The elusive creature called harmony
Choral group revels in the distinct sounds of early America
If melody is the defining profile and identity of a piece of music (would any of us recognize “Let It Be” or “The Star Spangled Banner” if it were left out?), harmony is its lifeblood, its emotional heart.
The proof: play or sing any great tune, such as Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” or Richard Rodgers’ “Climb Every Mountain” or Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” but play it without the harmony and what have you got? Yes, still a graceful, lyrical, perhaps quite interesting configuration, but definitely not the “Suzanne,” “Romeo and Juliet” or “Climb Every Mountain” served up the way it most warms your heart.
No, it sounds as if something is very much missing and it is: the harmony. People — even musically literate folk — have a tough time putting their finger on just what harmony is but they know it when they hear it. It’s the “other” part of the sound, the part that’s not the melody. Some say “the accompaniment,” but that doesn’t quite do it. Others say “the chords,” but it’s not always chords as such by a long shot.
No, if we’re going to get to the bottom of this thing, this elusive creature called harmony, we’ve got to go at it elliptically. Harmony is the tone-palette that enables composers to “wash” the spaces in and around their melody with color-shades of feeling: the twilight blues of nostalgia, the sexy reds and purples of passion, the deep golds of glory and the luminous violets of reverence.
When this is done with inspiration and skill, listeners experience almost instantaneous ‘understanding’ of what the music is saying at an emotional level, without having to consult a color-code manual.
When it is done less well, it leaves ambivalence — or worse, apathy — in its wake.
But almost always, it reveals the true and living spirit — for better or worse — of just how its creator was actually feeling about himself, his world, his place in the Grand Scheme.
Which brings us to American Harmony.
The nearest thing to a musical time-warp experience is a concert performed by this chorus, an ensemble devoted to the idiosyncratically independent music of early America. Under the direction of passionate Colonialophile, Nym Cooke, the ensemble goes a step beyond by presenting all of its concerts in historically appropriate dress.
Curiosity for or fascination with the music aside, the most compelling reason for the group’s vitality and success may well lie in the presence of maestro Cooke himself. An irrepressibly enthusiastic firebrand who knows his early Americana and who has crisp musical skills in tow, Cooke also possesses the knack of just how to engage a pick-up chorus of nonprofessionals in enjoyable and artistically fruitful endeavor.
Preternaturally intense, slight of build and sporting an elfin grin, Cooke is — at least while conducting — a near-perfect example of “living in the moment,” a moment in which he often appears to be tottering on the brink of barely restrained delight. Both choral and orchestral directors — as well as perhaps even Zen masters — might well glean valuable lessons from him on the fine art of correcting anomalies and coaxing out the best from his charges without so much as ruffling a single emotional feather.
But of course, this is what Cooke was clearly born to do. Where else would you find a man so smitten with the dark, ornery sonorities of the early American choral tradition, a sound world rife with “wrong notes,”’ colliding chord-elbows and knocked harmonic knees? One would almost have to be a reincarnation of one of those flinty colonials to really savor the density, sonic anomalies and downright refractoriness of their art.
Of course, Cooke, scholar that he is on his subject, attributes these idiosyncrasies to the fact that keyboards were relatively rare in that era, and that the four-layered choral parts were not conceived and executed from an integrated master plan that could first be field tested on the nearest organ. Rather, he tells us, those early composers would recklessly compose each layer in turn as an independent entity, hand these to their singers, stand back and watch the sparks fly.
And fly they do, like bolts from a blast furnace, telling us, over and over again, that, for its intrepid creators, music was not limited to conveying only the beautiful. While beauty there is, it is hard-earned, coming, as it does, in the midst of spiritual severity and the quest for emotional and physical survival.
There is an absence of luxury, and of ease, in this music, a close-to-the-bone clarity that prickles one’s ears and widens one’s eyes in a way that might even be considered transformative.
Nor does Cooke have any compunction about sharing that, in fits and starts, he feels the music possesses moments as high as that of Bach’s B Minor Mass (I have half a hunch he may even consider that it even transcends the conventional ‘beauty’ of classic Baroque — although it would be virtually heretical for him to say so.)
Want to know how those early, fervent, crisis-beset Yankees really felt about life? Come listen!
In any case, it all takes place in an equally historic venue, the 1794 Meetinghouse, which is located on the common in New Salem, on Thursday, June 27, at 7:30 p.m. The program includes rarely heard fuging tunes as well as some of the most popular sacred songs of the time. Tickets are $10, online at www.1794meetinghouse.org or at the door. For more information, call Stephanie Ciccarello at
Hot tip of the week
My vote for the best and most proximal deal in the valley is the Old Deerfield Sunday Afternoon Concert Series, which opens its 2013 series Sunday, June 30, at 3 p.m., with a recital by the Deerfield Piano Trio, in the Memorial Hall Museum music room, 8 Memorial St., Old Deerfield, with Anthony Berner, violin; Mark Fraser, cello and Sooka Wang, piano. The program includes Suite for Solo Cello in C major by Bach, Mozart’s Sonata in E-minor for Violin and Piano, K. 304 and Heinrich von Herzogenberg’s Piano Trio #1 in C-minor.
Admission to the concert is $10, $5 for students and seniors. For further information, call Memorial Hall Museum at 413-774-3768 ext. 10.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at