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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.