Saturday 20 November 2010

A Unique Sound

The video was recorded on the Isle of Lewis and is part of a Free Church of Scotland service. The Youtube uploader describes it as 'a unique sound in the world of music'.

Many years ago I worked on the Isle of Lewis for a few weeks.  Attending the strictly Calvinist church was the only acceptable activity on a Sunday. Even cooking was frowned on and many women prepared the Sunday dinner on a Saturday. Television and radio were prohibited and the island just seemed to be shrouded in an oppressive gloom.

Listening to a few seconds of this video reminds me of my one attempt to join the local churchgoing tradition.  Actually I felt rather obliged to attend as I'd been in the company of the precentor and his wife earlier in the week.  His parting words were, "We'll be seeing you on Sunday morning then."  I nodded meekly in agreement, completely unaware of what was in store for the Sabbath.

The unaccompanied metrical singing assaulted my eardrums like a group of tone-deaf inebriates attempting The Road and the Miles to Dundee at Hogmanay.  For me the haunting, pitch-lag style is an acquired taste in music and not one I would willingly wish to hear again in large, or even medium, doses.

However, it's all about to change and I could perhaps be persuaded to attend another service because, after two days of debate, about 200 ministers and elders voted - by 98 to 84 - to use 'instruments and other items of praise'.  The choice will be left to the patriarchal elders, (no women yet allowed), but it will certainly be interesting to hear how the church hierarchy drag themselves into the 21st century now that their exclusive psalmody is no longer to be the only 'pure' way of worshipping God.

Somehow I can't see any of the 100 congregations in Scotland rushing to purchase organs or - heaven forbid - tambourines, but the 5 congregations in North America may be more adventurous.  At least there is now choice involved although I think it will take some years for melodious, uplifting music to be pouring out of church doors on the Outer Hebrides.  Who can blame them? It would be a cultural loss to Scotland if this unique musical tradition were to cease altogether and be replaced with happy clappy hymns.



Derek said...

I have visited Lewis, and yet I have not. I arrived after dark one October evening, drove from Tarbert to Stornoway to stay a short night, then left before light and caught the early Ferry from the deck of which I saw a Sunrise like I had never seen before. There's a still in the video sequence that echoes it.

A land without trees I find almost aggressive. Yet the singing I hear gives me goose bumps - I like it a lot, a little like Sean Nós sung in parts of Eire, and echoed somewhat in the fiddles of the Shetland Isles. Haunting, as if spirits are speaking. What come from the glass aren't so bad either.

Unknown said...

That definitely is a sound that would haunt one. However, in the video with that beautiful scenery, it seems appropriate to the setting.

Tcheuchter said...

98 to 84? I foresee another church forming: the Wee Wee Wee Frees perhaps.

subrosa said...

Super video, thanks Derek. It is exceptional music but to hear 90 minutes of it in a small church wasn't spiritually uplifting. It was more of a physical beating for me.

It's not that I'm unappreciative of the efforts but it could be my lack of Gaelic doesn't help.

subrosa said...

Aye John. It sounds much better than sitting in a small packed church when it's completely overpowering.

subrosa said...

Tcheuchter that wouldn't surprise me. It's time they had another split isn't it?

Richard said...

Thank you for posting this. Goosebumps time - a stunning piece of music. I stayed for a fortnight in a cottage on Lewis with some friends many years ago. We had a young child with us, and the obvious thing to do on a Sunday was go for a walk with the child in the buggy. Wrong decision - anyone we saw was wearing Sunday best (we were in jeans) and they almost spat at us as we were passing. I was taken aback at the hostility. If I'd known they were going to church to sing like this, I would have followed them.

The singing is modal rather then harmonic - I think the mode is the Doric, although I could be very wrong. That points to an origin in the distant past, probably pre-Christian. There is supposedly a chapel in the Gwaun valley near here where, once a year, they hold a service using music that is heard nowhere else. Theory has it that the music is Celtic or even pre-Celtic, from way back beyond Christianity, passed down through the generations. I've never heard it (I doubt if outsiders would be welcome) but I imagine it would sound something like this. Thanks for a great post - made my morning.

