Thus was confirmed the Irish Convention’s reputation: many singers from around the world, many songs, strong feelings, and immense shared pleasure as we sang those several days.
“Certainly, amongst singers that I meet, everyone says that you have to be at Cork even if that’s the only all-day singing you attend in a year. I agree.” (Werner U.)
English translation by Mary Jane WILKIE from New York City.
To join Cork’s regular Thursday-evening singing, Florine and I took the train that morning. At Roissy, we were pleasantly surprised to find Julius, Gwendal, and Alexia. I had sung with them in Clermont and Paris last November and December. We also ran into Evelyn, an American who sings with the Paris group this year, as well as Corrie and Judy, all the way from Colorado, and slightly jet lagged.
After an uneventful trip to Cork, we were delighted to see Dara and Ewan, our hosts for the convention. Knowing that multiple singers (French and American) were on the same flight, they had arranged transportation to the city, sparing most of us a bus trip.
Last August, we were in Cork Thursday evening prior to the all-day, being some forty singers in all. This time, there were 110 of us for the convention! The sound of all these voices joined as one was truly impressive. Starting with the tenor section, the call then passed to the basses, the altos, ending with the trebles. When my turn came, I requested help from Aldo to lead 134. He’s with the New York group, and a well-known shape-note composer. There were so many of us that the usual two hours for that singing did not suffice, and even extending it half an hour, the trebles had no opportunity to lead. Click here for the recording.
The singing school was presented by Jonathon Smith, American organist and musicologist (University of Illinois). Unfortunately for me, his manner of speaking was a little hard to understand, so I was truly grateful for the exercises he led, especially the one based on a song known to all, where we alternated in singing the parts. Thus, tenors sang the tenor, bass, alto, and treble parts. Also, a reading exercise to sharpen my ability to sight-sing. This allowed a singer to hear a different sound quality in the same song. It was amusing to hear the basses sing treble (the highest part).
Then the last singers arrived, including Benedicte and Hugues, Bianca and Alma, who had visited us last summer.
The convention – Saturday “This is the loudest and fastest singing around.” (Werner U.)
- Videos online of the convention here.
- Listen to the recordings of March, 4th (Saturday) here
- Listen to the recordings of March, 5th (sunday) here
Upon arrival, the first task was to register, writing name and country on a name tag, and indicating your wish to lead a song (or not), on Saturday or Sunday, with or without an experienced singer. Right away you see people from the regular singing and from the singing school, and I was eager for “everything” to start, even a little anxious. We were poised to share two full days of singing.
What a pleasure to hear those voices humming again as the first songs were keyed! “Sometimes when singers sounded their note, it was like a jet engine starting up.” (Werner U.)
By tradition, the Cork singers kicked off the convention, and we took off with the first session of a day that will be the first of five (some forty-five minutes followed by a break for tea, honey, cake, etc.). That morning’s sessions helped us warm up our voices, the keys feeling a little less high then, rhythms less upbeat, as singers took into account the total number, the room, and the sound. These sessions are also the opportunity for less experienced singers to lead a song. I took advantage and led 361, which made some people laugh. “The session before lunch began to take on the energy of the session after lunch – take-off started early.” (W. U.)
Gradually, the singing got stronger, and then it was lunch time. The challenge for the twenty Cork singers was to feed more than two hundred people in one hour, on a rainy day on less-than-ideal premises. We watched Ewan and Dara devote a lot of time and energy setting up, knowing that the other Cork singers were doing likewise (Colleen, Ronan, and the others). There were dishes for meat-eaters, vegetarians, with ingredients listed on each dish (for possible allergies)! In Sacred Harp practice worldwide, a family-style dinner on the grounds is very important.
Conversations were welcoming and funny, with people I didn’t know, as well as meetings with people I had been in contact with for perhaps two years. Also, meeting Andy and David, who—never having met me—had agreed to bring me a new song collection (US-Europe shipping, already high, jumped since June 2016). I reconnected with wonderful Cork singers, had exchanges with Werner (from the London group) about Brexit, Trump, and France’s upcoming elections. This happened very quickly, because the first afternoon session was about to begin.
