Reflections on singing

Billings in another context

I’ve been singing with the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) chorus — not impressive at it sounds; it’s a non-auditioned community chorus — and this fall I talked the director into having us sing some works by William Billings. It wasn’t hard to talk him into programming Billings, for a number of reasons: several of Billings’ works are staples of the college chorus repertoire; you can get free scores on the Choral Public Domain Library and other Web sites; and there are plenty of excellent performances on Youtube that choristers can watch to help them learn the pieces.

Only one of the works the director programmed is in The Sacred Harp: no. 254, Rose of Sharon. It has been fascinating to sing this familiar tune in a completely different context.

First of all, the Rose of Sharon that we have in The Sacred Harp is not quite the piece of music that William Billings published in The Singing Master’s Assistant in 1778. A few of the notes are different, e.g., in the bass part, the second note (“of”) in m. 70 may be sung as E below middle C, or the E below that; in m. 6 (“I”), only the treble part has an eighth note, while the other three parts have quarter notes; etc. A slightly more significant difference is in the repeat section: we repeat mm. 98-110; but Billings originally intended the repeat section to extend from m. 98 to the last measure. These are minor differences, however, that don’t change the character of the tune very much.

Differences in tempo, however, are significantly different. According to The Complete Works of William Billings, Billings intended the following tempi: in the 2/4 sections, a quarter note equals 120 beats per minute; that’s not much different from the tempo we would use in the Sacred Harp tradition. But in the 6/4 sections, Billings would generally give a dotted half note about the same value as a half note in a 2/4 section, i.e., a dotted half note is about 60 b.p.m.; this is noticeably slower than Sacred Harp practice. And in the 6/8 sections, Billings wants a dotted quarter note to equal 80 b.p.m., while in the Sacred Harp tradition we would tend to make a dotted quarter note close to 120 b.p.m.

Interestingly, performance practices between the CCSF chorus and Sacred Harp singers are not as noticeable as you might think. The CCSF chorus does sing the tune at written pitch, but we would not pitch it much lower here in the Bay Area. The CCSF chorus director is aware of early American choral practices, and encourages a full-throated, open sound, without any vibrato; he asks us to rehearse without a piano so we don’t get sucked into equal temperament tuning; and he does not have us slow down at the end of the piece. Oh, and since it’s a community chorus, the voices are a mix of pretty ordinary and really good, just as in Sacred Harp singings.

The big difference, from my point of view as a singer, is that in the CCSF chorus we get to work on Rose of Sharon for extended periods of time. The plain tunes and simple fuguing tunes in The Sacred Harp are pretty straightforward so there’s not much need to practice them, and besides when you sing multiple verses it’s like practicing the same piece of music three or four times. But an anthem like Rose of Sharon is a more complex piece of music, well worth spending time on going over tricky bits to get them just right, paying attention to timing and entrances and intonation, etc.

In fact, I suspect that that is just what singers did in the singing school tradition out of which the Sacred Harp tradition came: they worked on the more difficult tunes until they got them right. And in reality, many of us today do exactly the same thing — except that we watch Youtube videos or listen to audio recordings of Sacred Harp tunes, instead of working through the more challenging anthems with other live singers. Maybe it’s one thing if you grow up in a traditional singing family, where your parents make you learn how to sing and work you through the tricky bits of the more challenging tunes; I guess the rest of us will have to make do with Youtube.

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 Singing at home

All-California Convention, day one

A short post on the first day of the All-California Convention — it has to be a short post, because I have to go do some cooking for tomorrow’s dinner-on-the-grounds.

We filled the Casa de Flores in San Carlos; it was standing room only right after lunch. Well over a hundred people were registered today, with singers coming from as far away as Alaska and Poland. Today’s class sounded very good; every section was strong; there were lots of altos, which I always like. Generally a very strong singing.

We haven’t had any rain in the Bay area for months, so the air has been filled with allergens. So I knew my voice wouldn’t last long today, and it didn’t: I had about an hour of good singing. But I got to sit in my favorite place, the back row of the bass section, and I wound up sitting next to David, and I always enjoy sitting next to him; he sings with lots of good ornamentation, and he also sings with abandon. It was a really good hour of singing.

