Distance from the Divine

When I talk about Sacred Harp singing with my friends from college, they all look at me like I'm crazy. "Right, I go sing 18th century hymns set to music in the 19th century (and later,) with my hippie and queer friends in quasi-archaic harmonies. It's a blast!" This isn't my tradition, both in the sense that I don't come from a sacred harp singing family, and in the sense that I come from a particularly unobservant Jewish family.

There's something about Sacred Harp, that I think is hard to describe. Everyone comes to it for different worlds, and there are a lot of people who grew up with it and/or identify as Christian in the community. While I think most people who sing Sacred Harp find it a deeply fulfilling experience, for many its as much about the shared experience, the guttural experience of the chords, and the "sacred/special space" as it is about the texts. This is something that I think is pretty difficult to explain to someone who hasn't felt a singing.

I mentioned a while ago my interest in writing hymns in the tradition of the sacred harp, and I don't have anything to present to you yet, or even some example of what I'm playing with, as I haven't actually constructed anything. I do have the following observation.

The texts and aesthetics of the Sacred Harp is encapsulated with what I think is probably a not very contemporary view of the divine. In my reading, the texts display a relationship to the divine that is distant and detached. I might even say reserved and tentative. The speakers in the text are not individuals but more collectively constituted persons--this fits well with the way the music is sung--and the speakers generally do not interact with or speak to the divinity directly, except possibly to give thanks or appreciation. Like the harmonies themselves, the texts are spare and stark; indeed I suspect their simplicity makes the tunes easier to sing (words are almost always easier to sing than shapes,) while being very careful to not distract from the tunes.

As I said, this isn't my tradition, at all, in addition to the structural constraints of the form (common meter, for the most part,) I think the stylistic constraints present the larger challenge. I'm trying to figure out how to write text that isn't cloyingly spiritual, and that fits my own worldview (such as it is,) but that also respects this kind of spiritual aesthetic, for lack of a better term. I've been reading up on various religious phenomena, contemplative orders, and the Religious Society of Friends. Because it seems appropriate.

As is, I think always the case, minimalism is always a lot harder than it looks. I'll keep you all posted!

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