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At the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse

The Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse in downtown Berkeley had one of its open houses this afternoon, and invited us Sacred Harp singers to give a demonstration and workshop.

We started with a half hour demonstration in the lobby at two o’clock. It was a little noisy, with people coming and going, and a children’s instrument-making workshop over in the corner. But once David and Susan got us organized into a hollow square, and invited passers-by to come join us, and handed out loaner books for them to sing from, and explained a little bit about what it is we do — once we got the preliminaries out of the way and began singing, we quickly overwhelmed any ambient noise. We had some good experienced singers in each section, too, and it turned out to be a really good singing.

Later in the afternoon, after all the Sacred Harp singing was over, I got to talking to a woman who had heard us singing in the lobby. She said, “Did you meet that guy from Trinidad? No? Well’s he’s not only a musician, but he’s also a very spiritual man, involved with — ” and here she mentioned something about which I knew nothing ” — and when he walked by and heard you singing, he said, Whoa, that’s powerful.” She told him that he should stay and sing, but he had something else to do, and didn’t want to get drawn in; because if he had gotten drawn in, he would have gotten deeply drawn in. Of course, most of the power he felt was from the music itself, but we were in good voice today.

After singing in the lobby for half an hour, David and Susan led us all upstairs for the workshop and demonstration. David gave a nice concise introduction to Sacred Harp singing, covering both the technical side of it, and talking a little about the power of the music itself. We had a good number of singers: five basses, including one newcomer who had a fine voice and kept right up with the rest of us; five altos, including two newcomers, one of whom first sang Sacred Harp at the Fox Hollow Folk Festival in 1974; six or seven trebles, including one woman who had just gotten back from singing with Larry Gordon’s Village Harmony chorus where she sang some Sacred Harp songs, and a couple of other newcomers; and eight or nine tenors, with four newcomers. Every section was strong, and the singing stayed at that high level we had reached while singing in the lobby.

One peculiar thing I noticed: We were singing in a fairly small room, and the five of us basses had our backs up against a freestanding whiteboard. When we got singing, that white board acted as a resonator behind us, giving a little additional amplification. It was a weird but not unpleasant feeling to feel that resonant board vibrating a few inches from my back.

We sang for about an hour, and then it was time to go. Those of us who are regular singers talked to the newcomers and encouraged them to come sing with us in Berkeley or San Francisco. And then as we packed up the loaner books and got ready to go, we looked at each other and said, That was a pretty good singing, wasn’t it?

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Singing at home

Small type

The San Francisco monthly singing was quite strong: though numbers rose and fell as people came and went over the three hour singing, there were up to eight tenors, up to eight basses, and as many as five trebles; and while there were only three altos at any one time, what they lacked in numbers they made up in strong singing.

We’re continuing with the “open call” system, where singers call a tune when the spirit moves them (as opposed to calling tunes in turn). There were some extended silences while members of the class leafed through their books and thought about what to lead next. But there were also some moments when what one singer led would prompt another singer to lead another tune that somehow related to the first tune. So Lucas from the bass section led 63 “Coronation” by Oliver Holden; the harmonies of that one reminded me of 479 “Chester” by William Billings, so I stood up to lead that; and that prompted Julian to stand up and lead 297 “Conversion” by Supply Belcher. For me, the juxtaposition of those three tunes helped me to hear each individual tune a little bit better.

That’s one great strength of the open call system. I still get impatient with the long silences, but I feel the strengths and weaknesses balance out.

I was sitting next to Lucas in the back row of the bass section when another one of the basses (I think his name was Miles) stood up to lead 195 Worcester. Now Worcester is one of the tunes I dread singing, along with Bear Creek, because the type is so small. I know both tunes reasonably well, but I most certainly haven’t memorized them and am completely dependent on reading the music — which I can’t read very well with my middle-aged eyes because the type is too blasted small. I could see Lucas was having similar problems: do you hold the book close to your eyes where it looks bigger but you can’t quite focus on it, or do you hold the book away from your eyes and pray for the best?

So when we sang the notes, both Lucas and I flubbed the entrance to the fuguing section. So, apparently, did most of the basses, because Miles looked sadly at us and asked in a plaintive voice, “Basses?…” I replied brightly, “Sorry, I can’t read it, I guess I need new glasses.” Lucas muttered under his breath, “That’s just bad typesetting.” We did a little better when we sang the words, but not that well. Of course the other sections got through it perfectly well, so as much as I’d like to blame my eyes, I guess I also ahve to blame my incompetence as a singer.

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Singing school this fall in the Bay area

There will be a Bay area singing school this fall, on three Sundays — Sept. 11, 25, and Oct. 9 — from 1-2 p.m., followed immediately by the regular Peninsula/South Bay twice-monthly singing. I’ve put an announcement up on this Web site here — and there’s a PDF of the flyer available here.

Please tell all your friends and relations and co-workers to join us at this singing school!

And if you’re an experienced singer, please come if you possibly can and support the singing school. I’ll even provide lunch as an added inducement for you to come (just give me a week’s notice).

