Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Holding Our Breath: Making Socially Distanced Music Together



What follows is a guest post by John Dyck.

Singing is a potent way to spread the virus. I learned this in a Zoom call with my parents, getting the update from back home in Canada. Singing together in worship, they said, has been banned in my home province. I looked it up: Congregational singing is a high-risk activity and is not allowed. The provincial government’s guideline for places of worship explains: Infected people can transmit the virus through their saliva or respiratory droplets while singing. Even singing in a small live-streaming group is not allowed. Soloists and instrumentals are encouraged instead. Some groups, I’m told, are reading their hymns.

It must be strange to worship over a screen. If you are used to singing in worship, it must feel even stranger to worship without song. For some faithful Christian souls, I imagine, worship without song must be as jarring as worship without communion, the saliva and droplets gusting up out of your throat as sure a sign as the bread and wine rushing down into it.

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It’s not just worship music that suffers from the distance. We are in a different time for music. I feel like kind of an asshole for saying this, but in some ways it’s a worse time for music.

I don’t mean that it’s bad for musicians, though it is. I worry for my friends who make their livings by making music. I don’t mean that new music is bad, either. It’s not. There’s been a steady stream of terrific new albums in the last two months (Sam Hunt, Kehlani, Charli XCX, Vikingur Olafsson).

What I mean is that there is a certain kind of music of this moment, music performed at a distance, and it is difficult to enjoy. In my mind, the musical moment kicked off with the cringey Gal Godot video of “Imagine”—a pastiche of celebrities singing that didn’t feel like it was singing together in any sense. Part of the problem was that the empathy of celebrities isn’t always welcome. The hubris of these people, to think that their bad singing with good intentions could make things better, exposed just how big their egos are. Maybe celebrities are better as they were, at a distance. (This problem isn’t unique to music. It’s what my students complained about late-night TV shows these days. “We’re all in this together!” says Jimmy Fallon, traipsing through his huge house.) But part of the problem, too, was that the pastiche of different voices at a distance from each other leaves an unnatural musical residue. It’s worse than the bad singing. The stapling together of these different parts produces a spooky musical effect.

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The first time I sang Sacred Harp, I had no idea what to expect. It was 2012, or something like that, and I was tagging along with my friend and his wife on some winter night in Philadelphia. All I knew about Sacred Harp was that my friend had grown up singing it in Georgia, and he wanted to try it again. So I was nervous when we stepped down into the church basement, and even more nervous when there were only ten people there to sing.

Sacred Harp is a tradition of American folk song, dating back to the early nineteenth century. It was developed in New England but flourished in the South, where it was more or less contained until a couple of decades ago. It’s called Sacred Harp because the human voice is the instrument that God created. The words are sacred—these are hymns, usually with several verses, and sometimes with a chorus. The lyrics are all religious in a generic Protestant way, to allow for more singers. It’s Southern Gothic: The words remind you that you can’t avoid death and that the only lasting pleasure lies beyond the grave. (Incidentally, Sacred Harp is not just for the religious. Its popularity has ballooned lately, and groups are more diverse. There are two rules: No religion talk, and no politics talk. I’ve been at many singings with Amish and trans folks, academics and farmers.)

Sacred Harp is sometimes called shape-note singing, because different notes have different shapes, and you have to learn which syllable (fa, so la, mi) goes with each shape. You sing the shapes on the first run-through of a song. So Sacred Harp is also a kind of singing school—learning the names for the notes helps you learn how to sing.

But it’s not just the shape of the notes that is unique. It’s also the shape that the singers take. Singers sit in a square—people sit in one of four sides, facing inward, grouped according to part: treble, alto, tenor, and bass. (It’s rarely a perfect square. I sing bass, usually a thin section.) People take turns choosing songs; each person gets a chance. The person who chooses the song leads it from the middle of the square, keeping time with sweeping hand gestures. You don’t perform Sacred Harp for anyone; there’s no audience. You sing together. And leading from the middle gives you the great musical delight of the practice: You get to hear all the parts blending together, something you don’t hear when you sit with your group.

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Elton John hosted a Living Room Concert for America that featured good singers—the Backstreet Boys and Mariah Carey and Alicia Keys. The result was as stale as chewy old popcorn. Television events like this are predictably terrible; the distance made this one even worse. Group performances meant that videos were pasted on to each other, like a musical ransom note. The parts spell out something, but you can tell they weren’t created in the same space.

Post Malone’s Nirvana tribute was surprisingly good, I think, because the musicians were in the same room. This is why Cory Henry’s performances work, too. Music of this moment fails to hit because it lacks shared space. Yes, we can’t be close enough in actual physical space to hear it in person—but what’s more, the musicians can’t even be in the same room with each other. (Another thing that works is D-Nice’s DJ sets on Instagram. But it works precisely because the music isn’t being made over the video—it’s all recorded music that is replayed.)

