The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Features December 1, 2006

An Untraditional Musical ExCo
Bold Shapes: In shape note singing, musical notes are notated with different shapes.

Only in Oberlin will you find a class as rare and wonderful as the ExCo “Vocal Folk Traditions,” which combines the disparate genres of Georgian folk music and shape note or Sacred Harp hymnals.

Led by senior Stephan Amidon and Avery Book, OC ’04, the class of 16 rehearses twice weekly. In the visually and acoustically stunning Fairchild Chapel, their rich, moving voices fit perfectly with the beauty of their surroundings.

Amidon and Book, both Vermont natives, first started exploring this type of music in small groups with their friends. When they saw that student interest existed, they decided to “make it official” and create the class.

Book, who has been to the Caucasus Republic of Georgia twice to study the music, leads the Georgian folk half of the class. Taught by ear and sung in the original language, Book describes this unusual, powerful style as “amazingly ancient, fascinating and unique in structure, although sometimes you’ll find a harmony that fits with Western classical theory.”

“There’s a great individual quality, where you’re not trying to blend with anyone else, but there’s also a unique communal tradition where people sit and sing to each other,” said Book. “It’s like, do your own thing, but do it with a bunch of people.”

Book loves that “there’s so much history” behind Georgian music, which he estimates is at least a thousand years old.

“Georgia has been conquered and re-conquered by so many different empires, so their music is a real expression of their national and cultural identity. Georgia is a very intense place, both geographically (due to all the mountains) and politically, and every region has its own style. I could spend the rest of my life learning about it and still not know everything,” he said.

Amidon leads the shape note hymnals, which he “grew up around” and describes as his “comfort zone.”

“You don’t have to worry about how you sing it, as long as you sing with energy,” he said. “It’s not necessarily aesthetically pleasing, but that’s part of the charm. It’s a nice break from the norm.”

According to Amidon, “shape note” singing is easier to learn without prior musical training, because it is vastly different from what is taught today.

“When I start teaching [shape notes], the Con students hate me,” added Amidon.

“People who have been trained to read music think, ‘What are these shapes? I’m so confused!’” joked Book.

Instead of notes represented in the oval shape that trained musicians are used to seeing, “shape note” singing involves reading notes of different shapes paired with musical syllables. Notes may be shaped in a square, a diamond shape, a triangle, the conventional oval or a slashed triangle.

Though it might sound difficult to switch from a traditional Georgian battle song to a hymn praising Jesus, the ExCo teachers assert that the two have some similarities.

“[Georgian and shape note singing] are very much folk traditions, and aren’t necessarily for performance,” Amidon said. “They’re both community-based, and you don’t have to worry about finding exact pitches. It’s supposed to be the way you sing naturally.”

“The vocal qualities are similar too,” said Book. “They’re raw and loud!”

The two leaders said that both Georgian and shape note music was true music from the people: “It wasn’t as if some trained composer from a conservatory sat down and wrote this music,” said Book. “They’re all by normal people.”

The atmosphere of the class is relaxed and friendly, with a high quality of music. While one section works out a particular phrase, the others perform acrobatic tricks and gossip in the pews. In fact, Amidon and Book stressed the casual, community vibe of the group.

The group, which Book calls “an exciting mix,” is diverse in ages and interests; currently, no voice majors are enrolled. They plan to continue the ExCo next semester, where they will work on new songs from the same genres.


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