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The Sacred Harp: Let Everybody Sing (bittersoutherner.com)
55 points by bryanrasmussen 3 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 10 comments



For those in the Bay Area interested in this, there are a number of Sacred Harp "singings", in different cities — Berkeley, Palo Alto, SF, and others. https://bayareasacredharp.org/local-singings/ for event listings; https://www.kalw.org/post/sacred-harp-punk-rock-choral-music... for a local NPR piece on it.


Also in Berlin and several other major European cities, for those on this side of the Atlantic. (In Berlin we sing from both the '91 red book, and the Shenandoah Harmony on a regular basis.)


There’s also a group in Chicago and its surrounding area: http://shape-note.uchicago.edu

I’ve been a few times and had a lot of fun.


Wow. My Dad's father was deacon and sometime choir leader of the East Elijay Baptist Church; Elijay is county seat of Gilmer County, a rural mountain district in north Georgia that seems to have been home of the author of this report.

My grandfather passed away suddenly when I was very small, and I never got to know him. I left Georgia for Silicon Valley after high school, and thought that I had gone for good. Yet I find the words and images deeply moving; vocal music has always been a big part of my life. I spent many hours, growing up, in conferences like these. I can taste that mid-day meal, stew pork and potato salad, soaking into the cheap paper plate.


I used to sing in the madrigal style in a choral group at my high school devoted to that style. I hear some of those tight harmonies in this style. It's amazing how the authors of The Sacred Harp were able to come up with a hack that allowed even untrained voices to begin singing music this complex, almost right away. Singing can be a transformative, transcendent experience but nonmusicians are often afraid to approach it for fear of embarrassment; fitting, then, that churches would devise ways to encourage everyone to sing together, as it can really cultivate the feeling of being closer to God.


This was basically the neatest thing I've come across in quite a while. What a pleasant surprise.


As a musician, I enjoy learning about people joyfully singing and the hacks created to help that. However, since it's a cultural piece, and the author states in the header: 'Join us on a visit to the Georgia State Sacred Harp Singing Convention. It might challenge a few of your assumptions about the South.' then I have an issue.

This challenges no assumptions I might have about the south. This is so exclusively white that it is immediately notable. Look at the pictures, and then disagree with me. There may be one nonlilywhite face, and even that might be an artefact of lighting. I am a white european, but I have heard a lot of the history of church music in the south, and almost all of that has been about spiritual and blues and gospel-originating music. Yes, this music culture perhaps originated mostly in the notoriously segregated Baptist church, but that's not a reason. My assumotions about the south, and christian fellowship across race, are intact. I'm glad to hear more music, but I'm very sad that this has not led to closer relations, equal before whatever deity or principles you might have.


Kind of reminded me of the Polynesian Choir music, like the ones featured in Thin Red Line.


There are a ton of interesting tidbits in this:

- The simplification of solfege notation from 7 named tones to 4 is intriguing - while it introduces some ambiguity in that a melody cannot be perfectly reconstructed from the limited information, it lets someone need to remember fewer solfege tones when guided by other information - a bit like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Undersampling ? Optimization for pedagogy rather than perfection is a technique that we should keep in the back of our minds when we're designing any types of systems.

- In the article's words: "With this dispersed music, each line is a tune unto itself. It is not written just to harmonize with the lead. It's a tune unto itself. That's why they call it dispersed harmony." The article goes on to describe how this can feel to a listener like a single thick "heavy metal"-like instrument. The technique here, of thinking of harmony as if each voice is its own melody, rather than just part of a chord, is common in jazz arrangement, referred to as "soli" or a "thickened line" - as explained well in Adam Neely's video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7vY3IVxl1fU

But what's curious to me is that there's a tremendous psychological element to giving each voice the agency to be the melody. You're not just backing up a higher melodic line; everyone's vocal part has the lead simultaneously. And that's tremendously empowering...

- Neely's video and the OP both touch on a further phenomenon: that this type of polyphonic timbre is very different from the "zeitgeist" of "modern music." There's a deeper societal component to this; we expect things to be so polished in modern popular music that there's little emphasis on the individual contributors (besides a lead singer) to the overall sound. Personally, I wonder: does this parallel the expectation that social systems trend towards a "winner-takes-all" mentality, and that one can only have agency if they strive to be that winner? Does musical taste reflect the stressors of society? Are we less able to appreciate musical complexity if it doesn't have a simple narrative of a single melody, a single winner, a Star to be born?

If any of that is true, things like Sacred Harp, and jazz-fusion rearrangements of pop music per Neely, and musical genres like progressive rock... all may be necessary respites from the crushing trend towards simplicity. At some level, it seems like the people interviewed in the OP are reacting in a similar manner, and it's amazing that there's a cross-cultural community in Sacred Harp that is welcoming them with open arms.


One other thing is that Sacred Harp music ignores the harmony rules of western music to some extent; for example, it has many parallel fifths and octaves. In some other places, it just has weird harmony that still seems to work. The effect is that you feel like you're singing "power chords", similar to the instrumentals in some heavy metal or rock.

The music is designed to be sung, not listened to. There are a few songs in the book (like 344 Rainbow or even more so 377 Eternal Praise) that can sound like a jumble of sound when listened to from the outside, but they feel so good when you're in the middle singing them.

There are also many singings in Europe, especially in England and Germany. In other countries it's often limited to just one, generally in the capital city.




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