Other local singings

Singing in Surf City

I’m on study leave this week, which means that I don’t have to be in the office. Carol was going to drive down to Santa Cruz, where she occasionally works in the office of an engineering firm. We decided that I would ride along and work in the public library, and after work we would go to the Santa Cruz singing.

About a dozen people gathered to sing in Shelley’s living room to sing. There were just three men — one other bass, and a tenor. Several of the singers were new, including one woman who was singing for the very first time; but there were also some long-term experienced Sacred Harp singers, including Janet and Shelley.

I’m always interested in the slight differences you can hear when you go to different monthly and weekly singings. The Santa Cruz singers tend towards a more moderate tempo and somewhat lower pitches than the Berkeley singers; the Santa Cruz singers are more like the Palo Alto singers in this respect. The Santa Cruz singers sometimes slow down a little at the end of a tune; and they are not quite as loud and relentless as other classes I’ve sung with. Shelley said that when they started singing, they had a singer who grew up singing seven-shapte music in Tennessee, and he had strong ideas on how they should sing. I think of seven-shape singers as being a little mellower than us four-shape singers, and I wonder if that accounts for part of the sound of the Santa Cruz singers.

We sang for an hour and a half; this being my fourth straight day of singing Sacred Harp, I was just about out of voice at the end of that hour and a half. Then we went out into Shelley’s back yard and sat around a fire talking and eating snacks for about an hour. As we were leaving, Carol said, “That was a sweet little singing!” I thought that was a good way of characterizing the singing: sweet singing with friendly low-key people. I wish we lived closer to Santa Cruz so we could sing there more often.

Singing at home

A third day of singing

Carol and I headed over to the Berkeley weekly singing tonight, for a third day in a row of singing. It was a smaller turnout than usual; I counted fourteen people at one point. The singing was very good, in the best tradition of the Berkeley weekly singing: fast, loud (but not too loud), and pitched a bit high. And while we did get a little screechy a couple of times, mostly we were very much in tune with each other.

After hearing 268 David’s Lamentation sung quite slowly at yesterday’s Healdsburg singing, I decided to lead it at a fairly quick tempo. I was thinking of a field recording I got a few years ago from Hal Eisen, which was only identified as being by “Alabama Sacred Harp Singing Convention”; in this recording the singers used a tempo of about 116 beats per minute. (Note that William Billings, the composer of David’s Lamentation, specified that 2/4 time should be sung at 120 beats per minute.) Berkeley singers like to sing fast, and tonight we sang it at about 120 beats per minute; furthermore, the class sang it the way I like best, with a bit of a swing to it. Sung at the slow tempo, you can sense King David’s sadness at the death of Absalom; but at the quicker tempo, I get more of a sense of the sharp urgency and complexity of David’s grief.

All-day singings & conventions

Golden Gate videos, part III

More videos from the recent Golden Gate All-Day Singing, held on Saturday, April 27, 2013, at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House in San Francisco. These include videos of singers from the east coast, the Central Valley, Santa Cruz, and Healdsburg — along with two videos of Bay area singers. Videos are of Sherry leading 183 Greenwich; Gordon leading 173 Phoebus; Robin leading 49t Old Hundred (one of my favorite tunes); Vicky leading 452 Martin (assisted by Caroline); Chris leading 315 Immensity; and Phil leading 99 Gospel Trumpet.

I’ve now posted just about all the videos I have of out-of-town singers. There might be one or two more, but I had some technical issues and didn’t get a video of everyone who led a tune, and I think that’s about it. After this, I’ll start working my way through Bay area singers.

All-day singings & conventions

Golden Gate videos, part II

More videos from the recent Golden Gate All-Day Singing, held on Saturday, April 27, 2013, at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House in San Francisco. These are videos of out-of-town singers, from Oregon, Utah, Santa Cruz County, and the Central Valley. Singers include Tom leading 556 Portland; Karen leading 532 Peace and Joy; Jenny leading 448t Consecration; Shelley leading 352 Swanton; Janet leading 383 Eternal Day; and Linda B. leading 147t Boylston.

