This article presents an analytical paradigm that employs the repetitive musical cycle known as “the vamp” to illuminate the interrelation of form, experience, and meaning in African American gospel music, focusing on music performed by gospel choirs with soloists. I argue that, more than just a ubiquitous musical procedure, the gospel vamp functions as a ritual technology, a resource many African American Christians use to experience with their bodies what they believe in their hearts. As they perform and perceive the gospel vamp's characteristic combination of repetition and escalation, these believers coproduce sonic environments that facilitate the communal experience of a given song's textual message. Through close readings of four canonical songs from the gospel choir repertoire—Kurt Carr's “For Every Mountain,” Brenda Joyce Moore's “Perfect Praise,” Richard Smallwood's “I Will Sing Praises,” and Thomas Whitfield's “I Shall Wear a Crown”—the article examines the phenomenological implications of gospel's communal orientation, outlines the relationship between musical syntax, musical experience, formal convention, and lyrical content in this genre, and suggests that analyzing gospel offers a way of studying how many black Christians come into contact with the invisible subjects of their belief.
Lorraine, I want you to take us to the valley!
These words, uttered by gospel composer Kurt Carr during a performance of his hit song “For Every Mountain” at a concert in April 2017, functioned simultaneously as a musical directive for performers, an experiential cue for congregants, and a hermeneutic lens for students of gospel performance.1 The modified enactment of the song performed on this occasion, a recurring feature of recent concert sets, omitted the B section of the characteristically gospel ternary form, making space in the performance for two spoken interludes (see Video Example 1). Moving directly from the song's A section to section C, which we will come to know as the song's vamp, Lorraine Stancil, the featured soprano soloist, sang the material shown in Example 1, setting out what we might call the primary or obligatory register, a fundamental dimension of the sonic environment that emerges through the performance of “For Every Mountain.”2 While her restrained performance in these moments, which Carr himself called “sweet,” hinted to those familiar with Stancil's singing that much more was to come, this implication became explicit when Carr “interrupted” the song to ask, “Is there anyone in this room who's ever had to praise God when you were in the valley? You had to praise God when you were going through. Had to praise God when you had bills. Have you ever praised him in the valley?” It was at the end of this interjection that he turned to his soloist and said, “Lorraine, I want you to take us to the valley!”
Stancil then plummets a full octave landing firmly in the baritone range, using both a darker timbre and a lower pitch to sonify the valley (see Example 2). Relocated by the sound, audience members, paradoxically, jump to their feet, while Stancil luxuriates in this low tessitura by elongating the “oo” vowel on “you” in the penultimate phrase of section C2, which we might call the valley vamp. The scalar descent she performs at this point extends down a minor ninth, ending on A2—more than an octave below middle C. This is the gesture by which Stancil carries the audience to the valley. Taken together, Carr's words and Stancil's singing assert that situated sound can transport entire audiences, performatively constituting imagined spaces that are inextricably linked to embodied memories. Moreover, Carr visualizes what is audibly apparent, saying again, “Take us to the valley,” while tracing Stancil's vocal trajectory with his index finger. By fashioning an imaginary scale in the air before him, he adds the dimension of space to this representational nexus, sharpening the audience's sense of motion in preparation for one further transformation. Resounding at what seems to be the very bottom of her vocal range, Stancil completes the refrain's final phrase, “I give you praise,” jumping from A2 to D3, which we might call the valley tonic. No sooner do we reach this site of temporary repose than Carr returns with one final exhortation: “Now, if you ever had to praise him on the mountain top, get up on your feet and scream, if you praised him on the mountain top! Lorraine, take us to the mountain!”
Stancil responds by leaping up a full two octaves and effecting an equally stark change in timbre, as shown in Example 3. While this example does not show her markedly increased volume, her significantly brighter timbre and wider vibrato, or the increasingly demonstrative aspects of her physical performance—most notably, that she kicks off her shoes and staggers entranced around the stage—it does make clear (as does Example 2) the part played by pitch in the musical transformations through which Carr's lyric becomes the content of a congregation's experience. The degree of affectivity that emerges through this performance—for the singer and for her audience—points, in this context, to the presence of a second audience, the “you” of which the lyric speaks: the invisible, but audibly manifest, subjects of that assembly's belief.
Performances of this abridged version of Kurt Carr's “For Every Mountain” offer a compelling window into the kinetics of gospel performance. While this particular enactment of the song is formally distinguished from its archetype by the omission of the B section, its most atypical feature, the composer's spoken interpolations, provides a rare performative discourse on the poetics of gospel song—the means through which this genre's characteristic linkage of words and music, sound and belief, routinely facilitate embodied religious experience. In the space of a few minutes, the assembled thousands consent to being carried to both a valley and a mountain through the musicians’ subtle management of the dimensions of their shared sonic environment. As these congregants move with the music, beyond their material confines and into “the spirit,” these sung words become the substance of faith. What is most unusual about this performance, namely Kurt Carr's commentary, invites examination of the way words and music are commingled throughout the black gospel tradition. While Carr's words effectively elucidate the use of musical parameters such as register and timbre to enable the embodied experience of the song's lyric, they also point to the phenomenological implications of gospel's participatory ethos. By suggesting how the audience might grapple with specific musical actions, Carr discloses the necessarily communal construction of meaning in gospel music, which is to suggest that “musicians” and “congregants” use sound in mutually defining ways. As singers, conductors, and instrumentalists work to shape sound into music, congregants labor to bring these expressions into consciousness. As we will see, this collective engagement with music grants these believers transcendent access to times, places, and subjects outside their material world.
This article offers an analytical paradigm that uses the repetitive musical cycle known as “the vamp,” a climactic musical unit central both to the experience of gospel song and to many black Christian liturgies, to illuminate the interrelation of form, experience, and meaning in African American gospel music, focusing on music performed by gospel choirs with soloists. I will argue that, more than just a ubiquitous musical procedure, the gospel vamp functions as a sonic resource used by many African American Christians to experience with their bodies what they believe in their hearts. As they perform and perceive the gospel vamp's characteristic combination of repetition and escalation, these believers coproduce sonic environments that facilitate the experience of a given song's textual message. The article is built on close readings of four canonical gospel choir songs, which are selected not on the basis of a commercial metric, such as chart position or album sales, but because they are representative pieces of the gospel choir repertoire that are routinely performed both in large concert settings and for weekly services.3 Discussion of these selections will allow increasingly textured images of gospel music's participatory, experiential, formal, and hermeneutic dimensions to emerge. I begin with an analysis of a performance of Brenda Joyce Moore's “Perfect Praise” by Lecresia Campbell and the Houston Chapter of the Gospel Music Workshop of America that interrogates the phenomenological implications of gospel's communal orientation. Here, the parameter of texture will serve to clarify the relationship between musical syntax and musical experience, a relationship that, following Harris Berger, I will term “the gospel stance.”4 The next section presents a close reading of Richard Smallwood's “I Will Sing Praises,” a song whose admixture of repetition and intensification exemplifies a kind of musical organization that is both a compositional strategy and an experiential template. As we explore this song, we will gain a sharper sense of the paradoxical phenomenology of gospel performance—namely, that intensified physicality actually loosens the believer's relation to the material world, enhancing his or her connection to what is often called “the spiritual realm.” After establishing this experiential orientation, and developing a theory of form for the gospel vamp, we will return to Carr's “For Every Mountain,” setting the live recording of the song's premiere against the performance described above in order to reveal the communicative force that operates independently of Carr's exhortative commentary. As it grapples with the construction of meaning across performances of individual gospel songs, this section seeks to understand how the vamp's convention of intensified repetition can be recruited to communicate a variety of theological messages. The article's concluding analysis of Thomas Whitfield's “I Shall Wear a Crown” will reflect self-consciously upon music analysis itself, arguing that analyzing gospel in experiential terms offers a way of studying how many black Christians come into contact with the invisible subjects of their belief.