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Reading list

Bay Area singers in The Trumpet

The latest issue of The Trumpet, the online publication of new tunes written in the Sacred Harp tradition, contains three tunes by Bay Area singers.

Julian Damashek, who sings in the tenor and bass sections of the Berkeley singing, contributed “God of Might” (p. 18), a version of which he presented at the monthly Other Book singing in Berkeley last fall. It’s a good solid plain tune, fun to sing, and to my ears very much in the tradition of late twentieth and early twenty-first century tunesmiths of the urban revival. I think Julian’s strength in his melodies, and “God of Might” has an affecting folk-like melody.

S. Sandrigon, who sings in the tenor and bass sections of the Berkeley singing (under a different name, which I shall not reveal), contributed “Die No More” (p. 23), for which he wrote both text and tune. According to his blog, S. Sandrigon is “an imaginary American poet and songwriter.” I love his post-modern verse, and other tunes of his I have found great fun to sing, and to listen to. The present text, with the odd metrical scheme of 5.5.6.9., is set to an air adapted from Tchaikovsky, in the unusual key of F# major (a key used by Billings, but not so common among later shape note tunesmiths). A version of this tune can be found on S. Sandrigon’s blog here.

The third Bay Area tune was one of mine, which somehow managed to slip past the editors in spite of its not being as well-crafted as the other tunes in this issue of The Trumpet. I’m slowly reading through the tunes in the rest of the issue. Unfortunately, I won’t get a chance to sing them because I’m going to miss the Trumpet Singing in the Bay Area on June 23 — I’m on the road, driving towards the National Sacred Harp Convention, and then on to a professional conference — I would love to sing Julian’s tune again, and sing S. Sandrigon’s tune, and all the other good tunes.

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Other events

Gig

Susan from the altos and Shelby from the trebles have been singing with the Kitka Vocal Ensemble’s Community Chorus. The Kitka Community Chorus was about to do its first gig, performing Balkan a capella music, but they didn’t have quite enough music for a full concert. So Susan and Shelby said the Berkeley Sacred Harp singers would fill out the evening with some participatory singing.

My sweetheart Carol and I watched as people came in to the upstairs room at the Finnish Brotherhood Hall on Chestnut Street in Berkeley. The Kitka Community Chorus was about eighteen women, and they brought family and friends. About ten of us Sacred Harp signers showed up, and I noticed with relief there there were going to be at least two of us on a part. By the time the Kitka Community Chorus started singing, the room was full.

“These women are good!” I thought to myself. Great intonation and dynamics, solid group discipline, and all the singers had great individual voices. They blended well together, and created a nice rich sound. Sure, I could kvetch that the Georgian song they did didn’t sound like it used exactly that weirdo scale the Georgians use, but the chorus still sounded fantastic.

When it was our turn to sing, Susan and her husband David gave a nice brief intro to the tradition, informed the audience that this was a participatory tradition rather than a performance tradition, and formed us up into a hollow square to make that point stronger. We sang 38b Windham, then Susan invited anyone who wanted to come up and sing with us, or just stand in the middle of the hollow square and soak up the sound. Carol, who stayed in the back of the hall said that when Susan said that people could come up and sing along, two teenaged girls sitting near her said “Yes!” quietly to each other. Lots of people came up to sing with us, and half a dozen stood in the middle of the hollow square.

Susan stopped us after five or so songs, which was about right. Left to our own devices, we would have sung the rest of the evening, and annoyed everyone who wanted to get at the refreshments, and tell the Kitka Community Chorus members how great they were.

Carol and I were standing around talking with David, who told us about the old-time Sacred Harp singer who said, “I’d travel five hundred miles to sing Sacred Harp, but I wouldn’t walk across the street to listen to it.” Carol and I laughed; that about summed it up. Or, to be more polite about the same point:–Earlier in the evening, David and Carl and I had been talking about how it’s impossible to commodify Sacred Harp singing — if you commodify it, I insisted, then it isn’t Sacred Harp music, and that’s why I sing it, because you can’t commodify it.

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Outdoors

It was kind of a strange place to be singing. Alemany Farm nestles on the side of a hill right next to the freeway, a small urban farm serving to educate San Franciscans about food security issues. It was a regular work day for volunteers today, but SF Refresh was also presenting some workshops on whole body care (and composting; I wasn’t quite sure where the composting workshop came in). We were asked to give a workshop on Sacred Harp, the thought being that the music is a kind of healing music.

I got lost and arrived late. There were eight of us regular singers from the San Francisco and Berkeley singings. In the forty minutes I was there, another five or six people came and joined in: one person wearing a t-shirt that I thought was from Alemany Farm, one person whom I later learned sang opera, a man from New Zealand and a woman who appeared to be his sweetheart, a woman wearing a snappy fedora, and maybe one other that I’m forgetting. I thought it would be far more difficult to hear each other, especially with the wind, but we were on a small stone patio, and of course we were loud, so it wasn’t so bad — though when we were done, i realized I had pushed my voice more than I had realized.

It was different, singing at an urban farm. I’m not sure we accomplished much in the way of healing or whole body care, but half a dozen people had fun singing with us, and some of the volunteer farm workers who walked by seemed to enjoy listening to us. I would have to say it was one of the more unusual venues — standing in the middle of an urban farm — in which I’ve sung.