English Pensioner said...

Having been brought up in the C of E tradition, I prefer my church music to be accompanied by the organ. I can join in, and no-one notices that I can't sing, although some of my favourite hymns are no longer sung as they are apparently politically incorrect.
I'm afraid the religion on Lewis would drive me to become an atheist!

wisnaeme said...

What!!! The flat earth society are engaging in revisionism.
Shurely not possible.
Actually, I have attended "wee free" church services on an ocassion in the past and I find them quite moving.Myself having the gaelic helps though myself personally, am not a god botherer.
There is something to be admired of a community, any community which gatherers to participate in community spirit.Whether in worship, in participation of self help or simply of being in the act of "togetherness". It has much to recommend it, providing an incomer or visitor is not made to feel excluded on the grounds of whatever.
This tradition of psalm singing has influenced other communities in far off places. North American gospel singing for example.
...and around the globe there are many examples of peoples gathering to sing in praise of whatever in "togetherness" as part of the fabric of their community. A "glueing" together of their community if you like. It is not to be underestimated or looked down apon. It has merit, when all around us this lack of togetherness in our society, this lack of self help and of belonging has led to us becoming isolated from our neighbour and from our neighbour's concerns and troubles.

Richard said...

Agreed. Could have written those words myself.

Demetrius said...

I'm with Richard and wisnaeme. It is a wonderful sound and I could hear lines in it from the deep past. Also the richness of the texture despite the apparent simplicity. I can see that 90 minutes in small space would be heavy but that's religion for you.

subrosa said...

Oh yes Richard,I knew I had no option other than to attend. I don't think it's anything to do with Doric though - that's east of Scotland. Gaelic yes of course.

Glad a made your day. That cheers me up too.

subrosa said...

There's a lot to be said for the discipline though EP. Everyone goes to church, no excuses. Perhaps it's slightly different today but I doubt if it's changed much.

subrosa said...

I think if I'd had the Gaelic wisnaeme, it would have been far more interesting.

Unfortunately I wasn't there long enough to do any study of the style. Now that would have intrigued me.

My ignorance springs from being brought up as an east coast city girl.

subrosa said...

My difficulty is the lack of language understanding I think Demetrius. Even Julie Fowlis concerts eventually lose my full attention.

I remember studying certain operas because I wanted to appreciate the whole experience (back in the days when my favourite place was Vienna Opera House). Perhaps if I'd had time to do the same with pitch-lag I would have been more appreciated.

Yes, wisnaeme's point about community is a strong one.

Richard said...

OK, I was guessing about the mode, but I have checked. It's in the Mixolydian mode, which is similar to the modern major scale, but with a flattened seventh. Interestingly, the same mode is used in the Beatles' Norwegian Wood and Dear Prudence.

It makes 'Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam' seem a bit weak. Crikey, I've been coming back to this all day. The hairs on the back of my neck are getting tired of standing up.

Demetrius said...

Try this article, I picked up a couple of minutes ago on the web Science News (one of my regular ones) re ancient music:

Sounds familiar?

Derek said...

The mention of something that brings people together in a community spirit is exactly what is experienced on Remembrance Sunday. My wife was in the march past this year for the first time, and she said during the whole two minutes silence, not only could you have heard a pin drop, but there seemed to be a bonding in simple silence.

Such as has been, and continues to be an interference and attack on our established way of life from all quarters, that something as basic as gathering together and joining in not necessarily prayer, or even singing (I'm no good at that), but just a gathering, and what better in surroundings such as natures wild places, seems to create a bonding and desire for peace. It has power beyond reason.

I'm not religious, but I would happily spend time with such people as are, if they would accept me for myself as I am.

I must listen again.

Tcheuchter said...

"Attending the strictly Calvinist church was the only acceptable activity on a Sunday. Even cooking was frowned on and many women prepared the Sunday dinner on a Saturday. Television and radio were prohibited and the island just seemed to be shrouded in an oppressive gloom."

When I was in Stornoway the above was true on the surface. The pubs were shut. Or rather, it was the front doors of the pubs that were shut. One just had to know where the back door was; inside they were heaving.

