At the end of December last I unexpectedly got an invitation from a friend, composer Reg Unterseher, to come along and hear Tim Sharp & Wes Ramsay’s, “Come Away to the Skies : A High Lonesome Bluegrass Mass” in Dublin. The performance was to take place in Taney Church, only ten minutes walk from my front door! It was an opportunity not to be missed, as I had heard very positive mention of the work when I attended the American Choral Directors Association National Conference in Dallas in March of 2013.
As the Mass was due to be presented as part of an actual service, my whole family went. The first thing that I noted was that the children in the congregation, including my own, were entranced right from the first moment the music began. Parents struggled to stop them jumping and swaying. For an Irish audience, Bluegrass is not a form they are very familiar with, and the instruments juxtaposed on the choral ensemble took everyone initially by surprise. This was something truly different to what any of us had expected.
I was already familiar with the atypical modal colours of Bluegrass vocal harmony and I have sat through many performances of contemporary choral works written by my esteemed American composer colleagues. This work was unlike anything I had experienced of either – and yet at a fundamental level it was completely familiar to me. The Mass is something rooted firmly and unapologetically in a powerful traditional culture. I could hear elements of shape note singing and sacred harp interlaced with the direct and simple melodic shapes and structures of Appalachian folk music. It should be familiar to me, because hidden away within the melting pot of European and African influences from this region is the voice of my own country.
Below the choral part sits the unique, and comforting, instrumental colours of the Bluegrass band. They never intrude, they don’t elaborate. They accompany and carry us forward without artifice. It couldn’t be simpler really, nor more effective. I am all for exploring traditional instrumental colours in a contemporary context, but equally they can sound very out-of-place when used to develop contemporary harmonic and linear elements of a work. There is a sense throughout the entirety of this piece that a strong musical hand is expertly juggling these disparate elements. Each movement has a satisfying structural sense to it, and there is a unified musical language present in the whole composition.
This is honest, direct music that treats its source material with respect. While the harmonic colours employed by Tim Sharp can veer towards the contemporary at times, this never feels forced. Two movements stand out for me – Credo, with its infectious and simple affirmations of belief. Bluegrass was created in a society where faith and music sustained people through the best and worst of times. Functional, but also inspirational, music. Then there is the sublime Agnus Dei - a masterclass for any composer in how to treat traditional source material. This was, for me, the highlight of the Mass.
The performance, in a cold church on a dark day, was beautifully realised, with some virtuosic and flexible singing from the sopranos in particular. This was strongly contrasted with a vibrant and earthy tone from the men’s lines. Tim Sharp himself played and conducted [very well too]. It was unsurprising to hear that most of the performers were educators and musicians, as there was a lovely musical shape to all the singing. They succeeded in warming up and enthralling an Irish congregation more used to the joys of Anglican Church Music. Well done to everyone involved!
I was very surprised after the performance/service how modest Tim was about his achievement, because that is what this work is – a real achievement. Its heartfelt and honest musical core, created within the context of a quintessentially American musical genre, is a celebration of a uniquely beautiful cultural ethos.
Me and Tim Sharp in Christ Church Cathedral, Dec. 29th 2013
You can check out the whole Mass on YouTube HERE, but in the meantime here is the Credo and Agnus Dei for your enjoyment [and mine for the 6th time today…].