The Gospel of Participation
Though seated in the congregation of Williams Temple Church of God in Christ, the instrumentalists and choristers of the Houston Chapter of the Gospel Music Workshop of America were no inactive audience. Gathered to celebrate the release of their 2012 CD in a concert that featured gospel soprano Lecresia Campbell as guest artist, the members of the Houston Chapter were called into action near the end of Campbell's performance.5 After winding through a virtuosic medley of Andraé Crouch's “The Blood” and the hymn “Power in the Blood,” Campbell signaled that she would end her set with one of the songs for which she is best known, Brenda Joyce Moore's “Perfect Praise.” As the musicians played the introduction to this canonical gospel selection, the soloist observed that the song was “recorded thirty years ago, straight out of the word of God.” After quoting its opening words, the first verse of Psalm 8, “Oh, Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth,” Campbell deputized the congregation with the statement “and the best choir is in the audience.” (The full performance of the song may be seen in Video Example 2.)
More than just a means of heightening the audience's engagement toward the end of her set, Campbell's request that the congregation become the choir reflects the practical reality that “Perfect Praise” depends for its very enactment on a community of singers to a far greater extent than “The Blood” or “Power in the Blood.” As I will demonstrate, this difference is primarily a matter of texture. The conjunction of composition and performance discloses Campbell's assumption that the members of the Houston Chapter would know this song well enough to sing it—an assumption based on the fact of this group's identity as a collection of gospel musicians. Given the canonicity of “Perfect Praise,” however—and there is scarcely a better-known gospel tune—Campbell might have reasonably made this assumption about virtually any aggregation of gospel singers. Thus, while this case is unusual, inasmuch as this audience literally is the choir, its particularity only highlights the participatory orientation that is so central to gospel performance.6 In effective gospel performances, entire congregations become one large choir. Campbell's contention that “the best choir is in the audience,” then, evidences what might be called “the gospel of participation.” What does the communal impulse exemplified by gospel song suggest about the relationship between musical syntax and musical experience in the tradition?7 A closer consideration of the dynamics of texture in this performance of “Perfect Praise” offers a first step toward an answer.
The A section of Moore's song, the first of its three formal units, expands the psalm text by repeating short fragments of it (see Example 4).8 The four iterations of the words “how excellent” marshal the power of anacrusis to call forth the second word of each pair, gaining energy that is compounded by repetition and escalating pitch, all of which propels this section toward its culminating “how excellent.” At the same moment comes a sudden shift from the chorus's unison octaves first to homophony—three-part harmony—and then to polyphony, a passage we will refer to as the hook. This textural progression prefigures the dramatization of texture that shapes the experience of “Perfect Praise.” After the repetition of the A section, the next phase in this textural drama unfolds in section B, which, unlike A, begins in homophony—in gospel parlance, “in parts.” The choir's iterative declamation that “there is none like you, none like you, none like you,” harmonized by a seven-limbed descending fifths sequence from vii7 to ♭VII9, leads to a modified version of the hook (see Example 5), which recurs, with minor variations, at the end of each of the song's formal units. It is the hook's recurrence that creates the expectations that Moore will soon subvert.
While the B section, which might also be called the bridge, is homophonic until the restatement of the hook, the issue of texture is further modified in the song's C section, its vamp. As the end of the second iteration of B gives way to this vamp, the song demands an attentional shift. Whereas each previous statement of the hook had been followed by a full measure of rest, at the end of the song's bridge the vamp begins a measure early. And the tenors enter unexpectedly: whereas the choir enters on beat 4 in the A section and on beat 3 in the B section, the tenors enter on the second eighth of beat 3 to begin the vamp (see Example 6). This composed and compound anticipation—the missing measure and unexpected metrical position—resonates with the modified “tonic,” V4/2 of IV, that will sound on the first downbeat of every iteration of this vamp. Elsewhere, I have described the effect of this musical complex as “tuning up,” a song-based incorporation of the affective grammar of much black Christian preaching.9 While I will return to this notion later in the article, what we must note here is the concurrence of the aforementioned harmonic and metrical phenomena—announcing the beginning of the song's vamp—with the apotheosis of the song's textural drama.
As may be seen in Example 6, the C section of “Perfect Praise” differs from the preceding formal units in its thoroughly polyphonic vocal arrangement. The vamp is formed through a process that I term “textural accumulation”—the gradual building-up of a polyphonic texture. After entering, the tenors sing through this entire unit alone. They are then joined by the altos for a second iteration of this material, and finally, on the third iteration, by the sopranos. Each vocal part has its own line, such that the polyphonic framework of this section emerges progressively, exemplifying Jonathan De Souza's contention that musical texture, unlike the relatively independent modularity of “pitch, duration, dynamics, and timbre … arises from dynamic interactions among these different elements.”10 The three vocal parts sing different rhythms, their entries being staggered to ensure that each part is heard distinctly. The addition of the successive parts both complicates the picture and intensifies the experience as the texture is thickened and the sonic environment becomes crowded. The progression from tenors to altos to sopranos adds rising pitch to the thickened texture. The staggered entries, the contrasting parts, and, in the case of the sopranos, the differing words reinforce the song's thematic focus. As these polyphonic parts—themselves a vocalization of an aggregation of praise gathered from all the earth—give way to homophony at the end of each iteration of the vamp, we hear the kind of unified response described in the words of the sopranos: “Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord.” Thus, it seems that the completion of the choral texture vocalizes the perfection of praise, which is a larger thematic focus for Psalm 8.
The textural procedure at work in “Perfect Praise” (and many other gospel songs)11 can be helpfully contextualized by Mark Spicer's work on accumulative processes in popular music. His notion of “accumulative forms” refers to “many current pop-rock songs [that] feature … a cumulative process of textural growth, [effected as] various interlocking riffs … are introduced one by one until the groove is complete.”12 Spicer notes that “listening to an accumulative beginning is not unlike assembling the pieces of an aural jigsaw puzzle: only when all the layers of the groove are put together can we understand the complete picture.”13 The textural accumulation at work in “Perfect Praise” makes the role of each vocal part in the larger structure explicit. In contrast to the procedure I have been outlining, however, Spicer's “accumulative forms” are “most often employed at the beginning of songs.”14 Rather than extending the introduction and laying the groundwork for the crux of the song, textural accumulation in gospel vamps adds energy to the formal unit where intensification itself acquires theological significance. In this sense, accumulative processes in gospel vamps are more analogous to what Mark Butler calls “the buildup” in electronic dance music (EDM): the space where “various instruments are added to the texture, usually one at a time … increas[ing] intensity—not only by thickening the texture but also by filling in various rhythmic positions within the measure.”15 In the case of “Perfect Praise,” and in gospel vamps more generally, choral parts take the place of EDM's recorded instrumental loops.
How might the aforementioned syntactical detail be rethought in experiential terms? One way to begin is by considering the performance of “Perfect Praise” as an index of gospel's characteristic mode of participation, which, following Thomas Turino, I understand as a “sense of actively contributing to the sound and motion of a musical event through dancing, singing, clapping, and playing musical instruments when each of these activities is considered integral to the performance.”16 Viewed in this light, gospel singing is revealed to be precisely the sort of dynamic engagement through which musical experience is constituted. To engage gospel song as a phenomenon would be to invite the reader to rethink the foregoing analysis of “Perfect Praise” from the perspective of a congregant actively and vocally involved in this performance, allowing that reader to speculate about the effect of the domain of texture on this large choir. Texture is a musical parameter that is immediately available to members of a choral ensemble, one that might require less technical vocabulary to describe, and that, in this case, helps to trace an arc of intensity. Imagine that, together with the choristers, you are listening to Lecresia Campbell's solo presentation of the A section at the song's beginning. She repeats that section, marshaling even more virtuosic modes of singing. Then imagine being summoned to sing the A section in unison, while the soloist ad-libs. Feel the rising intensity of each “how excellent,” experience the striking turn from unison to harmony, the division that paradoxically multiplies the sound by which you are surrounded. Now, imagine that no sooner do you adjust to regular harmony than it is time to fill and feel your part in the polyphonic “is thy name.” Consider, as soprano, the experience of holding your B♭ on “is” while being joined by the other voices; as alto, that of being in the middle in terms of both time and pitch; and as tenor, that of being last but, as the most mobile, certainly not least. Imagine singing this entire section again, before being thrust into the B section for two iterations. Then, imagine section C, the vamp. Perceive the instrumental buildup and break, the tenor's early entry, and the gradual accumulation of the other voices. Conceived thus, the syntactical domain of texture offers a way to understand what it might be like to sing “Perfect Praise” and, more generally, how gospel congregants come to embody gospel compositions. To theorize the way in which musical syntax conditions musical experience is to attend to the manner in which gospel audiences grapple with a particular “item of expressive culture to bring it into experience.”17 This is what, following Harris Berger, I refer to as “the gospel stance.” This article's focus on music performed by gospel choirs, typically with soloists, evidences my conviction that this dimension of the gospel tradition offers the most illuminative window into the gospel stance. While gospel songs are frequently performed by a range of individuals and groups—soloists, quartets, praise-and-worship teams, and choirs18—and while many gospel services feature presentations from more than one of the aforementioned aggregations, the important and provocative resemblance between choirs and congregations makes analyzing music from the gospel choir repertoire an especially valuable undertaking.