At Saturday-afternoon sessions, the more experienced singers can bring along the whole group with songs that are more elaborate, at faster tempos than the morning songs. The beat was very strong, and voices warmed up from the morning resonated throughout the room. The group was a unified ensemble where each voice found its place among the others, mixed with the others, each one reinforcing the others, in an impressive unity, impressive depth, which filled as much as it emptied. I then understood the importance of the arranging committee, which chooses the right singer at the right time, somewhat like a DJ chooses the right piece to enliven and fortify the atmosphere, fostering a shared experience.
By day’s end, we had sung more than a hundred different songs. A little tired, we left to do some shopping to help out our hosts with the evening meal.
That evening, a social hour at the Cork cricket club. Some people found the strength to sing from The Christian Harmony and The Shenandoah Harmony well into the night. But I didn’t stay long, because we would sing again tomorrow!
The convention – Sunday
After registration, the session began right away. It was delightful to feel that, after the previous evening, we got ready more quickly, in some way were already “warmed up.” The London convention had strengthened the connection between my sight-singing and the shape notes, and this convention was no different. To sing, I could let the group carry me along wherever they went. Each session segued to the next and I soon had the feeling of being “in” the group, letting myself be carried along (fatigue helps you relax somewhat), and I realized that the convention would soon be over. Then came the memorial, where what resembles a prayer is said for those who are sick and unable to attend, and then for those who are no longer here. As I am not religious, I found a way to be attentive to what others were experiencing, to focus on th
em, being merely a human being in solidarity: I can do nothing for others, I can at least maintain a presence, the thought.
The day passed quickly. I was pleased when other members of the French delegation were invited by Aaron to the hollow square to enjoy the whole group’s vibrations. Aaron started a first Sacred Harp group
in Paris a few years ago, before moving elsewhere.
The end – the return trip
So the last session ended, and everyone was tired but happy after the intense sharing of two days of singing.
In all, there were 244 singers from 20 different countries, some 10 French (in 2015 in London, there were only two of us), with Americans coming from 17 different states! Special mention goes to Minnesota’s singers (40 in all) and 1 singer from Australia, who came especially for this convention. We sang 103 songs on Saturday and 99 on Sunday, not counting songs from the regular singing and the singing school. I spent several days with people I don’t usually encounter in my daily life, all ages, all social classes. We Europeans had conversation, something that doesn’t happen often and which I regret, and I met people from different continents. Over time, the people I meet definitely become friends with whom I can communicate more extensively. Others are Sacred Harp acquaintances, willing nevertheless to welcome me into their homes simply because I have a Denson 1991 under my arm. I greatly appreciated conversations within our French group, in part because it’s restful to speak French sometimes! But also with the idea of sharing our interest in this tradition, and participating in its growth in France.
Speaking with Evelyn on Sunday evening, we pondered the reasons that have caused such a clearly American tradition to expand throughout the world, as is the case now with Sacred Harp. From the statistics here, I can state reliably that I now have connections from all continents!
David was saying that only one percent go on to develop their discovery of Sacred Harp, which is a small number, but nevertheless sufficient to support some type of global expansion. Evelyn and I also hope that Sacred Harp would never turn into a McDonald’s style American franchise.
Monday morning found us at the airport with something of a hangover. Ewan came to greet us prior to our departure; just to see and hear him made me feel good.
With regret, we left the Cork singers on their own for the afternoon session with The Shenandoah Harmony.
So, when will the French convention take place?
Many thanks to the Cork Sacred Harp singers for their kindness, their welcome, their energy, and their singing. Special thanks to Dara and Ewan for their hospitality and their interest in inter-cultural conversation, even though it entailed cooking and dishwashing. Thanks to Werner U. for his enthusiastic, detailed account, which I used for quotations in this text, and for conversation over time. Thank you very much to Mary Jane Wilkie who kindly and skilfully translated my original text into this brilliant English version. And lastly, thanks to our parents, who took care of our children over the weekend.
Photos : FVE, ACD, Cork Sacred Harp, Poster in the front of the article : Cork Sacred Harp