Singout at the CA chorale

As I arrange for a small Sacred Harp singing at my house in Palo Alto next month, a Bizarro from the past, this 1/10/07 strip:


Relevant fact: SH singing is famous for being loud and harsh in tone — especially the altos, whose voices are often described as having a “glass-cutting” timbre.

(Hat tip to Joelle Stepien Bailard)

In no particular order, the pun in the cartoon; the reference to the Gunfight at the OK Corral, the event; the planned SH singing in Palo Alto; and the tone of SH singing.

The pun. Straightforward, a perfect pun; chorale for corral, both /kǝˈræl/. From NOAD:

noun chorale: 1 a musical composition (or part of one) consisting of or resembling a harmonized version of a simple, stately hymn tune. 2 US a choir or choral society.

noun corralNorth American a pen for livestock, especially cattle or horses, on a farm or ranch.

Gunfight at the OK Corral. From Wikipedia:

(#2) Poster for the 1957 movie

The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was a 30-second shootout between lawmen and members of a loosely organized group of outlaws called the Cowboys that took place at about 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 26, 1881, in Tombstone, Arizona Territory. It is generally regarded as the most famous shootout in the history of the American Wild West. The gunfight was the result of a long-simmering feud, with Cowboys Billy Claiborne, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury on one side and town Marshal Virgil Earp, Special Policeman Morgan Earp, Special Policeman Wyatt Earp, and temporary policeman Doc Holliday on the other side. Billy Clanton and both McLaury brothers were killed. Ike Clanton, Billy Claiborne, and Wes Fuller ran from the fight. Virgil, Morgan, and Doc Holliday were wounded, but Wyatt Earp was unharmed.
… [The shootout] was not well known to the American public until 1931, when Stuart Lake published the initially well-received biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal two years after Earp’s death. The book was the basis for the 1946 film My Darling Clementine, directed by John Ford, and the 1957 film Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, after which the shootout became known by that name. Since then, the conflict has been portrayed with varying degrees of accuracy in numerous Western films and books, and has become an archetype for much of the popular imagery associated with the Old West.

The mini-singing in Palo Alto. Coming in August, on the weekend of Sunday the 18th, the 32nd annual motss.con, a gathering of lgbt folk and their friends from the soc.motss community — originally a Usenet newsgroup, now a Facebook group (closed, so as to continue to provide a safe space for wide-ranging discussions). The .cons have been held all over the US, Canada, and western Europe; they have a fixed pattern of events (including a foodie dinner, a welcoming reception, a dim sum brunch, and a stragglers’ breakfast on Monday), plus a lot of friendly hanging-out and excursions of various kinds (the last Palo Alto .con, #20 in 2007, included a day in San Jose centered on the Tech Museum there; a visit to the Monterey Aquarium is probably on the cards for this year, and of course Stanford offers more things than we can fit into a 3- or 4-day weekend).

The main organizer for this .con, Lisa Cohen, is a regular and enthusiastic SH singer in Chicago, as am I here in the Bay Area. There’s no Palo Alto singing on August 18th — P.A. sings on the 2nd and 4th Sundays of the month — but I offered to arrange a small singing for .con attendees at my house, supplementing the visitors with volunteers from the local group. The event is now slotted into Sunday afternoon, after the dim sum brunch.

The tone of SH singing. I’ve posted tons of stuff about shapenote singing; there’s an inventory of these postings in a Page on my blog; several of the early postings have introductions to the music and the practices of the singers — who make yet another community, long centered in the rural South, but now expanded throughout the U.S. and beyond.

The physical arrangement of SH singing is quite different from that of choral singing. Compare your typical choir arrangement with this snapshot from a Bay Area SH convention:

(#3) Chris Thorman leading a BASH singing (that’s me right behind him in the photo, in the treble section; then, moving clockwise around the hollow square, tenors, basses, and altos)

One characteristic of SH singing is that it’s loud, insistently accented, and harsh in tone (not to mention breaking almost every teaching of choir directions). Some people just detest the style, but others find its driving passion moving. Here’s Lisa Grayson, in her “A Beginner’s Guide to Shape-Note Singing: Hints, stories, advice, and minutiae”, 5th ed. (2012):

Why is everyone singing at the top of their lungs?

Sure enough, the symbols used to indicate loudness or softness in regular music are conspicuously absent in our shape-note book. And the more experienced singers do sing at a consistent fortissimo that can be alarming to people hearing the music for the first time. Singers may exchange knowing looks as a newcomer accidentally caught between two legendarily loud voices beats a quick retreat to a quieter spot. Basically, in Sacred Harp singing, loud is good, and louder is better. And so you might hear singers say “good alto!” after being blasted out of their chairs by the low-timbred ladies.

This music is for singers, not for listeners. And for amateur, untrained voices at that. We set our chairs in a hollow square; there’s no audience at our singings. We don’t rehearse, or perform; we sing as an end in itself. And loud singing provides more catharsis, more instant gratification, more visceral pleasure, than controlled singing. (No wonder many early church leaders considered it sinful, despite the pious poetry of the songs.)

One Response to “Singout at the CA chorale”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Follow-up on July 26th. Alas, I was unable to collect enough experienced singers to cover the four parts for a Sacred Harp singing at the motss.con, so the event has been canceled — replaced by a tour of the New Guinea Sculpture Garden at Stanford.

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