From Participation to Experience
The third formal unit of both “For Every Mountain” and “Perfect Praise” exemplifies the repetitive musical cycles that scholars and performers refer to as “vamps.” As the preceding discussion illustrates, gospel vamps are not merely harmonic backgrounds for improvisation, nor are they designed to occupy time, as in the vamp-till-ready practice. In gospel song, the vamp is a complex of music, text, and escalatory procedures composed to facilitate religious experience. Guthrie Ramsey describes the vamp in gospel music as a “troping cycle,” a “musical and ideological [remnant] of the ring shout from the slave past.”19 Following the work of anthropologists Walter Pitts and Victor Turner, Ramsey proposes that these troping cycles “work as microrepresentations of the syntax of rituals present throughout the African Diaspora.” In gospel songs, vamps are the place where the performance shifts into the second, ecstatic “frame of the [ritual's] metaphorical syntax.”20 David Brackett observes that the “vamp at the end of gospel songs … allows for vocal/instrumental improvisations of increasing intensity causing a corresponding shift in the music to a higher energy level.”21 And Ray Allen, in his work on gospel quartet practices, notes that performers use musical sections such as these self-consciously, “work[ing] to diminish the distinctions between themselves and their listeners.”22 As vamps aggregate people in performance, they also participate in a loftier kind of communion, the experience of transcendence that routinely occurs in gospel liturgies, whether during Sunday services or in concert settings, as in the performances of “For Every Mountain” and “Perfect Praise” discussed above.
The gospel vamp's fusion of musical form and religious experience depends on the relationality of meaning, for, as Christopher Small observes, “it is [in] the relationships that it brings into existence [that] the meaning of a musical performance lies.”23 To tease apart the layers of musical meaning that emerge through the performance of gospel music, I begin with Travis Jackson's discussion of meaning in jazz performance. For Jackson, meaning arises (a) through the formation of community in a specific musical event, (b) when a specific event indexes the broader cultural framework he terms “a blues aesthetic,” and (c) while this aesthetic is recruited in the formation and expression of a kind of subjectivity.24 I argue that in gospel music the “potentially transcendent”25 meanings of jazz performances accrue specific confessional content, which, while most clearly expressed in a song's lyric, also shape its musical arrangement. The communal experience of meaning that emerges as gospel congregants engage gospel songs thus relies on particularized forms of listening and notions of musical ontology. The gospel stance, then, enacts the kind of active and agential mode of engagement that Judith Becker describes as a “habitus of listening,”26 through which gospel ceases to be “a thing-in-itself” and becomes “a way for listeners to engage with one another and to make their way through the world.”27 The analytical paradigm proposed in these pages seeks to trace the metaphorical steps taken by gospel congregants while using this repertoire to move back and forth between the material world and the spiritual realm where musical sound grants intimacy with the divine.
How then to reconceive the gospel vamp in these experiential terms? To begin, let us return to the notion that gospel music is a means by which to make one's way through the world, for in so doing we note that this way of conceptualizing sound's function in gospel is also the guiding assumption of ecological approaches to musical meaning, which assert that human modes of engaging music closely resemble their more general means of engagement with sonic phenomena as a strategy for navigating the world. Eric Clarke, following J. J. Gibson's ecological theory of visual perception, argues that while “the construction of musical meaning through language and other forms of representation is undeniable … it does not proceed independently of the affordances of musical materials.”28 As a way of theorizing the role of the gospel vamp's musical arrangement while avoiding a kind of sonic/material determinism, the notion of affordance—and the broader superstructure of ecological perceptual theory—provides a useful vocabulary for the present discussion. As this article unfolds, I will demonstrate that the admixture of variance and invariance prescribed in gospel compositions affords the construction of sonic environments by musicians and audiences, whose gospel stance uses the sounds they collectively produce to relate to each other and to the divine. For example, it is the basic invariance of pitch class and text in the vamp of Kurt Carr's “For Every Mountain” that affords the kind of registral play that Carr and Stancil use to amplify that lyric. Likewise, in “Perfect Praise” it is the relative invariance of the first three iterations of the song's hook that sets the stage for the anticipatory gestures that announce the turn into the vamp. Moreover, it is the invariance of that vamp's basic harmonic progression that makes the gradual accumulation of its vocal texture recognizable as such. Pursuant to this we might then say that the gospel vamp exists as a technique of organizing sound that doubles as a mode of organizing experience, calling attention to and facilitating immersion in specific musical materials in order to transform both the music and its participants. In so doing, the musical arrangement of the vamp affords the experience of the song's text, which, given the content of gospel lyrics—offerings of praise and affirmations of blessings—becomes an experience of transcendence.
“I Will Sing Praises”
With this understanding of the relationship between musical syntax, musical experience, and musical meaning, let us consider a performance of Richard Smallwood's “I Will Sing Praises” recorded live at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Atlanta, Georgia, in early 1996, in pursuit of a more systematic account of form in black gospel music.29 (The first part of the performance may be seen in Video Example 3.) Like that of “Perfect Praise,” this song's lyric is drawn from the psalter, in this case paraphrasing Psalm 27:1–6:
A: Lord, you are my light. Lord, you are my joy. You're my salvation. Whom shall I fear? I don't have to worry. I won't be afraid, for in the time of trouble you shall hide me.
B: He shall hide me in his tabernacle. He shall set me upon a rock of stone.
C: I will sing praises unto you.
This may be compared with the text of the psalm, verses 1–6 of which read as follows:
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell. Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear: though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident. One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple. For in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his pavilion: in the secret of his tabernacle shall he hide me; he shall set me up upon a rock. And now shall mine head be lifted up above mine enemies round about me: therefore will I offer in his tabernacle sacrifices of joy; I will sing, yea, I will sing praises unto the Lord.30
While a number of phrases in the psalm are engaged closely in “I Will Sing Praises” (as marked by boldface), one of the most instructive differences between the psalm text and the song's lyric relates to the implied audience. While the psalmist makes descriptive and declarative statements about “the Lord” and about the writer's intention, Smallwood's lyric personalizes these words. Rather than simply stating, “The Lord is my light and my salvation,” the choir sings, “Lord, you are my light. … You're my salvation.” In Smallwood's paraphrase, then, “the Lord” becomes the subject of direct address rather than abstract description. In a kind of transcendent communion, the lyric discloses a poetics of gospel performance: a sense of gospel songs, and especially of gospel vamps, as vehicles for spiritual transport. As this analysis unfolds, I will point to ways in which the musical organization of “I Will Sing Praises” enables an experience of the song's lyrical content. This analysis, like the others presented in this article, is an invitation to a particular hearing, one account of the way this song works.