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All-day singings & conventions

Golden Gate All-Day Singing

Info on 8th annual Golden Gate: click here.

The seventh annual Golden Gate All-Day Singing took place today, the annual singing put on by Bay Area Sacred Harp. Attendance was lower this year than last year, no doubt because this year the singing happened to fall the day before Easter; this probably cut in to attendance by out of town singers (who may have had family obligations), and even by local singers (some of our regulars didn’t make it). Nevertheless, we had over 90 singers join us over the course of the day, including singers from Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Michigan, and Massachusetts; as well as singers from all over northern California.

My only complaint was the singing was louder than I prefer, partly because the room was so very bright acoustically. Years ago, I damaged my ears with too much punk rock and too many hours using power tools without hearing protection. So now at big singings I prefer to sit on the back bench in a far corner of the bass section. But even sitting back there, my ears were ringing by mid-day. I know Sacred Harp singers are supposed to love being in the center of the hollow square, but if you think about it, it’s really not a great place to be if you don’t care for loud music. (What I really need to do is go get fitted for a pair of high-quality musician’s earplugs: 10 db drop in the noise level would make the hollow square tolerable, and a 20 db drop might make it pleasant.)

That aside, the singing was quite strong. Every section had several very strong singers to carry them along, and plenty of ordinarily strong singers to boot. Some of those who led lessons set tempos that were quite fast, but the class not only managed to keep up but on more than one occasion speeded the tempo up. As usual, I got introduced to a couple of songs that I had never heard sung before — and that, I think, is the best thing about all-day singings and conventions: the opportunity to sing through a significant portion of The Sacred Harp.

P.S. Of course we sang Billings’ “Easter Anthem” — how could we avoid it on the day before Easter?

Update: Here’s a great video of Jill leading 52t, with children:

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Other local singings

San Francisco singing

I managed to make it to the new monthly singing in San Francisco this afternoon. The church that’s letting us sing (for free!) asked if we could participate in a short ceremony for peace in the neighborhood in the wake of a recent shooting a short distance from the church which resulted in the death of Parrish Broughton.

I didn’t get out of my church as quickly as I had hoped, so I arrived just after the Sacred Harp singers has sung Hallelujah. The indoor part of the ceremony was finished, and I got there just in time to join a processional down the street to where the shooting took place. This being an Episcopalian church, they knew how to do ritual — good vestments, really good incense, talking just enough but not too much — I felt honored to be a part of what they were doing.

We sang again when we got to the site of the shooting. A member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence did a nice ritual of creating a peaceful piece of spray-painted graffiti art on the pavement where the shooting took place. Someone from the neighborhood had brought some holy water, and asked the rector to sprinkle it, which he did, with a nice prayer. Then, somewhat to our surprise, we were asked to sing again. “Um, how about New Britain?” — upon seeing blank looks from the non-singers, “That’s what we call Amazing Grace.” We sang it. Everyone sang along. And the ceremony was done.

Back up at the church, we settled in to the hollow square. There were perhaps 25 singers at the peak of the afternoon, and the singing was really excellent; one of the best local singings I’ve ever attended.

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Other local singings

San Francisco Sacred Harp goes monthly

This just in:

As promised, San Francisco Sacred Harp is moving to monthly, our first meeting is February 20.

Sunday, February 20, 2011
1:30 to 4:30
St Aidan’s Episcopal Church
101 Gold Mine Drive (x Diamond Heights Boulevard)
San Francisco, CA 94131

Public transportation: BART to Glen Park BART, 52 MUNI bus to the church.
For driving directions and additional public transportation see:
http://tiny.cc/244o4
Parking in the Safeway parking lot is allowed.

Info: Julian Damashek at juliandamashek AT gmail DOT com

Hooray for Julian and Carolyn Deacy for getting San Francisco Sacred Harp up and running again after the loss of the long-term venue on Fair Oaks Street in San Francisco. It’s exciting that it’s going to be monthly now instead of quarterly. (Alas, I won’t be able to go, since I work on Sunday afternoons.)

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“Awake, My Soul”

City Church of San Francisco sponsored a showing of the Sacred Harp documentary “Awake My Soul” this evening (they showed the one-hour cut, not the full four-hour documentary). A good number of Bay Area Sacred Harp singers showed up. Matt and Erica Hinton were both present, and Matt Hinton answered questions from the audience after the film. One of our local singers asked Matt Hinton why the documentary focused on the big conventions, and Hinton gave several answers:– first, from a film maker’s point of view, local singings don’t film particularly well; then too, the sound produced by a big singing simply sounds better.

But the most interesting reason from my point of view is simply that Georgia, where the Hintons live and did much of the filming, is in the heartland of Sacred Harp singing where there is a convention within driving distance nearly every week of the year. He said that for those of us who live outside this heartland, a convention is a big deal that only we only get to experience a few times a year; thus for us, the local or practice singing looms large in importance. This is another way in which Sacred Harp singing of the urban revival outside the South winds up being a substantially different experience than traditional singing.