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

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.)

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