Singing and More Singing

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of singing, which makes me happy. The All-California Sacred Harp Convention was January 18-19. I keep mentioning Sacred Harp and shape note without explaining what they are for those who might not know, so…shape note singing is a tradition of communal a cappella hymn singing in four-part harmony. Singers sit in a hollow square and take turns leading songs, beating time from the center of the square. The term “shape note” refers to the musical notation, in which noteheads have one of four shapes (there are also seven shape systems). The tradition has its roots in New England, later flourished in the American South, and is now active throughout the United States as well as abroad. The Sacred Harp is a particular book of shape note tunes.

Anyway, this year’s All-California was my fourth Sacred Harp convention; in 2012, I went to the Keystone Convention in Bethlehem, PA, the Young People’s Singing in Minneapolis, and the Minnesota Convention, also in Minneapolis. I know a lot of Pennsylvania/East Coast singers and Minnesota singers, and this was an opportunity to meet more LA/California/West Coast singers. The convention was held at a former military site turned cultural center on a hill overlooking the Pacific. We sang in a building that used to serve as officers’ quarters or something like that, but with its lovely porch it actually reminded me more of a Quaker meetinghouse. During the breaks between singing sessions, I would go out and bask in the sunshine or stand in the shade of a eucalyptus taking in the view of the ocean and the luminous Catalina Island. It was really idyllic. It was too beautiful not to have lunch outside, and since there wasn’t a lot of picnic table seating, my friends and I ate the traditional potluck “dinner on the grounds” literally on the ground. There was also this group of young men from Santa Cruz who came to the singing and who, during the midday breaks, brought out fiddles and banjo and string bass and played old-time music on the hilltop. It was unexpected but delightful.

And the singing itself was great. At conventions, you have to try to pace yourself. Shape note singing is traditionally loud, robust, and full-voiced, and after a certain number of hours singing in this manner, your voice starts to go. I try to drink a lot of water and maybe sing more gently on songs I like less, but it’s hard not to sing with all your might when so many good tunes are being led and the sound around you is so big.

So that was All-California. The other singing I’ve been doing is Georgian (as in the Caucasus) singing. I’ve had some exposure to Georgian vocal music before. My first encounter might’ve been when this group called Trio Kavkasia performed at Swarthmore my first year there. I also know (independently) several people who’ve gone to Georgia on singing trips (it’s a thing), and last spring I went to a workshop taught by the Georgian ensemble Zedashe when they came through Minneapolis. (Actually, the day after the workshop there was an informal social singing with the Georgians and a bunch of local Twin Cities Sacred Harp singers—shape note singing with Georgians!)

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed a blue flyer taped to the door of the Phonetics Lab announcing the first meeting of the Kartvelian Chorus. “Want to sing in Georgian?” it asked. “How about in Svan?” The first rehearsal was to be held in the linguistics conference room. Come Friday, I went. The teacher turns out to be a lecturer in the department, an Indian-American woman who’s studied with song masters in Georgia. The UCLA linguistics department has a definite musical streak, and the people who came were more or less those whom I’d expected. The teacher handed out lyrics sheets and started teaching us songs by ear. We’ve now had two rehearsals, and I love it.

It’s fun learning songs in a different language with linguists because we’ll stop now and then to ask if such and such sound is velar or uvular. Georgian is notorious for its difficult (for English speakers) consonant clusters, like the one at the beginning of the word mk’vdretit. Also, Georgian has ejectives, a particular kind of sound that can be hard for native English speakers to produce and which I find especially hard to produce while singing. I think this means Kartvelian Chorus counts as practice for my upcoming practical phonetics exam.

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