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.

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