I believe it is called the hypocrisy but I am not one to judge: motes and beams after all.

subrosa said...

Yes it does Demetrius. I'm a fan of this group and was at the Inverness concert. Always exciting to hear them.

subrosa said...

That's it exactly Derek. There has to be give and take for us to survive without conflict.

subrosa said...

Tcheuchter, I never saw a pub heaving when I was there but I was privvy to a long chain of black-clad humans standing at the back door of the local hotel while the bottles (mainly halves or beer) changed hands. Payment was always exact. No change given.

subrosa said...

Richard, that's so good of you to check out the mode. I remember Mixolydian from my studies all these years ago, just couldn't recall its name.

You can download it Richard you know and there are a few others on Youtube. The Martyrs Psalm was one that caught my ear.

RMcGeddon said...

I always find it incredibly sad when grown people worship sky fairies.
Their howling sounds are lovely to listen to but are spoilt by knowing that the singers believe in afterlifes and Noahs Ark and potions and spells.

subrosa said...

I should think many would disagree with you RM because human nature, being what it is, needs faith in all forms.

As many have said in recent years Climate Change has become the new religion.

Which is worse? I prefer the one with the music. :)

RMcGeddon said...

I agree that religion has lovely music SR. I struggled to clear my eyes at my dad's funeral. Such sad music. He would have had a good laugh aswell. If he wasn't in his box.
But the thought of people spending their incredibly short lives singing nonsense in a freezing church in the middle of nowheresville is so sad that I feel depressed.

subrosa said...

Don't be depressed RM. It's their choice.

You're right about religious music though. Much of it is beautiful and the creators were obviously moved by their beliefs.

In the Hebrides church going is a large part of the culture. In some ways I admire them for holding onto their traditions so long. So often they've been washed away without much thought. The grass isn't always greener as we know.

Richard said...

If anything is going to persuade me to religion, it'll be the music. A thousand years of the greatest sounds ever made. Whether you believe is almost an irrelevance. It's made by people, and that's enough for me.

subrosa said...

You've said it Richard. 'Whether you believe is almost an irrelevance'.

I've lost count of the number of exceptional religious music concerts I've attended over the years. The musicians seem to gain something from it too.

Richard said...

I've sung in choirs for many years, and of course it has been mainly religious music. There aren't many 'big' works that aren't. Even though I am not a believer, I enjoyed and was uplifted by it all. Rehearsing and then performing Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem during the final months of my father's illness nearly converted me, but not quite.

Anonymous said...

There was verse and response. It sounded to me like a very distorted plain chant. I also listened to one or two others.

For some reason or other that I do not understand, after I had listened to them, and after I had stopped listening to them, a lump came into my throat and a tear into my eye.

I can't help but feel that there is some LOSS involved. Perhaps the loss of innocence and simplicity. Perhaps what we have lost is 'certainty', in the sense that the world, even in our immediate vicinity, in these days, is constantly in turmoil.

It really is odd, is it not, that the media constantly tell us about tragedies in far away places that we can do nothing about. When they are not telling us about such tragedies, they are telling us about tragedies closer to home and blaming the Government. And then we have all the drinking and smoking and obesity tragedies.

Those songs (psalms) reminded me of simpler times, and I cannot believe that it is beyond our powers to go back there. By that I mean that we can still be made aware or these tragedies, but not in terms of sentimental bullshit. Our government can send aid - the gov represent us all. There is no need for individuals to make personal contributions to this aid. That is the falsity of the current 'Children in Need' thing on the TV. It is sentimental slop.

subrosa said...

Ah but Richard, you gained something. When I was a cellist I enjoyed all music but there was something reverend about performing religious music. I gain too insofar as my spirit was always uplifted.

Some composers can depress you beyond reason as you will know. :)

subrosa said...

Perhaps that's what I felt that day junican - rather than a feeling of slight depression, a sense of loss. These days we are continually in a state of fear rather than freedom and that may have something to do with it.

I never watch Children in Need. It's a long story but you're right. Sentimental slop indeed and the use of the word 'children' makes it worse.

Derek said...