There’s something unsatisfying about watching livestreams of music even when the musicianship is great. This is partly due to poor phone microphones and streaming limitations. It’s frustrating to not hear the low notes on a Debussy performance. But even when the microphones work, it’s not the same. I don’t mean I’ll stop watching them. It’s just that they don’t scratch the itch I get from live performance. These livestreams are drastically different from the real thing. This is not the fault of the livestream format. The problem is that we are asking livestreams to act as a last-minute fill-in, to play the same role as live performance. But livestreams can’t occupy the same space, so they cannot fill the same role.

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Because there were so few people, I didn’t expect much at my first singing. (You can’t really call Sacred Harp events performances, since there’s no audience—you call them ‘singings.’) By the time the third song was called, my eyes must have been as big as eggs, not just from trying to read the notes and say the shapes, but from the unnatural timing and harmony. The music is a mix of folk music and hymnody, with elements that don’t immediately make musical sense to contemporary ears. It is sometimes syncopated, and it starts and stops in strange places. There are a lot of open fourths and fifths, so it feels very punk. There’s no vibrato, either; people belt out hoarse, guttural bleats. This makes it seem even more punk. I like singings best when they sound harsh—singings like this one are good, but too clean. This is better.

My friend and his wife never went back. He said it felt inauthentic. I get that. A bunch of northeast hipsters trying to replicate something you grew up on, that’s not great. But I was hooked. I didn’t need a constant hit, but I needed a regular one. Since then, I’ve sung in all kinds of spaces with all kinds of acoustical variation—in a huge old barn with hundreds of people, in churches, in a bar, and in small rooms that were carpeted, plaster, or wooden.

There’s a certain feel to Sacred Harp—not just emotionally, but physically. That’s what hooks you. Even when the sonic qualities of a voice can be replicated on a speaker, the physical feel of it isn’t. You feel your chest buzz from the loud voices around you. You hear and feel the room, too, and you can get addicted to certain rooms or others. This is true of all singing, of course. But it’s amplified in Sacred Harp, where people really go for volume. The goal is to be loud.

Listening to music on earbuds or speakers, as we ordinarily do, it’s easy to forget that music is sounds, and that sounds are physical phenomena. It can seem like music is just notes, abstract properties of harmony or melody. This is what some philosophers have thought about music. But music is more than notes. Notes don’t vibrate. Music does. You’re reminded of this when you hear a bass system so loud that the waves hit you and make your jeans blow up against your legs. You feel a singing in this same physical way.

Every time I sing with others, I have to stop for a few bars. The sounds are so powerful that I’m tempted to weep. You could say (some philosophers would say) it’s something other than the music that brings me to tears—you might think it’s a feeling of solidarity. It sure seems like a musical feeling to me.

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There is another kind of music of this moment, and that is music written for this moment. Luke Combs, the new populist hero of country, released “Six Feet Apart,” a song that scratches too precise an itch. Perhaps we like our art, even country songs, rugged enough to withstand several moments.

I admit, I like Randy Newman’s little song, “Stay Away.” The lyrics have an eyeroll-y sweetness to them right from the first line (“Venus in sweatpants, that’s who you are”). The music is predictable Newman: a bouncy little ragtime piano. But it’s earnest. An earnest song from Randy Newman is like sunshine in Vancouver, precious because it is so rare. And, more importantly, it’s appropriate for the little room it was recorded in. The song knows when it is and where it is. This little song knows its space.

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The human voice is a wind instrument. It starts the way a wind instrument does: with air pressed through vibration. In a trumpet, a brass instrument, human lips provide the vibration. In a clarinet, a woodwind instrument, you breathe on a reed that vibrates. The sound of your voice starts when vocal folds vibrate in your throat, opening and closing as your breath passes through.

Wind instruments make sounds when the vibration echoes and amplifies through a chamber and then out in the world. This is why brass and woodwind instruments have the shapes that they do, and why they are made of certain materials. The vibrations from vocal folds are amplified by much of your respiratory system—your throat, nasal passages, and mouth cavity. This is why singing spreads the virus so potently. You heave up air more strongly when you sing. This means that you heave up more droplets, too, and you expel them at a greater distance.

These days, when I think of singing with others, I am reminded in a very different way that sounds are physical waves. When I think about singing “Hallelujah” with others, I imagine saliva droplets, like those little red dots now familiar from infographics, being thrown up into the air and falling into the respiratory systems of other people.

I know that livestreams are the only safe way to enjoy live performance, and I am happy to have them. I guess I am mourning that we can’t safely sing together, or make music together, or watch others make music, in the same place. But I am also appreciating that we were ever able to sing together. It is such a gift to hear how a room sounds through voices, a mix of sturdy and warbling throats wrung through wood and carpet. The realest music, like the realest politics and the realest love, only happens when we are physically together. It comes from breathing in the air that others expel, heaving out breath through vocal folds and teeth, amplified by noses and mouths, bringing droplets out into the world.

Just lately, we have been making real music together again. Together, through masks, on the street, we yell the names of people who have been killed. I feel the same buzzing in my chest from other voices nearby. The feeling is familiar, but it seems more important now than ever.

Notes on the Contributor
John Dyck is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Philosophy at Auburn University.

Image credit: Oconaluftee Baptist Church by Jimmy Emerson, DMV via Flickr
Edited by Alex King

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