Other local singings

The post-singing singing

More than once, I’ve experienced some of the best singing at a weekly or monthly singing right after an all-day singing or convention. That was the case today. I managed to get off work early, and Carol and I drove two hours to arrive half way through the monthly singing at the old Felta Schoolhouse in Healdsburg. In addition to the Healdsburg singers, and several Bay area singers, there were four out-of-town singers, for a total of about twenty singers. And I experienced one of the best fifty minutes of singing I’ve had in a long time.

Part of the beauty of the singing today came from the old Felta Schoolhouse, which is the best-sounding room of all the rooms in which I’ve sung Sacred Harp in northern California. Part of the beauty of the singing today came from our hosts in Healdsburg, who are always friendly and warm and get us into a good mood for singing. Part of the beauty of the singing today came from having out-of-town friends sing with us. And part of the singing today came from having the music still vibrating in our bones from yesterday’s all-day singing.

This was Sacred Harp singing at its best: good people, good singing, music to heal body and soul.

All-day singings & conventions

Golden Gate videos, part I

Here’s the first batch of videos from the Golden Gate All-Day Singing, held on Saturday, April 27, 2013, at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House in San Francisco. I started by processing videos of tunes led by out-of-town singers, and this batch includes videos of singers from oregon and Washington state. Videos below are: Bob leading 475; Steve leading 187; Nell leading 102; David W. leading 332; Chris leading 517; and Betsy leading 522.

All-day singings & conventions

2013 Golden Gate All-Day Singing

We just got back from the 2013 Golden Gate All-Day Singing, held again this year at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House in San Francisco. Singers traveled from five other states, including Washington, Oregon, and Utah; and I saw several singers from southern California. Northern California singers came from Davis and the Central Valley; Healdsburg and Sonoma County; Santa Cruz County; the East Bay; San Francisco; and the Peninsula.

It was a good singing. The room we sing in at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House provides a bright and very loud sound that emphasizes the higher pitches; this room complements the Berkeley/San Francisco singers, who tend to pitch their tunes fairly high, and sing fast and very loud. My personal preference is for a mellower sounding room with more bass response; but it was great fun to sing in the Berkeley/San Francisco style in that room. As a punk rock fan from way back, I couldn’t help thinking that Joey Ramone would have felt right at home with us today.

Lindy asked me do some video recordings; I have have about five hours of video to go through, of mixed quality, and will start processing that and getting it on Youtube (and here) as I have time over the next few weeks. In the mean time, my partner Carol, who will say she comes to all-day singings mostly for dinner-on-the-grounds, took this photo of Janet from Santa Cruz leading:

Golden Gate 2013

Other events

Singing with Coleman Barks

Shelley Phillips and Barry Phillips provided the music to accompany Coleman Barks as he read from his translations of Rumi last night at the First Congregational Church of Santa Cruz. Barks grew up in the south and loves shape note singing, so Shelley asked local Sacred Harp singers if they’d come and sing two tunes.

It’s a long way from San Mateo to Santa Cruz, and Carol and I got to the church about ten minutes before the reading was to begin. All the church’s parking spaces were full, and the school parking lot next door was full, too. We parked on the street.

As soon as I walked into the church, someone spotted the maroon oblong Sacred Harp book in my hand, and sent me to sit in one of the front three rows. I recognized Janet and one or two other singers, but no one else — it’s a long drive, and Santa Cruz singers don’t get up to the Bay Area to sing much.

Coleman Barks began reading. I could hear the cadences of Southern preaching in his voice. Shelley and Barry played — Shaker tunes, Sacred Harp tunes, Bach — as he read. People who study liturgy talk about the continuum from ordinary speech through heightened speech, singing, and finally wordless music. As Southern preachers often do, Barks moved along this continuum from ordinary speech to heightened speech; Shelley and Barry Phillips moved along the other end of the continuum, singing and music.

We Sacred Harp singers sang right after the intermission. Sacred Harp singing moves between heightened speech and singing, so we occupied the middle ground of that continuum from ordinary speech to music. Shelley led us in no. 178 Africa; Barks read one of his poems that mentions Sacred Harp singing, then we sang no. 59 Holy Manna (vv. 1, 3, 5). Barks came to sing with us on Holy Manna, standing in the bass section a couple of people to my left.

