I first came to faith approximately two years ago and since that time I have been looking for ways to explore aspects of that faith within my work. An important part of the church-going experience for me has always been the communal worship, and while researching into various forms of sacred choral music I discovered Sacred Harp singing.
Sacred Harp singing has been described as “sound[ing] like hillbillies singing Renaissance music” (Walker, 2012) and is an old a cappella community singing tradition from the American South that “preserved forms, devices and harmonic tastes that were swept away in Europe as classical choral and sacred music evolved” (Walker, 2012). In fact Michael Walker, organiser of various London-based Sacred Harp singings, describes it as “a paradox and an anachronism – “early music” from the New World” (2012). It is part of the larger tradition of shape note music, so called because the musical notation uses note heads in four distinct shapes to aid in sight-reading. The name of the tradition comes from the title of the shape note book from which the music is sung, The Sacred Harp. The term itself refers to the human voice: “that is, the musical instrument you were given at birth” (Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association, 2011).
I became fascinated with the musical notation and the participatory nature of the tradition. Those who gather for a singing, sing for themselves and not for an audience. The seating arrangement (four parts – treble, alto, tenor and bass – in a hollow square formation, facing each other, with the leader stood in the middle facing the tenors) is clearly intended for the singers, not for external listeners. The music itself is also meant to be participatory: each musical part is melodic, not just there as an accompaniment, and is meant to be interesting and fun to sing in its own right.
I toyed with the idea of creating a piece for real singers, or at the very least recordings of the human voice. Inspired by artist and filmmaker Matt Stokes’ Cantata Profana (an immersive audio and video installation that interweaves extreme metal music culture with classical choral traditions) and the writings of sound artist and former Napalm Death vocalist Nicholas Bullen, I even went so far as to try and combine Sacred Harp singing with the grindcore voice. In the end, however, I remembered something I had read a couple of years ago about Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Music (an electronic circuit assembled inside a compact disc case that plays back 40 minutes of low-fidelity electronic music via a headphone jack on the side): “every time you listen to [1-Bit Music], you are experiencing a tiny computer performing a piece of music. Each listen is a performance, not a record” (Fino-Radin, 2010).
It was a real light-bulb moment. In my mind, the vibrato-less, full, open voice of the Sacred Harp singer found an echo in the “hard-edged square wave at a fixed amplitude” (Roads, 1996, p.925) produced by the on/off pulses of electricity routed from microchip to speaker and turned into air movement by an electromagnet. In using an Arduino, a simple microcontroller board and programming environment designed to be easy to use for beginners, I was echoing the fact that Sacred Harp and shape note notation “was born from colonial “singing schools” whose purpose was to teach beginners to sing” (Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association, 2011).
In my installation four Arduino-driven speakers are attached to chairs arranged in a hollow square. Reflecting the ad-hoc nature of many Sacred Harp singings, each chair is sourced from in or around wherever the piece is installed. Each speaker becomes a Sacred Harp: four strident voices – each with its own unique character, shaped by the sympathetic resonance of speaker and chair – gathered together to sing only for themselves and not for an audience. The shape note notation is replaced by a sequence of numbers embedded within the written code of an Arduino sketch, and the clock within the Arduino’s microcontroller becomes the leader of the Sacred Harp singing, controlling the tempo of the song. The song, 45t New Britain, a version of the popular hymn Amazing Grace, is rendered strangely unfamiliar both by the Sacred Harp arrangement and the raw, electronic tone produced by each Arduino/speaker combination.
Forced into using two separate microcontroller boards due to the limitations of the Arduino format, differences in clock speed cause the treble and alto parts to slowly drift out of sync with the tenor and bass: a fortuitous accident that finds an echo in the Sacred Harp fuguing tune. One of the three basic types of Sacred Harp songs (the other two being hymn tunes and anthems), fuguing tunes contain a prominent passage about a third of the way through in which each of the four choral parts enters in succession, in a way resembling a fugue.
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Fino-Radin, B., 2010. For DDA-610, Human Error. [online] 16 December 2010. Available at: <http://benfinoradin.info/blog/?p=503> [Accessed 7 April 2011].
Forma, 2011. Matt Stokes – Cantata Profana, Forma. [online] Available at: <http://www.forma.org.uk/archive/2011/exhibitions/matt-stokes-cantata-profana> [Accessed 8 May 2013].
Perich, T., 2008. Tristan Perich – 1-Bit Music. [online] Available at: <http://www.1bitmusic.com/> [Accessed 8 May 2013].
Roads, C., 1996. The computer music tutorial. London: The MIT Press.
Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association, 2011. Welcome, Sacred Harp Singing. [online] Available at: <http://www.fasola.org/> [Accessed 5 May 2013].
Walker, M., 2012. Information for beginners, London Sacred Harp. [online] Available at: <http://londonsacredharp.org/information-for-beginners/> [Accessed 4 May 2013].