I will have nothing to do with 'charities' bar one - the Poppy Appeal. So far reported - £18m raised for Children in Need, but where are the accounts to show where and how it is used - and does any contributor ever seek them? For me, charity begins and ends at home - within the family. It is given when affordable with respect, which is returned. But I speak as one who has never had large amounts of disposable income.

I do not find sadness nor depression in folk who worship the 'sky fairies'. Theirs is a choice, and provided it harms no other person, long may we have choices.

Junican speaks of a 'Loss'. I can understand that. I feel the loss is that of a simpler life which connected with the elements and a basic way of life that involved no more fighting other than to get the washing in before a squall, or the fire lit.

We are, as alluded to previously, bombarded with 'scares'. Their prime purpose is to keep us as a population under control, in fear, and clamouring for protection. Most are contrived from either deliberate mis-information or excess exaggeration, the ultimate disaster is usually draconian legislation of some sort. To be able to assess and 'see through' such scares takes persistence and no small amount of time.

That 'time' when it meets a more basic way of life becomes the very thing we seem to have lost, time for reflection, and for those with the inclination, time for a reconnection with their God, or the 'sky fairies', or just some awesome scenery or piece of music that moves the emotions. Elgar's Nimrod, or Barber's Adagio for strings does it for me, my breath is caught in my throat at hearing the first notes and I long to be in some place such as is seen in the video heading Subrosa's article. Both pieces seem to generate a sense of grief, of enormous loss to the point of guilt.

Samuel Barber:

subrosa said...

Here's the link to the Children in Need accounts Derek. The link is for Scotland but change it to where you want:

As I get older I become more immune to scares but I can understand younger folk being concerned. Trying to find the truth can be very hard work, even for the most able.

I too enjoy your choice of music and occasionally I play a little Mahler too. He suits my negative moods.

Thanks so much for the link. I've put it on itunes.

Anonymous said...

Reportedly, John Calvin had Jewish origins (John Cohen) and was gay and a sadist.

Anonymous said...

So you are a former cellist, Subrosa - so am I.

So, according to this brand new survey from the University of Life, 100% of former cellists are smokers, drinkers, not obese and in good health and anti-despots.

My favourites are Elgar's Enigma and anything by J S Bach (and rap).

Derek said...

Thanks Rosa.
Another nice one, Barber again, this the sung version Agnus Dei by the Mormon Tabernacle choir. Impressive.

subrosa said...

Aangirfan, I can always rely upon your excellent research skills. I'm off to read your links and improve my general knowledge. Thanks.

subrosa said...

Goodness me junican, I'd forgotten I'd been surveyed. :) I've yet to meet a cellist who didn't match that.

Beethoven is another favourite of mine. Perhaps it's because, as a child, the local schools orchestra conductor had a passion for his work and every public concert contained a piece of his work.

subrosa said...

Derek, delightful thank you. What a lovely Sunday I've had listening to versions of old favourites.

Derek said...

Cannot resist:

Jaroussky - stunning:

Rap? Yep, like this:

Are we not complex creatures?

subrosa said...

Junican, this may interest you:

subrosa said...

Many thanks Derek. I have listened to your rap link. Electronic music doesn't do a thing for me. Perhaps it's classical training I don't know.

The other links are great.

Derek said...

Oooh! That polyphonic Cello playing grated on my nerves. Never seen such a bow before. Looks like it needs help.

Rap seems to answer a basic frustration with its insistent beat and arm gestures. It's a small dose now and then thing, Eminem gets a story over too. I guess that comes from my love of folk music that tells stories of life and work. Jim Lloyd's Folk on Two was a must listen in the eighties.

subrosa said...

I rather liked it Derek, but then I do like the tone of a cello.

Have never taken to rap. Would much rather listen to a base guitar's beat.

It's good we're all different. Would be so tedious if we all preferred the same sounds.

Anonymous said...

I liked that, Sabrosa.

subrosa said...

I thought you would junican. Although I don't know where you are, can I suggest you try to go to a concert from these folk:

The cellos are wonderful and it's definitely worth the effort to travel. Of course the programme has to be your taste, although I'm always open to slight conversion..:)

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