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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 4, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 45
Clear and Sweet celebrates Sacred Harp (shape-note) singing
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Clear and Sweet celebrates Sacred Harp (shape-note) singing

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN A&E Writer

CLEAR AND SWEET
ZOE | JUNIPER
ON THE BOARDS
October 21


Clear and Sweet was inspired by Sacred Harp singing (also called shape-note singing) - an American hymn tradition unbroken since the late 18th century. Its distinctive features are a musical notation that uses variously shaped note-heads (shapes) to indicate fasola tones, lyrics from the Sacred Harp Hymnal focused on sin, death, and the hope of heaven, and a kind of sing-shouting that makes a dramatic departure from the mellifluous style of singing taught today.

Sacred Harp singers are generally more socially inclined than religious, and can be found all over the world where the tradition has spread. In this country the tradition is strongest in the American South where it first developed. But Sacred Harp/shape-note singers are also found in every substantial town and city in the country, Seattle included. We have a devoted group of Sacred Harp singers right here - some of whom performed in zoe | juniper's new dance, Clear and Sweet at On the Boards.

A lively audience of dance lovers were joined by many others who love this form of singing, and were curious to see how dance and Christian hymnody would come together. In the sections where choreographer Zoe Scofield stuck to that strange, wonderful tradition, she had a marvelous dance in harmony with the heavy beat and dire lyrics of Sacred Harp. In the sections where she departed from the tradition and brought in a jarring electronic soundscape the dance began to lose focus for me, and felt overly long and repetitive.

I was happy, being a Sacred Harp singer myself, to see the audience organized into the hollow square that arranges singers in treble, alto, baritone and bass sections. In this very democratic tradition men and women can sit where they please and sing an octave above or below the notes in their section - male sopranos and female basses are common. I was even happier that the audience was given a songbook and invited to sing along as the dance unfolded.

This is entirely in the tradition of the form since hymn singing is the territory of ordinary people, whether gathered in a church, someone's house, a restaurant's back room, or Northwest Folklife - all places I have sung Sacred Harp in the past. The only downside, of course, was that following a score interfered with watching the dance itself - and I found the most compelling sections of choreography to be the hymn sequences, when the dancers formed a chorus of gestures in perfect harmony with the hymns themselves.

Aiding this harmony was a wonderful set by Juniper Suey - the juniper of zoe | juniper - which used a raggedly painted circle on the floor to delineate sacred space, and a circular fringe that descended from the ceiling at a key moment to dramatize a separation between heaven and earth. The costumes by Christie Meyers - tie-died cottons in quiet colors - perfectly suggested the liminal space between life and death, heaven and earth, humans and angels.

Five dancers executed an impressive, fluid array of patterns and gestures - even devolving into a rehearsal section that showed the audience how much they need to remember and count in order to avoid collisions. I was very moved by entire sections of this dance, especially the parts where all five dancers were contained within the central sacred space, rolling together, lifting each other, piling up, collapsing, all to the driving calls of the singers, led in each section by the confident voices of local Sacred Harp singers. They were so successful in creating a mood of mystery and importance - of the high stakes of soul-saving - that it was a pity to have the pace and drive broken by electronic music and the pantomime-type movement that accompanied it.

Zoe Scofield had a brilliant idea in exploring this strange old musical tradition that conjures up America at its deepest, weirdest, and most sincere. It's a tradition that needs no help from other music. Two of the old hymns used new lyrics - an appropriate refreshing of a living tradition - but the integrity of Sacred Harp singing is what makes it beloved in this country and around the world. I hope that if Scofield decides to edit and revise this work in the future that she will explore the tradition itself without adding soundscapes that can't possibly live up to the music it fails to partner. Better to go deep than to go wide. Or, to take a line from 'The Gospel Pool' included in the songbook: 'There is no other pool/Where streams of sovereign virtue flow/To make a sinner whole.'

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