In common with the other songs discussed here, “I Will Sing Praises” consists of three formal sections, the A, B, and C sections. Performed in a moderate 4/4, section A occupies an unusual temporal span: rather than the even-numbered hypermeter characteristic of most of the songs under consideration, this A section spans eleven measures (see Example 7).31 Although the song is grounded in the key of C major, this opening section makes extensive use of modal mixture. The subdominant harmonies that appear in the first, third, and fifth measures are all borrowed from the minor mode, and this chromaticism reappears in the fourfold statement of God's promise to hide followers in times of trouble. Here, repetition and text painting combine to construct an aural picture of the protection promised by Psalm 27. The four iterations of “hide me” are identical in terms of words and rhythm, but they are differentiated into two pairs by the addition of the words “you shall” and by the variant pitch material. In both pairs, there is an embellished plagal progression that features a chromatically harmonized descent from scale degree 5 to scale degree 3 over a tonic pedal. While the first upper triad implies V/IV, the listener is in fact greeted by a richer harmony, one that, though technically a third inversion supertonic seventh (ii4/2), feels like IV with an added sixth. The next chord lowers the fifth of this seventh chord, transforming it from the harmony diatonic to C major, a minor seventh chord, to the version diatonic to C minor, a half-diminished sonority. The chromatic inflection of both upper harmonies gives them a strong downward attraction to the following chord, which, when realized, sonically analogizes the act of pulling down a screen over something one wishes to hide. And the choir's vocal smear reinforces this sense of concealment. The force of this text painting—the reassurance of protection—is amplified by the repetitions in these measures, repetitions that can be understood as microrepresentations of the sectional recapitulations through which the song takes the form AABABC.
At the end of the A section's second iteration, the band marches up to the B section's off-tonic opening. Each of the B section's eight measures begins on a G major sonority (see Example 8). This bridge divides neatly into two halves. In the first four measures, the repeated passage from G major in root position to an inverted C major sonority by means of a third-inversion dominant seventh chord gives way to a progression back to the root-position G major harmony. Together, the oscillation between these versions of G major and C major sonorities and the concomitant apparent inability to escape this harmonic pattern offer a kind of sonic image of being hidden away in the tabernacle. The second four-measure group of this section is an intensified reiteration of the first, in which each of the choral sonorities is inverted upward to a higher version of the same harmony. And in the harmonic progression, the first-inversion C major chord is replaced with a root-position version. The new sense of height, in conjunction with the more stable version of the C major harmony, invites listeners to imagine being lifted up and set upon a rock of stone.
This tendency of musical motion to facilitate affective modulation in the listeners acquires renewed energy in the song's final formal unit, its vamp, which appears at the end of the B section's second iteration. Like those of “For Every Mountain,” “Perfect Praise,” and the other songs we will shortly engage, the final section of “I Will Sing Praises” introduces and iterates new musical ideas, instead of recapitulating previously heard material. While Brad Osborn's phrase “terminally climactic form” aptly describes this aspect of many gospel songs’ musical organization,32 the effect of the deployment of this musical device in the gospel vamp is to announce a heightened phase of liturgical activity. This generic consistency suggests that we understand the gospel vamp not simply as a particular sort of terminal climax, but also as a section in which intensifying iteration becomes a kind of homiletical device.
The vamp of “I Will Sing Praises” is built on the harmonic template shown in Example 9, which combines chromatic bass motion from E to G, ending in the first instance with an evaded cadence, and in the second with an authentic cadence. Above this harmonic foundation, the vamp material is assembled through the use of textural accumulation, the formative process at work in the vamp of “Perfect Praise.” In Smallwood's composition, however, textural accumulation is used to construct the vamp's polyphonic texture over the course of the module's first six iterations.
The vamp begins (at C1) with the sopranos offering their version of the title phrase, “I will sing praises unto you,” twice (see Example 10). Because they are roughly identical, two statements (C1 and C2) constitute a larger segment of the song's vamp. For the third and fourth iterations of this vamp's formative module, the sopranos are joined by the altos, who sing the same words but with different rhythms for the beginning of the phrase, intensifying both the pitch and rhythmic parameters of this performance. The fully formed choral texture first appears at the fifth iteration of the vamp's structuring module. Here, the sopranos and altos are joined by the tenors, who have different rhythms yet again for the beginning of the phrase, the entries of the three voices being staggered to ensure that each is heard distinctly. Moreover, whereas the sopranos and altos begin with the words “I will sing praises,” the tenors’ late entry leaves room only for the contraction “I'll sing.” All three voices come together in homophony for the concluding words, “praises unto you.”
Once the formative process of textural accumulation is completed, texture gives way to key center as the chief generator of musical change. After the sixth iteration of this module, C7 is announced by a semitonal shift from C major up to D-flat major. And this continues as each of the next odd-numbered modules is announced—that is, distinguished from the preceding module—through semitonal modulation. Example 11 shows the vamp at its highest point, C19–C20, pitched a perfect fifth, seven semitones, higher than the first iteration.
Given the centrality of recursive processes to the emergence of this vamp, how can we characterize its overall form? Yes, the vamp consists of forty statements of the words “I will sing praises unto you,” but the harmonic plan, by which one statement leads to a half cadence and the next to an authentic cadence, suggests that these forty statements should actually be understood as twenty pairs. Further, the fact that each pair is stated twice before any textural or tonal change is made suggests a further division into ten segments, three differentiated by texture and seven by pitch center. But this modular analysis reveals only the parameters through which the segments are differentiated. The most accurate representation of this musical design places the aforementioned schematic conception in dialectical relation to a listener-centered emergent sense of a form shaped by the syntactical processes of repetition, textural accumulation, and tonal modulation, by which the manifold iterations of the module are shaped into an intensifying climb.
The semitonal modulations employed here and throughout the gospel repertoire are usefully contextualized by recent work on modulation in other popular genres. In discussing “expressive modulation” in the rock “breakout chorus,” Christopher Doll notes that, unlike the motion by step or semitone that is common in gospel, most of these key shifts move from the relative minor to the relative major, or up by three semitones.33 Doll refers to these as “pump-up” modulations, noting that they have been defined by a growing list of names, including the “crowbar modulation,”34 the “truck driver's modulation,”35 and the “shotgun modulation.”36 More recently, Dai Griffiths proposed the term “elevating modulation” as a way of describing the technique's effect and challenging the derision it has attracted.37 Griffiths argues that multiple modulations of this type combine to create an “elevating form.” And Scott Hanenberg has used markedness theory and narrative theory to suggest five archetypes for the functions modulation can have in rock music.38
But the tonal modulations employed in “I Will Sing Praises” also serve liturgical purposes: as the choir and congregation sing about praise, the rising pitch level signals—and, I would argue, produces—the ascension of which the lyric speaks. Along the way, not only do the singers demonstrate the wide range and great power of their vocal instruments, causing the listener to wonder just how high they will go, but they can also be interpreted as suggesting that no voice, no matter how virtuosic, can extend high enough to offer sufficient praise. More than merely commenting on the quantity of praise or the exertion it might require, the musical syntax offers a kind of analogy. The preposition “unto” proves to be of significance in this regard, for the emphatic sense of ascending becomes a sonic picture of what it might mean to sing praise unto the Lord. By singing higher and higher, and stretching into the uppermost reaches of their voices, the participants give the impression of getting closer to the divine, performing the climb inherent in any image of transcendence. As such, this vamp (and the others discussed throughout this article) combines “textual narratives and formal, musical designs … [that] reinforce each other,” generating what Jocelyn Neal has called a “narrative paradigm.”39 While following the general outline of Psalm 27:1–6, Smallwood's use of the title phrase “I will sing praises” in only the song's final section positions praise as the response to the divine promises articulated in the preceding sections. It is as if when we reach G major again, this time by half steps rather than the earlier marching up in whole steps, we have reached the goal. In this respect, the vamp has become what Henry Mitchell calls “ecstatic reinforcement” and what I will call an “ecstatic response” to the promises lodged in the psalm.40 In “I Will Sing Praises” Smallwood organizes the lyrical content of ancient scripture in such a way as to reinforce the form of contemporary gospel songs. This temporally conjunctive move—setting ancient texts in modern form—facilitates the transhistorical confessional communion to which gospel songs aspire.
