Singing at home

As good as it gets

Tonight’s singing was one of the best we’ve had in a long time. We had four or five newcomers, and were a little short on tenors, and even so we sounded fabulous. And it was one of those singings where it kept getting better; it didn’t reach a peak and then fall off. At 9:23 p.m., a few minutes before our ending time, one of our trebles stood up to lead 163b China, which we know well and which is one of those tunes that can reach amazing heights of emotion that begins in measure 9 and peaks in measure 12 with the words “Jesus” and “souls.”

We finished singing China at 9:26 p.m. It was Erika’s turn. She paused for a moment, and said, “Wouldn’t that be a good one to end on?” But Hal pointed out that we had another four minutes, and some others of us said, Don’t let’s stop now. But Erika said, “I’m exhausted,” and passed. Honestly, I was tired too, and was glad I wasn’t going to have to lead, but I also wasn’t ready to stop singing. Then the rest of the altos passed, and the first two basses passed; bringing it to Jeremy, who stood up and said, “Let’s sing 347.” This really was a perfect choice: it’s a tune we know well, and the poetry lends itself to closing a singing.

And just as we had been singing very well indeed all evening, we sang 347 “Christian’s Farewell” very well indeed. I was glad Jeremy led it: I needed something to bring me back down off the peak China had left me on, just as the last four measures of China bring you back down from the peak in measure 12.


This evening, I especially noticed that our intonation was better than it’s ever been. Even when we’re singing our best, we in the Berkeley singing have had a tendency to tune ourselves a little too sweetly. I’m guilty of that tendency myself; I’m very fond of singing open fifths in something approximating just intonation so that you hear those bell-like tones of the high harmonics ringing out. But the most powerful traditional Sacred Harp singing is not tuned that sweetly; it’s perhaps closer to a blues tuning. It can be hard to hear this on field recordings where there are a lot of voices, but you can hear it on the 1968 recording of the Lookout Mountain Convention.

Technically speaking, I suppose what I’m talking about here is the intersection of intonation and temperament: that is, whether we are singing in tune with each other on the one hand, and how we are adjusting the notes we sing away from being perfectly in tune so we have a workable scale. You have to start with intonation — if singers aren’t singing in tune with each other, who knows what is the temperament of the scale you’re using? But then once you start singing in tune with each other, you have to come to some consensus about the scale you’re using.

This fall, the Berkeley singing has been struggling a little bit with intonation: some weeks we’ve been singing in tune, and some weeks we haven’t. When we have been singing in tune, we have tended to move towards some kind of just intonation, and when we were most in tune we’d get some of those high overtones when we hit perfect fifths. But as much as I like that sound, the sound is more Renaissance-y than it is Sacred-Harp-y.

Tonight, our intonation was spot on — and we also moved away from just intonation to a scale with a temperament that sounded much more Sacred-Harp-y. It’s not an equal tempered scale, since the third of the scale can be somewhat ambiguous, neither quite major nor minor. Since Sacred Harp altos are known for bending the third of the scale, it may be that our alto section is responsible for refining our temperament — and tonight’s alto section was really, really good. A musician/composer friend of mine tells me that Sacred Harp singers indulge in microtonality; and then of course the ornamentation Sacred Harp singers use, especially the characteristic slides, will some effect on intonation and perceived temperament.

But alas, I don’t have a good enough ear to be able to sort this out satisfactorily. I’ll just leave it at this: tonight, we sounded really Sacred-Harp-y, and really good. Tonight’s singing was about as good as it gets.