In Sacred Harp singing, a fuguing tune isn’t like a classical fugue, with voices that echo each other melodically according to strict rules. Any song counts as a fuguing tune if, at some point, the voices drop out and come back in one or two at a time.
Usually by the end of a fuguing tune, everyone is in rhythmic unison again.
There are endless fine points of artistry in writing a good fuguing tune. But before you can even start trying to apply your creativity, there’s an annoying technical problem you have to solve: how do you get the voices synced back up again?
The problem with words
This problem is, weirdly, mostly about words.
In a traditional hymn, everyone sings the same words. Everyone sings in rhythmic unison, nobody skips any words, and if anyone repeats a word or a phrase then everyone else does too.
But if you did all that in a fuguing tune — that is, if you started at different times and then did that, singing the same words at the same pace, not skipping, and not repeating more or less than anyone else — you’d never come back into sync…
…no matter how many times you repeated.
Something would have to give.
So to get the voices synced up you have to break some of the rules of pacing in traditional hymn singing.
People have been commenting for centuries on our breaking of these and other rules — sometimes talking as if old Sacred Harp composers didn’t know any better, and sometimes crediting them with writing consciously experimental music. But in either case, rule-breakers is what we are, and here is what that most often amounts to:
- Some voices might slow down and noodle around, or stop entirely, while others keep going.
- Some voices might repeat a lyric while others don’t.
Sometimes fuguing tunes do other illegal things, but these are by far the most common, and they’re all you really need to get a fuguing tune to work.
Staggered and gathered
But writing a fuguing tune isn’t just about breaking the rules. It’s about knowing what will happen when you do.
If you take a line in a basic hymn meter, and sing it as a sequence of quarter notes, it takes up two measures.
(Well, it starts and ends at the upbeat. But basically two measures. The tendency to start on the upbeat in fuguing tunes is so strong that it makes more sense to count as if measures start on beat 4 rather than beat 1.)
The entrances in a fuguing tune are usually a measure apart. So in the simplest case, with the most basic rhythm, the first voice finishes when the second is only halfway done.
In colored blocks, they look like this:
Let’s make up a term and say those voices are staggered. If two voices aren’t staggered anymore, let’s say they’re gathered.
Staggered by one
So how do you gather voices that are staggered by one measure?
One way is stretch out the voice that’s ahead. Instead of straight quarter notes, give it longer ones. Alternating quarter and dotted half notes is common.
In block terms: instead of this…
…our buddy Daniel Read decided to do this.
Once he’s done that, the two parts are gathered and ready to move forward in sync again.
Another thing you can do with voices that are staggered by one…
…is to make them swap places by letting the one that’s behind repeat a line.
That doesn’t gather them immediately, but it sets up some new options. Now you could slow down the higher line instead of the lower one.
Staggered by two
When voices are staggered by two measures, there’s an extra thing you can do. Repeating a line in the one that’s behind will now gather them together instead of swapping them.
Stretching still works too. You just have to stretch harder.
The fun part
In a very funny way, now you know everything you need to know about gathering voices. It’s all just stretching and repeating (though sometimes with some fancy twists I haven’t talked about: you can stretch by a fraction of a measure, or repeat only part of a phrase).
In another sense, this is completely missing the point. Lining bricks up isn’t composing. It isn’t even the rhythmic part of composing. If I’ve got these two measures…
…and need to stretch them out to four, I could decorate them in any of these ways or dozens of others.
If I realize I need to stretch a part, it’s more like a door opening: I could do this a million ways — which would be most fun to sing?
Or I can meet the muse halfway: Inspiration just struck for a treble-alto duet on these words! Now, to flesh that inspiration out, I might need to do some math: How can I arrange my blocks to make it happen? What combination of moves will get them there together at the right time?
Or I can think about tradeoffs: “Either I stretch this one or I repeat and then stretch that one — which would be cooler?”
Or I can recognize when I’m in a dead end: “No wonder this isn’t working. I can’t stretch this part any further and still have the rhythm I want. I’d better back up and rethink this.”
And this is just two voices. In future posts I’m hoping to talk about:
- How to keep your head straight when you’re using these moves on four voices instead of two.
- Traditional and untraditional ways to use them.
- Using them to make cool musical things happen.
- Using them to make cool social things happen.