Likewise, the related yet distinct vocal parts comment on the physical movement that attended the aforementioned performance of this song. As the video footage reveals, throughout the song, and especially in the vamp, the members of the vocal aggregation, the instrumentalists, and Smallwood himself move in synchrony with the music.41 Some move their entire bodies while others engage only their arms; some arm motions are upward while others are lateral. There is a kind of diversity found in this shared experience of spontaneous but regular bodily movement. Moreover, the bodily engagement of the performers is met with bodily and vocalized participation by the audience members. Indeed, observing the audience's participation in this performance reveals what might be the most crucial aspect of it: the ever-intensifying nature of the vamp is matched by a similarly escalating response from the congregants. With each successive textural and tonal modulation, more and more congregants rise from their seated positions and engage their standing bodies in the performance. By the song's end, the distinction between choir and congregation has dissolved: the vamp has literally moved the audience. The modulation from F major to F-sharp major that heralds the passage from module 18 to module 19 is mirrored by an affective intensification: dozens of people leap to their feet in response to this tonal shift. It is as if listening and attending to this music has brought about another kind of union between the bodies and minds of this collective and the music around which they have been aggregated—a union so strong that the force of a musical modulation is sufficient to pull them up out of their seats.
When the performance of this song reaches what promises to be its ending, the musicians signal that the end has not yet come. Diving from G major down to C major and reiterating the harmonic backdrop to the vamp, the band sets the stage for an even more overt form of participatory musicking.42 (This second part of the performance may be seen in Video Example 4.) Directly addressing the congregation, Smallwood says, “I'm gonna sing praises unto you. Listen, I need me some sopranos out here. Come on, sopranos. All the sopranos stand on your feet. We gon’ sing this little song, [which] simply says, ‘I will sing praises.’ Come on, sopranos. I know I got me some choir members out here. Come on, sopranos, on your feet, come on.” Then, turning to his recording choir, Vision, he says, “Sopranos, show 'em how it goes.” After these sopranos have sung through one cycle of the vamp, he turns back to those in the audience, saying, “Alright, let me hear it.” When this large body of sopranos have sung their part once, he asks for it again, and this time he wants it “a little louder.” The performance continues in this vein, the composer calling on the altos and then the tenors before putting together a vast choir consisting of the thousands gathered in the cavernous sanctuary of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit. Eventually, Smallwood instructs the instruments to break and the members of Vision to be silent, so that the audience can sing on its own. Here, again, it seems that “the best choir is in the audience.”
What this song suggests about the emergent linkage between musical syntax and the movement of gospel congregants that is forged through the gospel stance returns us to a central argument of this article—that one of gospel's central functions is to enable communion within human collectives and between these groups and the divine—with a clearer sense of how the gospel vamp works. The foregoing observations concerning this particular vamp's correlation of escalatory tonal and textural devices with intensifying movement point to a more systematic analytical paradigm for the gospel choir repertoire.
Forming the Gospel Vamp
While the foregoing analyses and the wider scholarly literature affirm the centrality of vamps to the experience of gospel music, relatively little attention has been given to the form of gospel vamps. Developing a theory of such a form is the task to which I now turn. Guthrie Ramsey's use of the term “troping cycle” to describe these events highlights “the aesthetic demands and requirements” from which these sections emerge.43 As numerous writers have observed, in gospel performance intensification is chief among these demands. David Brackett, for example, writes that “the ostinato vamp at the end of gospel songs and most soul songs … allows for vocal/instrumental improvisations of increasing intensity causing a corresponding shift in the music to a higher energy level.”44 Likewise, Jean Kidula's discussion of the “chained vamp” in Andraé Crouch's “Power in the Blood” notes that “in addition to harmonic extensions and instrumental improvisations with each successive vamp, sometimes the volume of the instrumental accompaniment [is] increased to dramatize the expressive emotional response.”45 And Mary McGann, in her work on music in African American Catholic worship, proposes that “vamps are holding patterns—stalls in the rhythmic and melodic unfolding of a song, that hold a community of music-makers in a relentless build-up of energy and intensity.”46 But the tension implicit in McGann's reference to the vamp as both a “holding pattern” and a “relentless build-up” points to a broader lacuna in these discussions of vamps in gospel music: a lack of attention to the role of relatively determined syntactical elements in the intensification of gospel vamps, including tonal modulation, textural accumulation, and inversion.
To construct a fuller account of the role of intensification in gospel vamps, I begin with Ingrid Monson's description of the phenomenon in jazz:
I am using intensification as a deliberately amorphous term that combines musical events internal to a particular performance that contribute to the feeling of musical climax (such as changes in dynamics, rhythmic density, register, timbre, melody, harmony, interaction, and style of groove) with intermusical aspects of performance … that link it to issues of history and the African American sensibilities of “taking it to another level” and grooving.47
As noted in the above analysis of Smallwood's “I Will Sing Praises,” while there is no ad-libbing soloist offering vocal improvisations, and while there is certainly a consistent sense that this vamp is built on the iteration of a recognizable musical unit, the performance demonstrates an unmistakable experiential and syntactical preoccupation with escalation. In this particular song, textural accumulation and tonal modulation add intensity to successive iterations of the vamp's formative material. What occurs in this performance is representative of the gospel repertoire. While affirming the crucial role of vocal and instrumental improvisation in gospel performance (the dramatic arcs shaped by both the dynamic and timbral heterogeneity achieved by soloists and choruses, and the rhythmic and harmonic athleticism deployed by accompanying instrumentalists), I develop here a model of formal analysis for these vamps that focuses on the role of escalatory techniques woven into the sounding material that previous writers have referred to as simply a framework for intensifying performance: namely, the parts prescribed for gospel choristers.
While most discussions of intensification in gospel music problematically conceive of vamps as mere backdrops for the creation of intensity, these notions are built on another, more fundamental under-theorization. Monson notes that jazz vamps “are repeating figures (usually two to four bars in length),” but she writes that they are also “integral textual components of the compositions themselves.”48 Likewise, Guthrie Ramsey's substitution of “troping cycle” for “vamp,” in order to stress the form's aesthetic expectations, does not resolve a more fundamental ambiguity: in his discussion, the term “vamp” denotes both the “harmonic successions and melodic patterns” characteristic of a section and the section itself.49 In both Monson's and Ramsey's discussions, then, the vamp is simultaneously an iterated musical figure and an entire formal unit. But what is the relationship between these two levels of musical organization? The centrality of pitch- and texture-based intensification to gospel performance leads us to an answer. I would argue that the larger entities known as vamps are formed emergently as the smaller musical modules are iterated. These formative modules are the local sonic entities that have also been referred to as vamps. In gospel performance, while these musical modules are repeated they are intensified by escalatory techniques including inverting, tonal modulation, and textural accumulation, giving rise to the broader formal units known as vamps. As performers and audiences iterate these musical ideas, the interaction of repetition and intensification shapes the vamp's syntax by providing specific arrangements of coherence within units and articulating the differences between those units.
