Singing at home

Trumpet singing

Hal and Erika hosted a singing of vol. 2, no. 1 of The Trumpet at Hal’s house this afternoon. We started off with just five of us: Hal and Erika on tenor, Betty on treble, Marsha on alto, and me on bass. We began by singing “Jumalan Rauhaan” by Steve Luttinen and Kim Bahmer. I’m not the best sight-singer and found it challenging to be that exposed when sight-singing unfamiliar music, but at the same time I often find it easiest to hear a tune when there’s only one or two voices in each section: it can be easier to hear the harmonies and the interplay between the voices. In any case, “Jumalan Rauhaan” sounded quite nice with only five voices, and the simple AABA’ structure made it easy to sing. We moved on to “Ivey” and “Jane’s Encouragement,” neither of which came through so well for us, so we put them aside to revisit later.

By this time, more people had showed up, and pretty soon there were nine of us: two on each part, except three on tenor. We worked through “Goss,” a tune with what I’d call an AA’BA’ structure (though arguably what I’m calling the A’ part should be called the C part). Marsha pointed out that the melody line bore some resemblance to a fiddle tune, especially in the A part. I liked the tune, but wished the last note of the fourth measure of the bass part had been an A (la), not a D (la).

Then we took on “Melanie” by Anne Heider. This is a challenging tune. It’s in 3/2 and begins on the weak middle beat, which is unusual. The harmonic progressions are unusual for a Sacred Harp tune. And the rhythmic pattern in mm. 3 and 7, where bass and treble lines are out of synch with the tenor and alto lines on the weak middle beat is unusual. After we struggled through the notes, we got into a discussion of this tune, and then of other things, and then we took a break so we could eat the yummy snacks Hal and Erika had provided.

And I’ll take this opportunity to leave the Trumpet singing for a moment and discuss whether this and other tunes have too many unusual features to make them Sacred-Harp-friendly….

There’s an argument to be made that “Melanie” and others like it have enough challenging parts to place them outside the core Sacred Harp tradition. But if I look at the tradition as it is written and as it is sung, I don’t think “Melanie” is outside that tradition. The rhythmic pattern in mm. 3 and 7, for instance, is not unfamiliar: we frequently hear singers anticipating a note, or coming in late, and Anne Heider has nicely captured the effect of these practices. As for the challenging harmonic progressions, “Melanie” is closer to the center of the tradition than, say, 68t “Salem.” And as for coming in on the middle beat of a 3/2 measure, I can’t help thinking about Arnold Zwicky’s blog post on 146 “Hallelujah,” where he notes the discrepancies between “the fit between the poetry,… the prosody of the words in spoken language, and the setting to music,” to say nothing of actual performance practice — thus one of the key characteristics of Sacred Harp music is the unusual rhythmic patterns.

Then what makes a tune Sacred-Harp-y if it’s not already in the Sacred Harp book? You could argue that a tune is Sacred-Harp-y if Sacred Harp singers like it. But unless a new tune is dead easy, you’re not going to know what it sounds like in a single reading — and sometimes, as happened with us and “Melanie,” the class will sing enough wrong notes that you really can’t hear what it sounds like, which means the singers really can’t know if they like it or not.

Back when I directed a small folk choir, I could push my singers to sing through a new arrangement or new composition several times, and we could play with the tempo, transpose it up or down to fit our voices, and as director and composer I could correct singers’ mistakes, and singers could correct my mistakes as composer or arranger — it was a very cooperative venture. But in our Sacred Harp tradition, a leader only gets to lead a tune once per class, then we move on to the next tune. While we do this for very good reasons, I think when it comes to new compositions it can be frustrating for both the class and the composer — there’s not as much communication in either direction.

I believe this tends to keep the amount of new compositions relatively small, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The Sacred Harp tradition is a very conservative tradition. We say: Seek the old paths and walk therein. We don’t have a lot of room for new tunes in the central canon anyway: the Denson book is now more than twenty years old, and any new revision won’t have a lot of room for new tunes. Yet while it is good to be a conservative tradition, we want to make sure that we don’t latch on to new tunes simply because they’re the easiest and most familiar-sounding ones to sing; instead, we want to latch onto the best tunes.

To return to today’s Trumpet singing: we got to talking so much that we never did get through all the tunes in the latest issue of the Trumpet. Which meant, to my regret, that we certainly didn’t have time to work through “Melanie” one or two more times, so we could at least get it right.