, the class sounded good, loud and confident. We sang through every tune in order, and then went back to sing through a few of the tunes one more time.

The tune I liked the best was Daniel Read’s “Stafford” with the original alto line restored. The new tune I liked best was “Marcia” by John Bauer and Judy Hauff: it has a nice melody; a pleasing combination of 3/2 time with melisma on the third beat; and the introduction of the IV chord at measure 12 comes at a powerful moment in the lyrics for the first and third verses. And we had great fun singing “Catalina” because the composer, Leland Kusmer, was singing with us; he talked with us about how he couldn’t make up his mind whether the tune should be sung slow or fast; so we sang it both ways, and some of us liked it slow and some liked it fast.

I had read through this issue ahead of time, and I thought I was going to like some of the tunes more than I actually did. “Okolnik” proved very challenging for us to sing, with the alto part being especially uncomfortable; and it wasn’t clear whether to sing a raised sixth or not (we decided that it’s best to sing it without the raised sixth). “Altamont” looked good on paper, but didn’t prove to be as fun to sing as I had hoped. “Zane’s Trace” was fun for us bass singers, but the altos complained that their part didn’t seem right to them. The new words to “Stafford” had nice imagery, but the couplet “I rise each day to see my praise / Race each ascending dove” just didn’t work for me. Of course, it’s never fair to sing through a tune only once — some tunes need time to grow on you. And most of the tunes were plain tunes, but it’s excruciatingly difficult to write a new plain tune that stands out among all the brilliant plain tunes that have already been written.

In the end, every tune in this issue of The Trumpet was worth singing at least once. And I wouldn’t mind singing “Freta,” “Catalina,” and especially “Marcia” again some time.

Singing at home

Singing from The Trumpet

Will Fitzgerald, one of the editors of The Trumpet, the new online publication of new Sacred Harp compositions, was in San Francisco and arranged to have a singing of the first issue of The Trumpet at the Church of the Sojourners. We had a good turn out: four basses, four altos, three trebles, and eight or so tenors (a couple of whom helped out us basses when we got stuck).

We sang through all 14 songs, and I feel we gave most of them a reasonably good hearing, although our intonation wasn’t up to the usual standards of Bay Area singers. I appreciated the fact that the singers were willing to go back and work on a tricky bit now and again — more difficult compositions deserve that attention.

All the music was good, but I especially enjoyed the following:—

  • Buckley by Steve Helwig — a new setting of John Newton’s “Bartimeus,” Book 1, no. XCV in Olney Hymns — had a nice sound and was fun to sing; it was good enough that I wanted more verses, and a repeat on the final ten measures
  • Cedar Street by Charles Wells; the interaction between the tenor and bass parts in the sixth and seventh measures were a little challenging, but fun to sing
  • Girard by Gerald Hoffman had a very good “Sacred-Harp-y” sound to it

Some of the music was quite challenging: Lincoln Street by Dan Hertzler included a raised fourth degree of the scale in the bass part which, though it sounded good when we could actually hit that note, was difficult to sing. And The Trumpet was not limited to the pure Denson book sound; some of the music leaned more towards the gospel sound of the Cooper book, such as the fuguing section of Lincoln Street.

But the best song we sang all evening was not in The Trumpet; it was “Leave the Ground” by James, one of the regular singers at the Berkeley weekly singing. James wrote both the words and the music; both words and music were recognizably related to the Sacred Harp idiom, but stretched the idiom in new and delightful ways. I’ll quote just one verse to give you an idea of what I mean:

Now we must all shake hands and go home,
It’s over and done.
Cherubic cars are waiting,
We must drive till morning light,
Cherubic cars are waiting,
We’ll be all right.

The music made wonderful use of repeated unisons. I hope James publishes this somewhere; for lovely though it is, it’s far enough outside the conventions of the Sacred Harp idiom that I doubt The Trumpet will print it. Update: Of course “Leave the Ground” is published on the Web, with sheet music, full text, and funky version with electric guitar accompaniment.