As a complex of words and music used to induce religious experience, the gospel vamp functions as a musical technology of transcendence. To think of gospel vamps in this way, as “principles of design affording certain kinds of performative interaction,” is to assert, following Mark Butler, that these musical materials
enable novel, contingently developing improvisations to be formed through the creative transformation of recorded musical objects. By structuring musical temporality in distinctive ways, they allow musicians to effect these transformations within the dynamic environment of live performance. Their implications for the unfolding of an event constitute an energetic field of possibility that musicians navigate.50
What Butler describes in terms of “technology” and “possibility” is better described in relation to gospel performances as contingency. Imagine a rendering of “I Will Sing Praises” that modulates only four times, ending in E major.51 In this scenario, the differences in duration and content do not change the identity of the song or the vamp. This ontological durability qualifies gospel compositions as a version of what Georgina Born calls “provisional works.”52 They reside somewhere in the middle of the continuum that Butler, following Born, uses to measure “the relationship of musical specificity to time.”53 My argument that gospel music realizes in time materials and procedures that are formed ahead of time constitutes a kind of hybrid ontology, which runs counter to the “work concept” described by Lydia Goehr, an ideological construct that feeds many object-like notions of the musical work and rigid analytics of musical form.54 In contrast to these static approaches, the emergent conception of the vamp proposed in this article has more in common with Janet Schmalfeldt's processual approach to musical form, which uses form-functional reinterpretations to stress the temporal nature of musical performance.55 For the purposes of this project, I intend to apply Schmalfeldt's phenomenological supplement to James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy's notion of modular assembly in sonata form, which they define as “the forging of a succession of short, section-specific musical units (spaces of action) linked together into an ongoing linear chain—pressing down and connecting one appropriately stylized musical tile after another.”56 If we think of gospel vamps in modular terms, but imagine this formal assembly occurring in time, during performance, what results is the notion of emergent modularity that I take to be of great utility for the analysis of gospel music: gospel vamps emerge as musical modules, are iterated and recursively intensified. In the next section of this article, I advance this theory of form for gospel song, using scholarly discussions of repetition, groove, and teleology to argue that gospel vamps dissolve the opposition that is often posited between repetitive grooves and musical teleology.
Repetition, Groove, and Teleology
Throughout this article we have seen the centrality of repetition—both of entire formal units and of smaller musical ideas—to gospel performance in general and to gospel vamps in particular. In recent years, this long-derided musical phenomenon has been the subject of increasing scholarly interest, relevant examples of which help to contextualize the analytical approach outlined here. One early but exemplary study by the composer and theorist David Lidov proposes that musical repetition takes three different forms—formative, focal, and textural. According to this theory, formative repetition interprets what is repeated, focal repetition directs attention to the presence of repetition itself, and textural repetition focuses attention on other, changing aspects of the musical texture, while influencing the quality of those changing details.57 Lidov's particularization of repetitive phenomena is fundamentally consonant with Richard Middleton's contention that “the significance of repetition is closely bound up with its role in the total syntactic structure, that is, first, with the nature of what is repeated, and second, with the relationship of the repetition to the other processes that are present.”58 Middleton proposes that repetition in popular music relies on a distinction between “musematic repetition,” the more or less immediate reiteration of short musical elements, and “discursive repetition,” the repetition of larger formal units. He argues that musematic repetition is characteristic of “Afro-American musics” and discursive repetition of “literate modes of composition,” a distinction that is problematized by the gospel songs analyzed in this article and the countless others that constitute this repertoire. In gospel, discursive repetitions are iterated so extensively that they acquire a kind of musematic emphasis. Even more to the point is that gospel vamps are animated by the tensions and resonances that occur between different types of repetition within a single performance. On this topic, the distinctions drawn by Mark Butler between the different kinds of repetition in EDM are particularly instructive for the present discussion. His positing of seven gerundial formulations—repeating, cycling, going, grooving, riding, transitioning, and flowing—to tease apart the different sonic elements of EDM (all of which might be clumsily labeled as simply “repetitive”) and to “emphasize the active, dynamic ways in which they operate” offers a productive way of thinking about the interactions between instances of repetition occurring at the levels of phrases, formal units, and escalatory techniques in gospel song.59
The combined effect of multiple, concurrent types of repetition at work in gospel songs, and especially in their vamps, is a sense of goal-direction. A kind of directedness also emerges from the harmonic progressions and melodic motions constitutive of each vamp's formative module. The force of the half cadence and imperfect authentic cadence in each iteration of the module in “I Will Sing Praises” illustrates this. Additionally, in vamps in which a polyphonic choral texture resolves to homophony (as in that of “Perfect Praise”), this tension-release arc also provides a kind of micro-teleology. Moreover, in “I Will Sing Praises,” although there is no definite musical destination, the sense of escalation produced by the seven upward semitonal modulations imbues the form with a complex sense of direction. What I contend gospel congregations experience through their embodied engagement with aspects of musical structure can be helpfully likened to Butler's observations that “within grooves and other small-scale spans, [EDM listeners] will sense a clear and specific goal ahead. The listener will also feel strong growth processes and climaxes over midlevel spans, especially the sections of increasing intensity known as ‘buildups.’ The specific point at which the buildup will peak, however, is not defined and in most cases is difficult to anticipate precisely.”60 While for gospel congregants, as for EDM participants, the specific content of a given vamp may be hard to predict, its upward thrust is not. For these gospel audiences, goal-direction is not only an aspect of the musical experience: it is also a feature of the genre's Christian foundation.
A rich sense of the theological significance of musical teleology in the gospel repertoire can be gleaned from Will Boone's ethnographic study of Faith Assembly, an African American Pentecostal church in North Carolina. As Boone observes, “Christian life, for the believers at Faith Assembly, is goal-directed.” This goal-direction appears in “preached messages, prayers, songs, and conversations [that] are saturated with the language of achievement—‘triumphs,’ ‘victories,’ ‘breakthroughs,’ ‘next levels,’ ‘new dimensions,’ ‘higher heights and deeper depths’—each of these words or phrases representing one step closer to a divinely ordained destiny.”61 Boone insightfully notes that “since spirit-filled believers do not achieve true destiny until the afterlife … living as a Christian involves not only goal direction, but [what Robert Fink calls the] ‘heroic delay of gratification.’”62 I contend that what Fink terms the “heroic delay of gratification” in his discussion of rhythmic syntax in African American popular music appears in gospel song's complex sense of direction as an affirmation, both of the fundamental inscrutability of the divine and of the potential to experience the divine through a musical performance.63 The belief that God is “high and lifted up” but also “just a prayer away” is of a piece with what Boone calls
[a] teleological view of existence [that] manifests in various aspects of sound in Spirit-filled worship, very often in the form of an experiential climb or buildup. A sermon will begin in a reflective or meditative mode and gradually build toward climactic moments of instrumentally punctuated chant. A song will begin sparsely with piano and solo voice, adding instruments as the verses progress and modulating to higher keys before reaching a triumphant vamp.64
And the words of singers and worship leaders echo this as they “exhort the congregation with teleological rhetoric, casting their participation and praise as a goal-directed activity: ‘Break through, just break through!’ ‘Press on, press! press!’ ‘If we just push a little farther!’ ‘Come on! Let's go a little higher!’”65 But the theology this reveals runs counter to the well-worn scholarly conviction, noted by Robert Fink, that African American popular music is resolutely nonteleological.66 As Fink observes, “the large number of musical analysts who have been interested in musical teleology have not, in general, been very interested in grooves; and the smaller number who have been very interested in grooves have not been at all interested in musical teleology.”67 In contrast to this view, I propose to build on Fink's and Boone's proposition that these genres are fed by the productive “tension[s] between telos and presence, between goals and grooves,”68 and to emphasize the “sense of forward motion” that Timothy Hughes, in his discussion of grooves, calls “flow.”69 In order to simultaneously convey the directedness and the open-endedness of the gospel vamp, I will therefore replace the term “teleology” with “trajectory.” The musical and experiential trajectory of gospel vamps, which is shaped by a consistent combination of repetition and intensification, realizes the original meaning of transcendence: it enables participants to climb higher in pursuit of some surpassing reality.
