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 school, part one

We had a good turnout for the first session of our Sacred Harp singing school at the Palo Alto church: we had set out 54 chairs, and at one point every chair was taken. A dozen or so experienced Sacred Harp singers showed up to help support Marsha Genensky, our singing master for the day. The new singers were about evenly split between people who had sung a few times at a local Sacred Harp singing, and people who had never sung Sacred Harp before but who had some singing experience.

Marsha traced the background of solfege syllables from the Middle Ages up to the development of the “fa, sol, la, mi” syllables used in early American singing schools. She demonstrated how the scale worked with only four solfege syllables: fa, sol, la, fa, sol, la, mi, and back to fa. She showed the class how early American hymnals printed the syllables “F, S, L, M” to indicate pitch. Later, these same syllables were printed beneath standard round-headed notes, and finally notes with different shaped note heads were developed to help make it easy to sight-read a piece of music: fa corresponded to a triangular note head, sol to a round note head, la to a rectangular note head, and mi to a diamond-shaped note head. (Link to a sample scale in shape notes.)

Marsha then organized the class into a scale: some people sang a low fa, a different small group so, the next group la, and so on up the scale. Then she told us to sing our note when she pointed at us — and by “playing us like a marimba,” she had us sing the tune to “Amazing Grace.” (She also told the class that the name of the tune is actually “New Britain,” while the name of the hymn or poem is “Amazing Grace.”)

By this time, the class was ready to sing some songs, and Marsha led us through a couple of easy songs. She had each section — altos, trebles (with men and women singing an octave apart), tenors (the melody line, with men and women singing an octave apart), and basses — sing their part separately and slowly, using the “fa, sol, la, mi” syllables. Then she put us together so that we were singing in four parts. The experienced singers kept us on our parts, and there were plenty of other fine voices in the room, so we sounded great!

After an hour of the singing school, we segued into the regular bimonthly Palo Alto singing. The tempo of the songs picked up, and at times some of the new singers got a little lost, but from where I sat in the back of the bass section, everyone I could see was enjoying themselves, and enjoying the music.

Historical note: The singing school was a regular feature of eighteenth century American life, and persisted well into the nineteenth century in America outside of urban areas. The singing school continued through the twentieth century in the rural South in the tradition of Sacred Harp singing (so named because the tune book used by the tradition is titled “The Sacred Harp”), and today is enjoying a revival outside the South in northern and Western cities, and abroad in Ireland, England, Australia, and even Poland. The singing school remains an excellent way to teach people how to sing, which is why I brought a singing school to our Unitarian Universalist church in Palo Alto.

Small “u” universalists are everywhere

Today I attended the annual Macedonia Church Singing, a group of people who have been singing shape note hymns on Sand Mountain in Alabama for generations. This is one of the few parts of the country where churches sing in four part a capella harmony from the The Sacred Harp, a four-shape note hymnal, in regular Sunday services. Thus, liturgically speaking it is one of the more conservative parts of the United States; they still conserve some of the old ways of conducting Sunday services that date back a hundred and fifty years or more.

At lunch I sat down across from a fellow who was also singing in the bass section, and when he found out that I was a Unitarian Universalist he grinned and said, “I’m a Christian universalist.” We spent the rest of the lunch hour talking about James Relly — when he found out I hadn’t actually read Relly, he said I simply had to do so — and about Rob Bell, and the Primitive Baptist Universalists, and Hosea Ballou. He probably knew more about universalism than I did, although I was able to tell him one thing that he didn’t know: that Abraham Maxim, one of the composers in The Sacred Harp, had been a Universalist.

It turns out that he belongs to a Methodist church, where he is a Bible study leader. When he became convinced of the truth of universalism, he offered to step down as a study leader, but his church thought it would be fine if he stayed on. I asked about his pastor, and he said that his pastor seemed to have universalist leanings, though of course he didn’t come right out and say so, he just never preached about hell.

You just never know when you’re going to run into another universalist.

Preparing for a road trip

We’re about to head off on a road trip across the country. Carol is stopping the newspaper and asking the neighbors to keep an eye on our apartment; I’m ironing and packing. Tomorrow we’ll start driving towards Charlotte, North Carolina, planning to arrive in time for General Assembly.

Along the way, I’ll spend the Friday and Saturday before General Assembly at the National Sacred Harp Convention, and that Sunday at the annual all-day singing at the Macedonia Church outside Section, Alabama. I’ll be at Ministry Days before General Assembly. At General Assembly, I’ll be reporting for the UU World Web site, and I’ll be making a brief appearance at workshop no. 3049.

If you’re going to be at any of those events, look for me — I’d love to say hi!

Because someone asked…

Yes, I sing Sacred Harp music every week in Berkeley. Yes, beginners are welcome. And a great place to check out this wild, raucous, loud, centuries-old genre of indigenous American music is the upcoming all-day singing on Saturday, April 23, in Berkeley — the 7th Annual Golden Gate All-Day-Singing. I know of several beginners who will be singing with us on April 23 — plus a former lead singer of a grunge-core band, a Grammy-award winning singer of medieval music, a K-6 music teacher, a church organist, a singer-songwriter, a couple of old folkies, two or three academics, and several dozen ordinary people.

Sacred Harp at GA?

Scott Wells, at Boy in the Bands, poses an excellent question regarding the upcoming General Assembly (GA) of Unitarian Universalists: “What might we show or teach one another in the hallways and cafés of Charlotte?”

My answer: I really want to share some Sacred Harp singing at GA. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s “theologically incorrect,” but it’s rockin good music that draws in punk rockersGrammy-winning performers of medieval musicavant-garde sound artistsyoung urbanitesfolkies — and just ordinary people like you. This is whatreal hymn singing sounds like: loud, raucous, unrestrained, by turns mournful and ecstatic.

I kinda doubt there will be many Sacred Harp singers at GA, but if you’re one, let me know, and let’s see if we can set something up.

A musical setting of KJV prose

This is the four hundredth anniversary of the King James Version translation of the Bible (KJV). As one way of honoring this monument of English prose literature, I’ve been composing some a capella four-part musical settings for short excerpts of the KJV. These settings are in the idiom of American singing-school music, an unbroken tradition of composition and performance going back to about 1720, and carried on today by Sacred Harp singers.

So here’s a song for Advent. The text is Mark 1.2-3; although Isaiah 40 might seem to make more sense as a text for Advent, the prose in the KJV translation of Mark 1.2-3 was just too perfect to pass up, and preachers are wont to use bits of Mark 1 as texts during Advent (for churches that use the lectionary, Mark 1.1-8 is the gospel reading for the second Sunday in advent in lectionary year B). As is traditional in this musical idiom, the song is named after a geographical place.

PDF of “San Juan Buatista”

If you know anything about composition, this breaks many standard rules, but it is consistent with the Sacred Harp idiom.