A Review: Timeless Quaker Wisdom in Plainsong: Selected, set to music, and recorded by Paulette Meier

(NB: I have agreed to act as a reviewer for the Speakeasy website (thespeakeasy.com). Hence, I received the book I am reviewing free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the US Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Quaker plainsong? Seems like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?

This is an ambitious project of American folk musician Paulette Meier, who, when faced with the prospect of losing a salaried job, embarked on a spiritual and musical journey which led to a period as Artist in Residence at the Pendle Hill retreat center in Pennsylvania USA (not Lancashire, UK) and studies in Quaker history and theology. Then, during Quaker services, she would begin singing quotes from Society of Friends founder George Fox and other important luminaries. This led to collecting these songs and officially recording them – hence, this album project.

The quotes she puts to music could be called ‘Quaker theology in miniature’. She has distilled a group of sayings from the leading lights of what became the Society of Friends which magnificently expresses the essence of Quaker writing, speaking, and thinking on divinity, prayer, meditation, gender equality, and social justice. That in itself strengthens the potential for the use of this resource as a teaching tool, a means of making the Quaker faith accessible through music. Sheet music is included, so it seems clear that group/congregational usage of these selections is at least hoped for, if not outright encouraged. This seems especially clear when listening to ‘Seeds of War’, which is done as a round (thanks to some effective multitracking).

There are some aspects of these recordings, though, which leave me less than satisfied. While I do not have formal musical training or a complete command of musical terminology, I can name a couple of things in these recordings which cause me to respond, ‘But that doesn’t sound like plainsong!’ It’s kind of like the Oatmeal Crisp cereal commercials in Canada which featured the actor Nigel Bennett doing a Scottish character who ends each commercial by proclaiming, ‘It’s a bonny cereal – BUT IT’S NOT OATMEAL!’

First, her generous use of grace notes[1] in her singing takes away from the expected plainsong effect. This is not the quick slide sometimes used at the beginning of a singing phrase. This is the clear ornamentation of a sung note by starting a tone below the written note and going up to it. This liberal usage of grace notes, particularly when they are not written in the accompanying sheet music, is jarring to my ears and not something I have experienced, either as a singer or a listener, in plainsong. I gladly concede that many like this vocal technique – I simply do not believe it belongs in plainsong.

Second, while it is appropriate for her to sing in her natural range, which sounds alto, I also say that, for group, choir, or congregational usage, some of these pieces need to be transposed a few tones higher. As a tenor, I would actually find it difficult to sing most of these pieces using the exact ranges of notes as written on the accompanying sheet music. I’ve experienced these difficulties when singing in these ranges. In fact, in such situations, I’ve often gone between octaves in order to keep what I was singing in a range I could sing in! This seems to be a general malaise I’ve found in much group singing, but it seems as though some writers need to be reminded that we’re not all Leonard Cohen, and that not all songs need to be in the key of ‘X’ in order to people to sing them.

Having noted my concerns, I would encourage Ms Meier to continue working with classic texts of faith like these, and perhaps work with singing groups or choirs of mixed voices to find arrangements and settings which would work for group/congregational singing. Moreover, I would not in the least discourage people from buying this album. It is an inspiring musical collection of great nuggets of wisdom from the founding generation of speakers and thinkers in the Society of Friends – this by itself gives this project immense value, and is an example to the rest of us in non-chanting traditions that there are texts in our collections of theology and religious writings which would benefit from a musical arrangement and setting. She’s on to something, and we would do well to take note.

[1] For an explanation of grace notes, a good place to start is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_note.