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The Color and the Shape: Where the Brooklyn Youth Chorus Meets Sacred Harp

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For young musicians who are called on to perform the works of contemporary composers, utilizing "extended techniques" that one might readily encounter in 20th century compositions is not unusual. Being asked to interpret music inspired by an early 19th-century American style of shape note singing called Sacred Harp is decidedly more uncommon.

But that was exactly the task charged to the Brooklyn Youth Chorus for their upcoming world premiere performances of David T. Little's new composition Am I Born, which take place on March 24 and 25 at Roulette in Brooklyn, New York as part of a programmatic concert entitled Brooklyn Village.


BKLN PHIL Brooklyn Village Trailer
from Brooklyn Philharmonic on Vimeo.

Shape notes constitute a style of music notation in which shapes were added to the note heads as a teaching tool for reading music, as well as to foster community involvement in church activities. The first known shape note book, called The Easy Instructor by William Little and William Smith, was published by 1798. Shape notes' most prominent successor in America today is Sacred Harp, an a cappella tradition of four-part hymn-singing. The popular shape note songbook The Sacred Harp was first published in 1844; later editions are still used today to sing the repertoire.

The shape note influence on the composition Am I Born -- the performances of which will also features soprano Mellissa Hughes and the Brooklyn Philharmonic -- was predicated on the seemingly antiquated style's bold aesthetic. "Initially, it was all about the sound," explains composer David T. Little.

I just absolutely fell in love with the sound of Sacred Harp singing. In particular, it was a Tim Eriksen recording of Idumea that totally sucked me in. Something about the rawness of the vocal style and the simultaneous terror and joy of the texts really spoke to me; it reminded me of some of punk and metal I had grown up listening to and playing.

While the genres of punk and metal may seem like the unlikeliest of bedfellows for a musical tradition born out of religious practice, their common American music ancestry may help to explain Sacred Harp's cultural staying power. According to David Harris, Brooklyn Youth Chorus's Young Men's Ensemble Conductor, the enduring relevance of shape note singing can be traced back to what he calls "the seed of contemporary American music" -- spirituals -- African American spirituals being the most readily identifiable. "These spirituals developed from multicultural integration and created a basis from which the blues, ragtime, jazz, gospel, bluegrass etc. grew, eventually leading to the other forms know in American music today -- rock, country, etc." says Harris. "When this is brought to their attention, most listeners can hear the connection, at least in the energy of the music."

But in order to capture the energy of shape note singing in performance, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus singers first had to incorporate Sacred Harp's distinctive technique into their already established vocal training. Dianne Berkun, the group's Founder and Artistic Director, explains the process:

Shape note singing is almost by definition sung by amateurs -- not trained singers. It is done purely for enjoyment and sense of community and not meant for performance. There is no requirement for perfecting the songs or for making any kind of prescribed sound. Some of the characteristics of this sound result from the fact that an untrained singer, one that is not naturally well developed, will have many byproducts from singing at sustained loud volumes over a range of pitches... So the challenge for our young singers is to work with the parameters they have -- volume, register balance and vowel sound resonance -- to approximate the vocal quality in a way that's not overly taxing or fatiguing on their voices.

In working with her singers, Berkun employs Cross-Choral Training™, a program she co-developed with the chorus's Voice Specialist Jeannette LoVetri in order to effectively prepare young musicians to interpret the greatest number of musical styles without sacrificing vocal health or the quality of vocal production. In the case of shape note singing, Berkun emphasizes good breath support and bright vowel sounds, rather than encouraging her singers to "belt it" or imitate an adult at full volume.

Compositionally, Little adjusted his approach to accommodate the demands of the shape note style. "Because the shape notes tradition grew up on its own terms, the rules for how it is written are different than what one learns going to music school or studying Bach," says Little. "Lots of the things that in classical counterpoint are considered 'wrong,' are okay -- even expected -- in the shape note tradition, so it was really fun to play with that border: to break 'the rules,' and mix the 'right' and the 'wrong' techniques to see what came of it."

For more information about the upcoming performances of "Brooklyn Village" featuring the world premiere of David T. Little's Am I Born, visit http://roulette.org.