I think that was about the deadest place I’ve ever sung Sacred Harp in: I could hear a little of what the tenors were singing, and I could hear the bass I was standing next to, and I could hear Shelley, who was standing facing us; and that’s about all I could hear. So it wasn’t the ecstatic experience Sacred Harp singing can be when you can hear and respond to all the other singers; but it was probably a more musical experience for those who weren’t singing. When you’re singing for an audience, I think Sacred Harp tends to morph from an ecstatic form of heightened speech into musical singing — which, honestly, is a kindness to the audience; ecstasy doesn’t sound so good when you’re not singing along with it. Carol was siting out out in the audience, and she said we sounded fine.

Then Barks continued reading his translations of Rumi: poems of ecstatic and transcendent encounters with the divine; poems about mystic experiences, experiences which cannot be adequately communicated to an audience.

Cross-posted here.

Singing at home

Short singing

This afternoon I managed to slip away from work and drive up to San Francisco for the monthly singing there. Carol and I arrived about twenty minutes after the singing was supposed to have started, but people tend to arrive late to that singing, and there were only half a dozen singers there. But after an hour, at the break, there were more than a dozen of us. I had to leave after the break to get back to work, but I did get a chance to chat with some singers I haven’t seen in a while — then we started the long drive back to church. We spent more time driving than singing, but it was worth it.

Singing at home

Two ways of singing?

One of the differences between traditional Southern Sacred Harp singing, and Sacred Harp singing in the urban revival, is that traditional singing is centered around all-day singings and conventions, while the urban revival tends to be centered around the local or practice singings. In the heartland of Sacred Harp singing, you can drive to a different all-day singing almost every weekend of the season, which means that local or practice singings just aren’t that important. But in the urban revival, there might be only one or two all-day singings or conventions per year within driving distance, so we invest a good bit of emotional energy into our monthly singings, or (if we’re lucky) our weekly singings.

In my experience, monthly and weekly singings of the urban revival can take on one of two formats. On the one hand, the monthly or weekly singing can take on the format of an abbreviated all-day singing: you try to sing as many tunes as possible, so you don’t sing more than a couple of verses of any one tune, and if a tune doesn’t sound quite right you don’t pause to fix it but just move right on to the next tune.

On the other hand, the monthly or weekly singing can take on the format of a kind of rehearsal. If a tune doesn’t sound quite right or if one section is struggling, you take the time to review each struggling part separately, and work on the tune until you get it right. And instead of getting through as many tunes as possible, you’re willing to sing lots of verses of a given tune so that you can really learn how to sing it.

To distinguish the two formats, we might call the first one a local singing, and we might call the second one a practice singing. Both these formats are perfectly good; neither one is better than the other. Both have strengths: the local singing probably produces more adept leaders, and the practice singing probably produces more accurate singers. Both formats also have weaknesses: the local singing can tolerate poor leaders but suffers when there’s not a critical mass of experienced and accurate singers; while the practice singing can may not give enough people enough practice at leading.

In the Bay area, we have both types of singing. The weekly Berkeley singing is definitely the first type of singing, a local singing: it aims to provide a two-hour experience of an all-day singing each week; there is lots of peer pressure to become a good leader; you get dirty looks if you lead more than two verses of a tune; there are no part reviews and if a tune goes badly you just go on to the next tune. The twice-monthly Palo Alto singing is definitely the second type of singing, a practice singing: if a tune doesn’t go well, you go over it until everyone knows it; you might sing every verse of an unfamiliar tune, in order to get it right; no one really worries about who leads a tune.

After that long introduction, we finally come to tonight’s Berkeley singing. There were about sixteen singers, a little less than the typical number of twenty or so singers; that meant the sound was not quite full enough to sound like an all-day singing, and some parts simply drowned out the other parts (something that rarely happens in an all-day singing). And while there were good strong singers in every part — e.g., Ted from Chicago, with his beautiful bass voice, sang with us; and our own Hugh, who grew up singing Sacred Harp, sang treble — there were few enough singers that sometimes you were hearing individual singers rather than a section of singers. So it didn’t sound like a mini-all-day singing.

Now I’m wondering if there isn’t a way to combine the best of both formats. At the Palo Alto singing we usually put a table in the middle of the hollow square — maybe this Sunday I’ll try removing the table from the middle of the hollow square so those who wish can work on their leading skills (just in time for the Golden Gate All-Day Singing at the end of the month), while we also work on improving the accuracy of our singing.

(One last comment: it was good to be able to get back to singing after a month when the demands of my job kept me from singing much at all.)