Experiencing the Vamp
The foregoing discussion of the gospel vamp's trajectory constitutes an explicitly phenomenological conception of musical form, one that has been implicit in this article's emphasis on religious and musical experience. The engagement of gospel congregants with gospel song, which I have termed “the gospel stance,” specifically their ability to partake of the genre's combination of repetition and escalation, relies on a musical form of “protention” that Harris Berger glosses as “the anticipation and vague awareness of the upcoming parts that runs continuously into the present perceptual moment and beyond that into the recent past.” To derive meaning from the registral drama in the performance of “For Every Mountain” or to participate in the textural dynamics of “Perfect Praise” is, in Berger's words, to “exist within a ‘thick’ living present in which anticipations of the near future and retentions of the recent past form an ever-changing gestalt.”70 Analysts of gospel song can conceive of this agential mode of listening to the escalating emergence of the gospel vamp as an expanded form of what Christopher Hasty has called “projection.”71 Hasty's model of metrical experience, which proposes that “meter occurs when listeners replicate the duration of an event,”72 is a useful way of understanding the formal experience of gospel vamps. I would contend, for example, that in Smallwood's “I Will Sing Praises” experienced listeners will hear the sopranos’ solitary entry at the beginning of the vamp—the first indication of textural accumulation—as a strong suggestion of what is to come. (It is very hard to imagine a gospel vamp that permanently excludes two-thirds of the choir!) Likewise, the first semitonal modulation from C to D-flat invites a projection of further modulations, while the second, from D-flat to D, invites a projection of when, in hypermetrical terms, the next modulation might take place. This way of listening to gospel song, this “grappling” with the music, in the words of Harris Berger, means inhabiting a space that David Lewin calls being “inside the music.”73 The gospel stance's deep engagement with the formal procedures that shape a given vamp's experiential trajectory, then, more than the mere perception of sonic transformations, is the means by which congregants use music to access the invisible subjects of their belief.
To see this at work in musical contexts, let us now consider three further songs that demonstrate how gospel vamps take shape through the admixture of the repetition and escalatory techniques discussed in the analysis of “I Will Sing Praises”—tonal modulation, inversion, and textural accumulation. These three formative processes are the most conventional pitch-based techniques in gospel vamps. We will see tonal modulation form the vamp of Twinkie Clark's “Balm in Gilead,” inversion at work in Norman Hutchins's “Because of You,” and textural accumulation in A. Jeffrey LaValley's “Revelations 19:1.”
“Balm in Gilead”
Tonal modulation is the central escalatory technique at work in the vamp of Twinkie Clark's “Balm in Gilead,” recorded by her sister, legendary soprano Karen Clark-Sheard, on the 1997 album Finally Karen.74 The song's vamp is built on a four-measure module that is iterated five times. This module consists of two iterations of a two-measure idea, marked x in the first four measures of Example 12.75 Within each iteration of x there are two statements of the phrase “There is a balm!,” both of which are cast as a diatonic descent from scale degree 5 to scale degree 3 in the soprano; between the two statements comes the harmonized interjection “hey! hey! hey!,” whose chromatic ascent leads back to the initial sonority. The first statement is answered by harmonic motion in the accompaniment from I to IV9, while the second accompanimental progression passes from I through IV9 en route to an altered dominant, V11, which sounds rather like a combination of IV and V. The second iteration of x is identical to the first, except that the dominant is the dominant in the new key, the major key a semitone higher, A-flat, achieved at the beginning of C2. Subsequent modulations lift the piece from A-flat major to A major (C3), from A major to B-flat major (C4), and from B-flat major to B major (C5). These four modulations extend this vamp over five key centers.
In a live video recording of the concert from which this track on Finally Karen was taken, this modulatory strategy is amplified by lead vocalist Clark-Sheard, who, while lithely traversing her expansive vocal range, uses her whole body to mark important musical transitions.76 (The performance of the song may be seen in Video Example 5.) As Guthrie Ramsey noted when analyzing her performance of “I Won't Complain,” “Clark-Sheard's body language adds another level of semantic content to the performance. … [H]er left hand gestures along with the run, moving it in sync with the melodic direction.”77 In a similar fashion, in “Balm in Gilead” Clark-Sheard uses her body to emphasize the modulations, gesturing outward and leaning forward while affirming each new tonic. The soloist's bodily articulation of musical form summons a kind of “kinesthetic empathy” from the congregants, so that the vamp's semitonal modulations become points of affective inflection: as in “I Will Sing Praises,” people are literally moved—from sitting to standing or from one position to another—by each successive modulation.78 After the song's first ending, the band chromatically shifts back down to G major to make vocal and affective space for the performers to tune up even further. Although they are recharting the same tonal areas, here, as in “I Will Sing Praises,” the opportunity to climb again proves too tempting to resist.
“Because of You”
Set in a deliberate 12/8, the vamp of Norman Hutchins's “Because of You” (2006) begins as the choir iterates the words “Thank God I made it!” (see Example 13).79 There is a productive tension between repetition and difference here: while the harmonic support suggests that the vamp consists of a two-measure unit, the choir iterates identical material in the two measures. After two iterations of this unit, the choir inverts, exchanging pitches in the manner described above. Here too the two-measure unit contains the internal repetition of the choir's material. This is again iterated twice before shifting into the third section of the vamp, which performs a kind of inversion: the choir's first sonority is an inversion of the previous section's first sonority, and its second is an inversion of that section's highest sonority. This part of the vamp differs from the preceding two sections in that instead of iterating “Thank God I made it!” the choir pronounces the title phrase “Because of you!” three times before exclaiming, “Yeah!” The different words carry with them different rhythms, further differentiating this section. In addition, the harmonic support provided by the instruments is modified: instead of sitting on the A-flat tonic (inflected by a flattened third, a frequent way of marking the transition to the vamp in major-key gospel songs), this section scripts motion to the dominant, passing from I to IV9 via an altered and inverted tonic harmony, and then to viiº7 of V en route to a modified dominant, V11.
The vamp of A. Jeffrey LaValley's “Revelations 19:1” (1985) is shaped through textural accumulation.80 This third section of the song begins when the expected tonic harmony appears as V4/2 of IV, beginning the four-measure progression shown in Example 14.81 The altos are the first voices to enter, and because their part begins with an anacrusis, they will also be the first voice heard in each iteration of the vamp. Indeed, the appearance of each part within the texture matches the order in which it enters the vamp. In C1 the altos sing alone through the words “the Lord, our God,” after which the entire choir sings, “He is wonderful!” in homophony. This vamp's juxtaposition of polyphony and homophony produces a kind of tension-release arc that drives us toward the cadence. The simultaneity of the cadence and the return of homophony make homophony itself a goal, a kind of textural resolution. At C2 the altos are joined by the sopranos. The sopranos’ part adds an extra layer of nuanced repetition to this iterative structure as they sing, “Hallelujah!” six times, four times with the same rhythmic figuration and three of those with identical pitches as well. The sopranos’ line is less melodic—and more recitational—than those of the altos and tenors. The frequency with which this feature appears in accumulative vamps of this sort suggests that such three-part polyphonic frameworks require one of the voices to be relatively stable with regard to pitch. At C3 the tenors enter, almost shouting, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory”—words that also appear at the beginning of the song's A section. As each voice enters, the increase in volume and substitution of harmony for unison modify the experience of the vamp, but this accumulation also serves a broader purpose. The progressive addition of voices also scripts the gradual engagement of more and more congregants. Those who know the song and who identify with a particular voice part begin to sing when their part enters. In a sense, then, these accumulative vamps model the interpersonal aggregation that is the goal of gospel performance.
Reconsidering “For Every Mountain”
When read against the modified enactment with which this article began, the live recording of the first performance of Kurt Carr's “For Every Mountain” in July 1996 offers an instructive window into the experience of meaning in gospel performance.82 (The performance may be seen in Video Example 6.) This version of “For Every Mountain,” one that secured its place as a gospel standard, does not include any exhortative commentary by the composer about mountains and valleys. There is no pointing or tracing of a soloist's line as a perceptual guide for the audience. There are, in fact, no spoken parts in this original rendering of the song, yet its performance routinely elicits the kind of response we discussed above, suggesting that many of the gospel participants who have engaged this version of “For Every Mountain” have intuited something from this combination of words and music that, if not identical to Carr's commentary, retains its communicative force. Like the vamp so dramatically sung by Lorraine Stancil in the 2017 performance, the middle section of the song's ternary form makes expressive use of register. In the first iteration of this section, the words “That's why I praise you,” the raw material for the song's bridge, are cast in a low choral unison (see Example 15).83 For the second iteration, however, the entire choral setting shifts up, so that the melody lies in the tenor part and the sopranos and altos sing chord tones above it.
