Weaving together two centuries of tradition with personal history, the fifth iteration of the Elevator Music Series revolves around electronic artist Jesse Pearlman Karlsberg’s complicated relationship with an eighteenth-century song. As much a self-portrait as a formalist revision of an archaic musical style, this piece employs sound and its environment to describe a simultaneous affection for and alienation from the shape note singing tradition.
Rapture/Rupture is a modern reconstitution of “Russia,” a shape note composition written in 1786 by New England tunesmith Daniel Read, with words from Isaac Watts’ 1719 Christian reworking of the Psalms of David. Shape note music — so called for its four distinctively shaped note-heads that aid singers in sight-reading the music — is a loud, earnest, often raucous form of unaccompanied community singing that has been continually practiced in the United States for the last two hundred years. Characterized by driving rhythms, soaring harmonies, and a distinctively Christian sensibility, shape note music combines the austerity of New England Protestant values with the earthiness of a rural folkway. To the uninitiated, the music often has a harsh, eerie quality, with a relentless pace and intensity that belies the music’s roots as communal entertainment during the long, cold winters of eighteenth-century Massachusetts. It was, in fact, our fledgling nation’s first pop music. The tunes were carried westward from the coast by traveling tunesmiths and their singing schools, but enthusiasm for the singing style had waned in the North by the middle of the nineteenth century. Shape note music’s Southern variant has continuously thrived, however, and a revival of the music has surged northward in the last forty years. Contemporary shape note singers follow a tradition that dates back to the music’s beginnings: participants arrange themselves in a hollow square formation and take turns selecting songs from a shape note tunebook, leading them by beating out the tempo from the center of the square. Fidelity to the tradition is of utmost importance, and current practitioners are often very protective of their fierce and lovely music, which to this day remains essentially untouched by modernity.
As both a composer and singer of shape note music, Jesse Pearlman Karlsberg sees this tradition as something malleable, a medium that, though almost exclusively reserved for community-centric experiences, can be altered to express private concerns. In Rapture/Rupture, the artist uses new technologies to slice, spread, shatter, and stretch a recent recording of “Russia” to the brink of intelligibility. He pushes the sounds to expose complex emotions such as isolation, confusion, and joy — a revelation of his own initial reaction to shape note singing as a tradition that is separate from any church but inextricably bound to a religious culture. The artist’s alienation from this religiosity has encouraged him to illustrate the range of feeling inspired by these simple songs with musical textures that conjure images as varied as the precise incisions of a surgeon or the slow bubbling of molten glass. Situating the installation in the museum elevator adds another dimension to the piece: its rectilinear space echoes the hollow square of a shape note singing while connecting the work to a nearly universal symbolic interpretation of the square form. Used in sacred architecture for centuries to represent concepts of stability, harmony, earthliness, and humanity, the square motif is often combined with circular forms to visualize the meeting of the human and the Divine.
Divinity carries many definitions, and its realization in this work — “the rapture” cited in the title — stems from the artist’s sincere love of shape note singing. His initial discomfort with the piety of the songs has faded as his involvement with the tradition has grown from a casual interest into something more akin to a sanctuary or even an addiction. Ultimately, Pearlman Karlsberg’s treatment of these varied emotional responses results in an installation that is equal parts disclosure and obfuscation.