It was a typical holiday singing, with fewer singers than usual. And we were missing the singers who usually run things: when it came time for our break, there was no one present to call for announcements.
Which brings me to an admission: I am not a particularly good Sacred Harp singer, nor shall I ever be particularly good. I have a slow ear, my voice is unreliable, I’m easily led astray by others, and above all I’m not serious enough. This last failing may be the most damaging. Singing and music for me are a means to an end, and that end is best described as some kind of transcendent ecstasy. Not that words adequately describe what I’m trying to get at. Some of the old Southern Sacred Harp singers might have called it a longing for union with God. William Billings tried to describe it many times, as in this description of fuguing tunes:
Now the solemn bass demands their their attention, now the manly tenor, now the lofty counter [alto], now the volatile treble, now here, now there, now here again. — Oh inchanting! O ecstatic! Push on, push on ye sons of harmony, and
Discharge your deep mouth’d canon, full fraught with Diapasons;
May you with Maestoso, rush on to Choro-Grando,
And then with Vigoroso, let fly your Diapentes
About our nervous system.
In his book How Sweet the Sound: Music in the Spiritual Lives of Americans, David Stowe, professor of writing and American culture at Michigan State University, says that in this passage, “a kind of synesthesia is taking place, by which musical tones and patterns take personality and material form…. Also unmistakable is Billings’ sense of the music as erotic, with musical performance of the fuguing tune as an aural orgasm.” [p. 58]
For me, neither the union with God as experienced by traditional Christians, nor the “aural orgasm” that David Stowe finds in Billings is exactly accurate. But that’s the nature of transcendent experiences: you can’t adequately describe them in words.
And the nature of transcendent experiences is that you can’t predict when they’ll show up. I hit a few transcendent moments this evening: moments when suddenly the music was tangible, I could hear its movement around me, and what we were doing transcended our individual abilities and voices. The music transcended our singing of it: I managed to connect with the music that is always there and is always waiting to burst in upon us.
So even holiday singings that are smaller than usual can turn out to be really good singings. Even people like me who are not particularly good singers, and not serious enough, can contribute to a really good singing. If, that is, you’re willing to define a really good singing, not in terms of how it might sound as a performance, but how it felt to those of us who were singing.
So we got to 9:30, the time when we usually end very promptly, and Joanne said she was sorry that we didn’t have time to sing 347 Christian Farewell. We all looked at one another, and we decided, what the heck, we’d go past ending time tonight. We sang as well or better than we had sung all night, and I was glad we had gone past time. Later, after we had put everything away, and stood around talking for a quarter of an hour, and gone our separate ways, I was walking towards my car when David and Joanne drove by with their windows open, singing 347 together as they drove off into the dark and rainy night.