Ian Quinn, Yale-New Haven Regular Singing

Geometry Notes

Square, square, triangle, diamond, square, circle, circle, diamond.

Translation: La, La, Fa, Mi, La, So, So, Mi.

Don’t scratch your head too long on that one. It’s not a riddle; it’s the way the tenor part begins in the song “Babylon is Fallen,” one of hundreds of tunes in the repertoire of Yale-New Haven Regular Singing. Christened after the like-named “Regular” choirs of the mid-19th century, and open to both town and gown—literally anyone, for as many or as few sessions as they like—the group meets every Tuesday night in a first-floor classroom of Yale’s Stoeckel Hall, turning shapes into melodies.

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For those who know a thing or two about reading typical music, shape-note music is likely to befuddle, even vex—at least at first. Even previous experience with the solfège method of music education, whose “Do, Re, Mi…” was popularized in The Sound of Music, isn’t much help. It might even be a hindrance, because instead of “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do,” wherein each note of the Western octatonic scale gets its own distinct syllable, the shape-note scale proceeds, “Fa, Sol, La, Fa, Sol, La, Mi, Fa,” and the note heads go, “triangle, circle, square, triangle, circle, square, diamond, triangle.”

The reasons for the shapes and the repetitions boil down to a collision of utility and happenstance. But to make a long story a bit shorter, it was devised as a way to make singing easier for the musically uninitiated. Originating about 170 years ago, it popped up in Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama churches as a shorthand for learning hymnal songs.

It largely stayed that way until the 1960s, when renewed interest in folk music swept up shape-note singing—also called Sacred Harp singing—and carried it to other parts of the country. The practice has more recently grown in popularity thanks in part to Hugh McGraw, compiler of the 1991 edition of The Sacred Harp, a songbook whose first edition was published in 1844 and which YNHRS uses at its meetings. Sacred Harp singing groups have formed throughout Europe, too, and in 2013 a group of shape-note singers published an entirely new four-shape tunebook called The Shenandoah Harmony, which has been building its own following alongside The Sacred Harp and a second historic work, The Christian Harmony.

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Throughout the US, you’ll find “all-day singings”—not literally 24 hours long—as well as multi-day festivals. On Sunday April 17th, YNHRS is scheduled to host an All-Day Singing of its own from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. inside Old Campus’s Connecticut Hall and, in the humble tradition of shape-note singing, anyone is welcome to attend or perform, literally no experience necessary.

It’s precisely this—shape-note singing’s accessibility—that first struck Ian Quinn, a professor at the Yale School of Music and the founder of YNHRS. “The idea that anybody can come in off the street, without an audition, without any pressure, have the ability to sing music in parts is so rare and so unusual,” Quinn says. “It’s completely opposite the values you find in university music departments.” Those values, he says, usually run something like this: “Music is the product of work. It’s not for everybody. You have to learn how to appreciate it and you certainly have to learn how to perform it.”

And while there’s plenty of truth to those ideas—you can’t just walk off the street and be a great opera singer or, in Ian Quinn’s case, a professional scholar of music cognition, computational modeling and, indeed, Sacred Harp singing—there’s true joy in delivering access.

Not long after discovering shape-note singing around 2008, Quinn began YNHRS and craftily made attendance a requirement for one of his music classes. Not long after that, Quinn noticed that it wasn’t just his class that was showing up.

Today, some of the group’s regular singers come from New Haven, Branford, Bridgeport, New Britain and elsewhere. During a typical session, a chooser picks a song from The Sacred Harp, then sets a tempo by bobbing their hand. The group then sings through the song twice: first singing the names of the notes (Fa, Sol, La, Mi), then adding the lyrics. After the first hour, there’s usually a break for snacks.

While most of the songs the group performs involve a good deal of Jesus, YNHRS’s culture is rather irreverent. “Babylon is Fallen,” for instance, got some laughs thanks to its centuries-old unintended double-entendres:

Blow the trumpet in Mount Zion,
Christ shall come a second time;
Ruling with a rod of iron
All who now as foes combine.

Though the quality of the singing isn’t that of the Yale Camerata, the singers I witnessed weren’t half-bad. Nonetheless, immaculate performance isn’t the point. For Quinn, “the idea that we can come in here once a week, throw the doors open and let anybody come in and sing in four parts” is enough.

Yale-New Haven Regular Singing
Stoeckel Hall – 96 Wall St, Rm 106, New Haven (map)
Tue 7-9pm
(203) 824-3426

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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