The most powerful moments of the day for me: watching Will and Bess lead a lesson they dedicated to Will’s dad, who died a month ago; assisting a singer who led a song for the very first time at a convention, and knowing from his body language that it was an amazing experience; and singing Billings’s Easter Anthem with Jerry setting a quick tempo that perfectly matched the mood of the class.

Now it is time to bake a pie and prepare a ham for tomorrow’s dinner-on-the-grounds.

Singing at home

You never know when…

It was a typical holiday singing, with fewer singers than usual. And we were missing the singers who usually run things: when it came time for our break, there was no one present to call for announcements.

Which brings me to an admission: I am not a particularly good Sacred Harp singer, nor shall I ever be particularly good. I have a slow ear, my voice is unreliable, I’m easily led astray by others, and above all I’m not serious enough. This last failing may be the most damaging. Singing and music for me are a means to an end, and that end is best described as some kind of transcendent ecstasy. Not that words adequately describe what I’m trying to get at. Some of the old Southern Sacred Harp singers might have called it a longing for union with God. William Billings tried to describe it many times, as in this description of fuguing tunes:

Now the solemn bass demands their their attention, now the manly tenor, now the lofty counter [alto], now the volatile treble, now here, now there, now here again. — Oh inchanting! O ecstatic! Push on, push on ye sons of harmony, and
   Discharge your deep mouth’d canon, full fraught with Diapasons;
   May you with Maestoso, rush on to Choro-Grando,
   And then with Vigoroso, let fly your Diapentes
   About our nervous system.

In his book How Sweet the Sound: Music in the Spiritual Lives of Americans, David Stowe, professor of writing and American culture at Michigan State University, says that in this passage, “a kind of synesthesia is taking place, by which musical tones and patterns take personality and material form…. Also unmistakable is Billings’ sense of the music as erotic, with musical performance of the fuguing tune as an aural orgasm.” [p. 58]

For me, neither the union with God as experienced by traditional Christians, nor the “aural orgasm” that David Stowe finds in Billings is exactly accurate. But that’s the nature of transcendent experiences: you can’t adequately describe them in words.

And the nature of transcendent experiences is that you can’t predict when they’ll show up. I hit a few transcendent moments this evening: moments when suddenly the music was tangible, I could hear its movement around me, and what we were doing transcended our individual abilities and voices. The music transcended our singing of it: I managed to connect with the music that is always there and is always waiting to burst in upon us.

So even holiday singings that are smaller than usual can turn out to be really good singings. Even people like me who are not particularly good singers, and not serious enough, can contribute to a really good singing. If, that is, you’re willing to define a really good singing, not in terms of how it might sound as a performance, but how it felt to those of us who were singing.

So we got to 9:30, the time when we usually end very promptly, and Joanne said she was sorry that we didn’t have time to sing 347 Christian Farewell. We all looked at one another, and we decided, what the heck, we’d go past ending time tonight. We sang as well or better than we had sung all night, and I was glad we had gone past time. Later, after we had put everything away, and stood around talking for a quarter of an hour, and gone our separate ways, I was walking towards my car when David and Joanne drove by with their windows open, singing 347 together as they drove off into the dark and rainy night.

Singing at home

“Madrid” by Billings

Recently, I’ve been reading a bit in William Billings’s The Suffolk Harmony. I got interested in The Suffolk Harmony because Billings uses quite a few texts by the eighteenth century theologian James Relly — Relly is not an obvious choice because he held to the doctrine of universal salvation, something that was not aligned with the typical theological stance of the people who were writing and singing music for and in the late eighteenth century singing schools.

Theology aside, I’m finding that some of the tunes are really quite enjoyable. Tonight during our monthly Other Book singing in Berkeley, I presented my transcription of “Madrid” by Billings. The singers seemed to like it pretty well. It was relatively easy to sightread, and it was great fun to sing — at least it was great fun for me to sing the bass part, although the other parts seemed to enjoy singing the tune as well.

Madrid, by William Billings.

