Not something that happens
But the way something happens
-- Charles Ives,
Essays Before a Sonata

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Shape-note singing and complementary medicine, part 2

(Part 2 of a series. See part 1.)

Other ways in which shape-note singing is an "alternative choral music":

Independence of parts. In most pieces within the shape-note tradition, the three or four voice parts are independent melodies. Each line is interesting by itself, and it may not be constrained by the other lines. For example, it's possible to have a a piece where each vocal part simultaneously reaches the top of its tessitura, or one where the parts cross freely. The resulting polyphonic texture has a constant fluctuation of intensity, even if the piece is sung at the same volume throughout.

In Supply Belcher's 1794 composition An Anthem of Praise (not originally a shape-note publication, but now found in the modern shape-note collection The Norumbega Harmony) there is a passage where the treble and tenor parts sing the same melody as a canon at the unison. It is marked "duetto" in Belcher's original score, and it may have been intended for two soloists.

This independence of lines is characteristic of European choral music of the 16th and 17th centuries. By the 19th century it was old-fashioned, which was why the European-trained American musicians of the era disdained it so much. But from the standpoint of today, there is much to disdain in 19th century choral music, which often sacrifices the integrity of the line to create rich vertical harmonies. While these harmonies can sound ravishing to the passive audience, it is alienating to the individual singer to become merely a speck of paint on a large canvas. And the only way to make such chordal writing interesting is for a conductor to impose changes in volume, much like an organist pumping the swell pedal (or, worse, the crescendo pedal) back and forth. This is very easy to overdo. Shape-note singing introduces us to a different aesthetic, at once more participatory and less sentimental.

The early American and shape-note repertories have their own delights, but they also can be a good stepping stone to the works of Tallis, Byrd, and Palestrina, for church choirs accustomed to singing chordal SATB music. Getting inside this repertory requires first unlearning a chordal, homophonic, expressive approach to part-writing, and then learning a linear, polyphonic, architectural approach.

Doubling of parts. In shape-note singing as practiced today, men and women sing both the tenor and treble parts, doubling the part at the octave as needed. In the Belcher example above, for example, a modern shape-note singing class would (ideally) have equally matched sections on each part, with each section containing both men and women. This is another practice that goes against common-practice European music because of its fundamental rule against parallel octaves.

But looked at another way, is it much different when an organist selects both 8' and 4' stops to accompany a hymn? The hymn melody is heard both at concert pitch and an octave higher, but the ear does not hear two different parts in parallel. Rather, the ear hears a single melody with more intensity and richness. Likewise, a vocal part doubled at the octave in a polyphonic texture can achieve this quality.

And from a practical standpoint, the ability to change octaves when necessary is a boon to the singer with a limited vocal range, who otherwise would not be able to participate in choral music.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Shape-note singing and complementary medicine (part 1)

Since September of 2011, I have been serving in my first permanent position as a church music director for the First Congregational Church of Melrose, Massachusetts. This is a new chapter in my career, but it draws upon my earlier experiences.

In my earlier studies as an ethnomusicologist, I did field research with shape-note singers, then with choral singers. The former, partly because of their outsider status rooted in rural Southern culture, are a more typical subject matter for ethnomusicologists and folklorists than the latter.

Now I find myself employed at a small suburban church within a historically liberal denomination most associated with New England and the Midwest. In this setting, do I look toward the outsiders, the shape-note singers, for models? Or do I look toward the choral singing that is favored at university schools of music?

I look toward both, and I am finding that I am not the only one to do so.

Sometimes I think of shape-note singing as an "alternative choral music," in the same way that chiropractic care is an "alternative medicine." And just as some physicians are becoming more open to so-called "alternative" care (thereby redefining what the "mainstream" is), likewise many church musicians have been influenced by shape-note singers. The shape-note singing community, like chiropractic, keeps alive memories of past persecution by the establishment. But the reality today is more nuanced than these histories would indicate. Just as some now refer to alternative therapies as "complementary medicine," enriching but not replacing allopathic medicine, likewise I value shape-note singing as "complementary choral singing" that forces us to confront many fundamental questions about how to make music.

How are the singers arranged? Choral directors disagree on where singers of each part should be placed (or even if the parts should be scrambled throughout the group). Shape-note singing offers a radical alternative: seat each part together, but facing inward in a square toward the center. In the center of the square, all four parts are heard with equal intensity. This strategy is not possible in most churches, which have a designated space in the front or the back for the choir to sit. But if your singers are well rehearsed, why not try scattering some of them around the perimeter of the space? Someday I may try this in the hexagonal sanctuary at First Congregational.

(Photo: A rare overhead view of a Sacred Harp singing convention, taken at the New England Sacred Harp Convention in Byfield, Massachusetts, in 2009.)

Who is the leader? Mainstream choral singing, like other ensemble work in the Western art music tradition, assumes that one person is the leader and the others are followers. Shape-note singing has leaders, too, but the position of leader rotates among as many people who are willing to take the role. (In the above photo, there are actually two leaders in the center of the square, an unusual occurrence.)

(Part 1 of a series to be continued.)