Singing at home

Of fungus and microtonality

Les and Patti, two singers from Illinois whom Carol and I met at Camp Fasola, were in town; Carol and I drove over with them from San Mateo to Berkeley. Traffic was extraordinarily light, and we arrived twenty minutes early, so we showed Les and Patti a limited view of the Golden Gate a block from All Saints Chapel, but with the fog coming in from the Pacific, all we could see was the tops of the two towers of the Golden Gate Bridge.

As we started walking back to All Saints Chapel, a woman stopped us and asked if we would like to see “the fruiting body of a rare mushroom; well, not a mushroom, exactly, since it doesn’t have a stipe and a cap; it’s more of an ear.” We said we would like to see this rare fungus. She told us its name — Otidea smithii — and she showed it to us: small, brown with a cool purple tinge, with a shape that was indeed ear-like (according to a government environmental management paper, the shape resembles “a plastic cup melted on one side, or a spoon, or a rabbit’s ear”). People you meet in Berkeley are rarely boring.

On to the singing, which turned out to be pretty good tonight. However, although others were singing well, I wasn’t: it had been a difficult day at work, I had a hard time focusing. So I put more effort into listening than into singing. Towards the end of the evening, I suddenly began paying attention to microtonality: not all the notes we sing are precisely tuned to a conventional scale.

For example, often when a given section sings notes that are at the extreme upper end of their range (particularly when they ascend to that note skipwise instead of stepwise), they will tend to sing those high notes slightly flat. In one major-key tune this evening, the trebles consistently flattened the highest notes by about a quarter tone, i.e., those highest notes were a little more than half way from the note as written, to a minor second lower. I wish I had thought to make a note of which tune it was, and now I can’t remember; but the note they were flatting was a high G, the tonic “fa,” and the resulting chord sounded interesting and good. We basses did the same thing to our high notes in no. 513 “Joyful,” though we were less consistent within our section; at least one of us was singing the notes right on pitch while I was down a quarter tone; yet this lack of consistency lent a kind of spice to those high notes. This slight flatting of the highest notes doesn’t always happen, but it happens often enough to sound like a familiar part of Sacred Harp singing.

We Sacred Harp singers include other kinds of microtonality fairly consistently in Sacred Harp singing. We are also somewhat prone to singing neutral thirds; that is, we sometimes sing the third degree of the scale such that it’s between a minor third and a major third; although I can only remember this happening in minor key tunes. We use ornaments, such as sliding into notes from below (and more rarely from above), that involve microtonality. And sometimes we just sing badly; our voices are tired, we’re not paying attention, whatever; I heard myself and others slipping into this last kind of unintentional microtonality more than once tonight.

By the way, in case you’re wondering: when Les asked if Oditea smithii were edible, the woman who showed it to us said yes, probably, but that we wouldn’t want to eat it.

Other events

Northfield as early music

In other news from the alto bench of the Berkeley weekly singing, Marsha led a singing school at the Madison (Wisconsin) Early Music Festival. Here’s a video of Marsha leading the class in no. 155 Northfield:

The room is kind of echo-y for Sacred Harp, but they sound really good!

Reading list

“Sacred Harp: the punk rock of choral music”

Shani, who sings alto with the Berkeley weekly singing, had a nice piece on KALW radio recently, titled: “Sacred Harp: the punk rock of choral music.” The audio file, and a moderately accurate transcription into text, are available on the KALW Web site. In the background of the audio version, you can hear the Berkeley weekly singing, the Golden Gate all-day singing, a singing school led by Cassie Allen, and what sounds like the Denson quartet (or some other vintage Sacred Harp recording).

Other local singings

In which I talk about the Palo Alto singing, and then digress at length

Ellen hosted the fourth Sunday singing at her house; her living room makes a very nice singing room. We wound up with thirteen singers: just two tenors and two trebles, four altos, and five basses. As much as I prefer the lower voices, we really were heavy on the basses and altos, and it could have been awkward. But it wasn’t awkward: the singers listened to each other, and responded to what they heard other singers doing. I suspect we were also aware that we had four relatively new singers, and it felt to me as though we were all making sure the newer singers could hear what was going on around them.

And now it’s time for a long digression:

Singing at home

Understanding structure of tunes, for newer singers

Some people at the Berkeley weekly singing asked me to talk to the monthly learner’s group, with the idea that a tunesmith might have something to offer newer singers. Below is a recreation of the session I led this evening:

[To begin, we sang through some scales on page 18 of the Rudiments section.]

Understanding a little bit about the structure of our tunes can make it easier to sing from the Sacred Harp….