N.B.: I did careful proofreading, and while I believe there are no typographical errors, I would appreciate hearing from you if you find an error in transcription.

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:

Singing at home

No. 479, Chester, with the original words

Today is the day before April 19 — and April 19 (as is well know by every schoolchild in Concord and Lexington in Massachusetts) is the anniversary of the Battle of Concord and Lexington, the battle that began the Revolutionary War. I grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, and April 19 was a big holiday for us as kids: we got to go see the parade, and watch the reenactment of the battle (the Red Coats always lose), and wander around town with our friends.

So I could not resist leading Chester, no. 479, by William Billings, with the original words probably written by Billings. The first verse appears in his 1770 tune book The New England Psalm-Singer:

Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav’ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New England’s God forever reigns.

The other four verses appear in full in his 1778 book The Singing Master’s Assistant:

Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton too,
With Prescot and Cornwallis join’d,
Together plot our Overthrow,
In one Infernal league combin’d.

When God inspir’d us for the fight,
Their ranks were broke, their lines were forc’d,
Their ships were Shatter’d in our sight,
Or swiftly driven from our Coast.

The Foe comes on with haughty Stride;
Our troops advance with martial noise,
Their Vet’rans flee before our Youth,
And Gen’rals yield to beardless Boys.

What grateful Off’ring shall we bring?
What shall we render to the Lord?
Loud Halleluiahs let us Sing,
And praise his name on ev’ry Chord.

I assume that these last four verses were written after the 1770 book, for these verses mention events that had not yet happened in 1770, but were very much in people’s minds in 1778.

Tonight, we sang the first and fourth of the original verses. Tonight’s class gave a powerful and stirring rendition of this glorious tune — perhaps because these words are more fun to sing than the perfectly fine poetry that’s in the book, for these words were written to match the tune. And in case you want to try this yourself, here’s a PDF of the tune with the four of the original five verses:

Chester. L.M. With original words.

Singing at home

Raised sixths, and postmodern rootlessness

The first part of this week’s singing was the monthly “Other Book” singing, a time to sing from the Cooper book, Norumbega Harmony, Eclectic Harmony, etc. In the spirit of openness that has marked the Berkeley singings over the past several weeks, I saw a willingness of all singers to experiment, and of more experienced singers to do a little more teaching for the rest of us.

One subject came up that has been passionately discussed many times by singers of the urban revival. Towards the end of the “Other Book” singing, I asked us to sing Lebanon by William Billings, no. 2 in Norumbega Harmony. I had been playing through it at home, and noticed that if you try to raise the sixth, as is common Sacred Harp practice for songs in a minor key, at one point you get part of a diminished chord. So I was curious as to how we would sing the song. Unfortunately, since we don’t really know the song, we sang a fair number of wrong notes (I know I sang plenty of wrong notes), so I couldn’t be sure: did the experienced singers raise the sixth, or not?

Other local singings

Dinkytown, Minneapolis, local singing

Carol and I are driving across the country, and I arranged the trip so we could stop in Minneapolis on the day that the University of Minnesota local weekly singing, in the Dinkytown neighborhood of Minneapolis, was taking place. I found my way to University Baptist Church after a little bit of trouble (Google Maps told me to look on the wrong side of the street). As I walked up to the church building, a man sitting outside said, “Looking for the singing? Go through that door and follow the sound.”

I heard the singing before I got to the door, and wound my way up two flights of stairs. Even though there were only a dozen or so people, the volume was already quite high; in part because it was such a live room, but also this was clearly a bunch of high-volume singers. I took my accustomed place in the back bench of the bass section, and settled in for some good singing, for these singers were not just loud, they were fine singers.

Unlike our local singing in Berkeley where we go around the hollow square giving each person a chance to lead, at the Dinkytown singing people stand up to sing when they feel like it. This is what I was used to back east, and it’s much easier for newcomers and those of us who just don’t care to lead. I noticed that the songs we sang were ones with which I was mostly unfamiliar; most of the songs were from the mid-19th century, or from the late 20th century, with the exception of one by William Billings and one by Daniel Read.