Harmony singing. Who doesn’t like good harmony singing? “Nowhere Man” by The Beatles, “Magpie” by The Unthanks, “Oh My Love” by The Small Glories and, of course, “Add Some Music To Your Day” by the Beach Boys. Just a tiny percentage of songs featuring exhilarating harmony singing. I love harmonies but I’ve never tried to explore their deeper significance.
Hannah James of the folk trio, Lady Maisery, spoke to Matthew Syed for an episode of “Sideways” and here is what she said. “If we record us all singing together on separate tracks, and then you single out one person, it sounds quite strange because we are all slightly under enunciating, rounding off the sounds and softening things that we wouldn’t soften if we were singing solo. It’s the combination of the three voices that becomes the voice. The whole point of harmony singing is that you really need to be listening to the other people more than you’re listening to yourself. What you’re singing is a response to other people. You’re trying to find that sweet spot of resonance when your voices meld together. You can’t get that if you don’t listen and I think it’s a beautiful thing to do in singing but I also think it’s a beautiful way of being in the world: to be very aware and very sensitive and really listening to what’s going on around you.“
It seems that singing in harmony, results in music which is more than the sum of its parts. The conclusion is that by we can all grow and improve by listening carefully to each other and collaborating. All you need is love, I guess.
Ian Cross, Emeritus Professor of music and science at the University of Cambridge explored what he called affiliative relationships, when people feel positive towards each other. He found that there are striking similarities between when we make music together and when we speak in positive affiliative ways with people that we get along with. “When people are conversing, they use a regular beat. They are not using it all the time – they are using it at “turn transitions”, when one person stops speaking and the other begins. It’s a way of gluing their attitudes together across that conversational break, or indicating that their attitudes are similar. We also found that when people are attitudinally aligned, then the modal pitch of the two people formed a musical interval.”
Now, I’ve never played a musical instrument and I’m told by my discerning wife that I can’t sing but I do recognise something in that last paragraph. At Samaritans, our role is to listen and to provide human contact for people who need emotional support. Occasionally, it’s possible to have a long conversation with a stranger and something just feels right. It sounds quite presumptuous and arrogant to write that occasionally, in conversation, I can sense that I am creating a strange form of music with someone else but there are times when there’s a resonance, no awkward silences and the caller can explore their (often previously unspoken) fears and anxieties, revealing feelings that they have never spoken aloud to anyone else. It’s the same with friends – sometimes a conversation is one-sided or there’s little synchronicity but at other times, it feels like the chat should go on forever. The analogies with music are appropriate. I’m currently reading a book by Kenneth Womack and Jason Kruppa about George Harrison and Eric Clapton in 1970 called “All Things Must Pass Away”. On 26th August, 1970, The Allman Brothers joined Derek and the Dominos for a late night jam session in Miami. Producer Tom Dowd was blown away by watching Eric Clapton and Duane Allman play together. “They were trading licks, they were swapping guitars. they were talking shop and having a ball – no holds barred, just admiration for each other’s technique and facility. They went on for 15, 18 hours like that.” I can’t say that I’ve ever had a conversation that went on for “15, 18 hours”, but I can recognise situations when the connection feels harmonious. A conversation can feel like a harmonious musical jam where neither of us knows the direction we are heading in but we take pleasure in exploring new avenues and finding wonder in discovering new mental vistas and landscapes.
Lady Maisery formed in 2011 and they have released five albums, including “Lady Maisery Live” recorded at Reeth Memorial Hall, Yorkshire and Staveley Village Hall, Cumbria. The harmonies they make are astonishing. At first, I thought I was listening to The Unthanks and I can think of no higher praise.
“The Gardener” is a Child Ballad which was recorded by Ewan MacColl in 1956. He wrote “This beautiful little ballad is a curious mixture of tenderness, passion, irony and plain waspishness. It is a perfect admixture of the qualities which make up the Scots character. The heroine of the ballad, for all her stiff-necked pride, is not averse to being wooed providing she gets the opportunity to return soft words with insult.” The song has also been recorded by Shirley Collins, Bert Jansch, Tim Hart & Maddy Prior (Steeley Span) and June Tabor amongst many others. Lady Maisery’s version is genuinely exciting, with Hannah James’ accordion providing a mesmerising drone over which the sound of Hazel Askew’s harp and Rowan Rheingans’ plucked fiddle builds until the beauty and synchronicity of the harmonies becomes overwhelming.
Watching the performance of Lady Maisery performing “Portland Town”, it’s clear how their ability to listen to each other creates a piece of music which is greater than the sum of its parts. The sheer pleasure that they take in each other’s performance is joyful. The song is an anti-war song written by Derroll Adams, who was born in Portland but spent time in the U.K. where he befriended a young Donovan. “Epistle to Derroll” appears on Donovan’s fifth album “A Gift from a Flower to a Garden”.
“Bagpiper’s” is an old traditional tune from the 1799 William Mittell manuscript and “Sheila’s 70” was composed by Hannah James for her inspiring Aunt. This track shows Lady Maisery exploring the folk tradition of ‘diddling’ or mouth music, singing tunes without words.
I first heard “The Crow On The Cradle” by Jackson Browne, when he performed it on a “No Nukes” concert in 1979. The song was written by Sydney Carter, an English musician from Camden. It was first recorded by The Ian Campbell Folk Group, who made many TV appearances in the Sixties and counted Dave Swarbrick, Dave Pegg, Spencer Davis and Christine Perfect amongst their membership at various times. The song is a powerful warning to a newborn baby about nuclear war. “Your mother and father, they’ll sweat and they’ll save/To build you a coffin and dig you a grave./Hushabye, little one, never you weep?/For we’ve got a toy that will put you to sleep/Sang the crow on the cradle.” The contrast between the starkness of the lyrics and the beauty of the music that Lady Maisery make is compelling.
The idea that we incorporate music into our own personal well-being started with Plato. He first considered the importance of harmony after he travelled to Southern Italy to join the Pythagorean communities. They had recently discovered that music could be mathematically notated and beautiful harmonies were the result of precise mathematical ratios between lengths of string on a lyre, for example. Plato extrapolated these ideas into every aspect of the universe. He postulated that the whole cosmos is governed by mathematical laws of proportion to form an ordered and harmonious whole. He thought that a functioning psyche is formed by the harmonious ordering of its elements: reason which desires truth and reality, the spiritual element which desires success and honour and the appetites which desire food, drink and sex. It’s really important that these three elements are not fighting each other and we need to be an integrated whole if we are going to be leading healthy and flourishing lives. The beauty of music, the beauty of the cosmos is mirrored by the inner beauty of a well ordered psyche, at peace with itself. He is the first person we know of to use the phrase “mental health” and he links mental health with the notion of musical harmony.
I don’t know much about philosophy but I know what I like.