Singing at home

Why do we sing?

Carl, one of our regular singers, is a graduate student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He’s currently doing research on Sacred Harp singing using the methodology of ritual studies. Before tonight’s weekly singing, he hosted a conversation about Sacred Harp singing, which he recorded for use in his research. Seven or eight people participated in the conversation, and a couple more were present but didn’t say anything.

Carl started out asking us why we come to Sacred Harp singing. He received the responses I would have expected: the haunting beauty of the music, the sense of community, the feeling of continuity of life and death, etc. Also as you’d expect, a number of people spoke about the importance of the egalitarian nature of Sacred Harp singing. (I was hoping to hear their reasons why they thought so, because I’ve experienced Sacred Harp singing as less egalitarian than some folk music communities I’ve been part of; but no one said why they thought Sacred Harp singing was egalitarian, leaving me to wonder about the origin of this widely-held perception.)

I thought one of the most interesting responses came from Linda, who is a member of a Quaker meeting: she saw some similarities between silent meeting for worship and the rituals of Scared Harp singing. (After she spoke, Carl asked me as a minister if I saw any parallels between the liturgy in my church and Sacred Harp rituals, and I had to answer that I saw very little similarity.)

Lucas talked about the relative lack of narcissism in Sacred Harp singing. Lucas is an active amateur musician who plays in two other bands, writes music, etc.; as he put it, Sacred Harp singing is generally free from the “prima dona” musicians one runs into in other settings. He mentioned as an example the singing of Hal, characterizing Hal’s singing as “self-effacing.” Lucas’s comments reminded me of a common thread running through the observations of folklorists who study traditional American musics: that many musicians singing or playing traditional repertoires in traditional settings do not have big egos, and that some of those musicians talk about getting out of the way of the music, or letting the music come through you.

I was also interested in what did not get said. No one spoke about enjoying the organizational end of things, although in most voluntary associations you’d expect to hear from at least a few people for whom leadership opportunities are of importance. No one spoke explicitly about singing as a form of prayer, although that seemed to be implicit in some of the things people said, e.g., when you lead a song for someone who is ill, that sounds like a phenomenon related to intercessory prayer. Only one or two people mentioned the importance of the poetry (and I was one of those one or two); so there was little discussion of the common liturgical notion that hymnody and psalmody are on a continuum that stretches from spoken word through music. And I didn’t hear anyone talk about the healing power of singing Sacred Harp music, although that is certainly a primary reason why I sing.

At this point, it sounds like Carl’s research is more of a sideline for him. I’m fascinated by his idea of applying the methodology of ritual studies to Sacred harp singing, and I’m hoping the topic will be fruitful enough for him to pursue it further.

Singing at home

New singers

We have had something of an influx of new voices in the past few weeks, including some really good new voices. One of the things I enjoy about the Berkeley local singing is the large number of new singers that we see every year: every new voice adds something. And tonight’s singing was particularly joy-filled, in no small part due to the new singers.

Of course, there’s a down side to this as well. We get a lot of new singers because we have a fairly high turnover; students come and go, people get new jobs and move away, etc.; that’s what happens in the Bay area. The down side is that we’re constantly losing familiar voices that move out of the area.

Posted a week late due to my stupidity.

Other events

Anonymous 4 singing Sacred Harp

Tonight I went to hear a concert by Anonymous 4 (A4) at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. The first half of the concert was Spanish sacred music from 1300; the second half of the concert was Sacred Harp and gospel tunes. As much as I loved the first half of the concert, since this is a Sacred Harp blog I’ll focus on the second half.

The second half opened with “I’m on My Journey Home,” no. 345 in The Sacred Harp. This seemed an appropriate choice to open the concert: A4 is well known for brining the music of women composers to greater prominence, and this tune was written in 1859 by Sarah Lancaster, one of the few women composers in The Sacred Harp. Other Sacred Harp songs they performed included Jewett and Wayfaring Stranger.

A4 used ornamentation sparingly at first: one or another singer might slide up into a note now and then. But as they went on, a little more ornamentation crept in: more slides, an occasional vocal snap, and a few lovely grace notes and rolls. They sounded more spontaneous live than they do on their beautifully controlled recordings of this music.

From the point of view of a Sacred Harp singer, what is most remarkable about listening to A4 is their flexible sense of time. When we Sacred Harp singers sing in a traditional convention setting, or in a local singing, the beat tends to be unvarying; it almost has to be that way with a large group of singers who don’t sing a song more than once in a given day. But with just four singers in a disciplined and well-rehearsed group, it’s possible to let the rhythm vary with the needs of the tune. I especially like the way all four singers breathe together, and take a little pause, and then begin the next phrase: this makes A4 sounds like a single entity; it is the kind of rhythmic feeling you will hear from a solo singer. This flexible sense of rhythm lets A4 build a different kind of emotional power than that achieved with the rock-solid rhythm of a convention setting.

As the concert drew to a close, A4’s singing felt even more powerful. The first half of the concert achieved a kind of mystical transcendence; whereas the shape note and gospel music followed another avenue of sacred music, and had an ecstatic feeling.

Singing at home

From the back bench

During the break, Susan made an announcement about the All-California Convention coming up in January, and added that tonight’s singing sounded a bit like a convention. It did, at that: energetic, loud, and that sense that each song took on a life of its own. At its best, Sacred Harp is not something that you sing — it sings you.

Singing at home

Death’s Alarm

During the Other Book portion of Monday night’s singing, Lucas presented a beautiful tune that he found in a 1914 tune book, Beauties of Harmony: lovely harmonies, and a nice interplay between the voices.

The music Lucas gave us was a photocopy of a typeset score (that is, a score printed from musical type, not an engraved score). That meant the words did not align with the notes. The class gave the tune a good reading, but it was not easy to figure out what words went with what note. The score Lucas gave us attributes the tune to “West,” whom I take to be Elisha West. Therefore, it would be a simple matter to find a solution to this problem by looking in Two Vermont Composers: The Collected Works of Elisha West and Justin Morgan, ed. Karl Kroeger, from the series of books Music of the New American Nation: Sacred Music from 1780 to 1820 — except that I don’t have access to that book.

So here’s my solution to the problem — based on what the notes show, in mm. 11-13 the words should line up differently for each voice:

Deaths Alarm. C.M.

And someday I’ll get access to a library that owns the Collected Works, and check my solution.