After this second presentation of B is elided into a four-measure transition to the vamp, the choir returns to the lower octave to reverently proclaim the words shown in Example 16. This eight-measure module, when repeated and intensified by both inversion and tonal modulation, will constitute the song's vamp. The module's two main harmonic goals divide it into two four-measure units, x and y. In the first three measures the choir has identical pitches and rhythms, even though the words are different. This rhythmic recursion foreshadows the iterative processes through which the vamp will emerge. Entering on the second eighth of beat 1 in each measure, the choir creates a kind of antiphony with the band, which enters on the downbeat. This call-and-response dynamic replicates the choir's relationship with the soprano soloist, Yvette Williams. Unit x features a descending bass line that harmonizes the progression from i to i4/2 to VI9 over three measures, and then from ii7 to V in measure 43. This dominant sonority becomes V4/2, leading to V6 of iv instead of i, reinforcing the lyrical shift from recounting mountainous trials to experiencing blessings. The natural response to receiving a blessing, “hallelujah,” follows together with the expected subdominant harmony. We do not, however, expect the bold assertion of V/V that initiates the cadential progression. This E major sonority sounds particularly bright when heard against the backdrop of the D minor tonic achieved at measure 47.
The reassertion of minor tonality at the cadence reminds us that we are not yet free from the bad memories. We will retrace this ground again and again with a higher perspective. After the first iteration of this module there is a double inversion: instead of moving to the next pitch level, the sopranos shift up a fifth to the previous alto pitch in the higher octave, the altos ascend a sixth to the tenors’ pitch in the higher octave, and the tenors ascend a sixth to the sopranos’ previous pitch (see Example 17). The module is then repeated with identical harmonies and words, adjusted to this next level (see Example 18). And we have not finished climbing. In measures 55–56 and again in measures 63–64, tonal modulations, forceful semitonal shifts up from D minor to E-flat minor and from E-flat minor to E minor, lift us even higher.
Even in the absence of Carr's opening commentary, I would argue, one can hear in this combination of words and music—with all its topographical imagery—a depiction of the mountains and valleys so vividly portrayed in the performance discussed at the beginning of this article. Through these collective shifts, not only does the audience hear a musical portrayal of scaling a mountain, but, as they participate in the performance, as they enact their gospel stance by grappling with this sounding material, they are literally brought up and over their own mountains. When the fourth segment of this vamp, C4, begins at measure 64, an instrumental break becomes the sign of this achievement. It is as if the band is no longer needed to transport the singers—they have arrived, so they can stand by themselves. In this section of the vamp, each emphatic choral declaration is preceded by the band's break. Here, the band becomes an overtly antiphonal voice that introduces—and almost begs—for the choir's next proclamation.
And the vamp's ending recruits the Picardy third effect, the final harmony appearing as a 4–3 suspension that resolves to an E major sonority. This joyful noise is the sound of praise. In “For Every Mountain” this conventional procedure acquires theological significance: its conversion from minor to major, foreshadowed by the modified tonic found in the middle of each phrase, makes audible the transformation that is the goal of gospel performance. Even more conventional than the Picardy third effect in tonal music, the gospel vamp, with its characteristic combination of repetition and intensification, again demonstrates a remarkable ability to deliver a variety of textual messages.
While one might see in the song-specific interpretations I glean from the interaction of text and music a kind of hermeneutic slipperiness, I would contend that, upon closer examination, the rhetorical malleability of the gospel vamp derives from the fact that most of the gospel repertoire is shot through with the theme of transcendence. Both the notion of divine praise manifest in “I Will Sing Praises,” “Perfect Praise,” and “Revelations 19:1” and the kind of celebratory remembrance that forms the subject of “For Every Mountain” and “Because of You” are made palpable through heightened reiteration. Like the emotive musicality characteristic of much black Christian preaching—regardless of a specific sermon's topic—the gospel vamp's experiential trajectory functions, in the words of the historian of religion C. Eric Lincoln, as a “homiletical instrument.”84 Just as the constant elements of gospel songs, especially the formative modules that populate the vamps, condition the construction of meaning through their relationship to the composition's changing aspects, the vamp principle outlined in these pages locates meaning in the relationship between formal conventions and composerly invention. In the gospel vamp, as in Gregorian chant, eighteenth-century da capo arias, and the songs of Tin Pan Alley, musical communication emerges from this dialectical interaction between syntax and meaning.
How, then, to analyze gospel? How, specifically, does music analysis illuminate the complex of belief, performance, and reception that this article only begins to unfurl? The analytical paradigm for choral gospel song offered in these pages provides a way of getting inside this music, a set of tools with which to explore how this particular genre, one so often used to facilitate human and transcendent communion, works.85 It assumes that the embodied and agential ways in which music is engaged in this practice render syntax all the more meaningful as a window into the confessional cycle through which sound, inspired by belief, is used to make belief palpable. As suggested above, these analyses are an invitation to a particular way of hearing: namely, my own. But this observation should be tempered by the consideration that the analyses are grounded in my subject position as both a gospel musician and one trained in musicology and religion. With this in mind, let us consider one further example from the gospel repertoire, Thomas Whitfield's “I Shall Wear a Crown.”
“I Shall Wear a Crown”
Thomas Whitfield's “I Shall Wear a Crown,” a song about eternity, typifies the interpenetration of musical syntax, musical experience, and musical meaning that this article has theorized.86 Whitfield's composition portrays the crown of righteousness said to await believers when they pass from their earthly lives into heavenly bliss, dramatizing forms of musical gravity to construct a sonic environment wherein congregants can proleptically experience their glorious future. The ballad's four-measure introduction (shown in Example 19) evinces a colorful cadential rhetoric (on which more later) that is silenced for most of the song.87
Given its lofty concerns, the lyric is strikingly economical:
A: I shall wear a crown when it's all over. I shall see his face when it's all over.
B: I'm going to put on my robe, tell the story how I made it over.
C: Soon as I get home.
The choir's double statement of the title phrase signals the beginning of the song proper, its opening transition from unsupported choral unison to vocal harmony buttressed by rich instrumental chords marking the crown as a worthy achievement (see Example 20). The iteration of the second strophe similarly draws attention to “his face”—that is, the face of Jesus.
Like the vamps discussed above, that of “I Shall Wear A Crown” is built on a four-measure musical module. Unlike them, however, it constitutes the song's second section. (As we will see, although the third section is iterative, its function more closely resembles that of a coda, a space in which the energy gained—and tension built—during the vamp is gradually released.) In contrast to the plodding pace that results from the protracted setting of the key words in the song's A section, the persistent eighth notes of the vamp lend an emphatic quality to the choir's declaration that “I'm going to put on my robe, tell the story how I made it over” (see Example 21).
As the choir declaims “put on my robe” it is also reiterating a cadential six-four, a chord whose promise of resolution is frustrated. As this section's progression repeatedly arrives on ii11, a sonority that combines six of D-flat major's seven diatonic pitches, it sonifies the interpenetration of earthly and heavenly realms at issue in this song. After two iterations of B (B1 and B2), the choir inverts to sing two iterations of an intensified form of the module, B3 and B4. Although the choral parts are inverted, the fact that B3 features identical rhythms and harmonies confronts us again with the tension between repetition and intensification that gives life to gospel vamps. At B5 the material is inverted again, and we are given two iterations at this pitch level. In performance, this highest section is often repeated a number of times; in some cases, each voice sings its part separately before all three join together to present the homophony. These inversions musically depict ascending to the heavens, offering participatory congregants the musical means through which to “make it over” themselves.
The song's repeated march up to the cadential six-four highlights what might be its most interesting harmonic feature: that there is not a single root-position tonic sonority in either the A or the B section. The text's explicitly transcendent concerns and the song's tonal drama achieve a kind of resolution in the C section, where the material first heard in the song's introduction recurs at the choir's repeated declamation of the words “Soon as I get home” (see Example 22). This entire section serves the adverbial function of clarifying just when the believer's crown will be worn. But the clarification concerns not just time but also place: “Soon as I get home” implies both occasion and location. If all the C section did was repeat a phrase with a clear, conventional resolution to the tonic it would already stand in contrast to the rest of the song, but its rhetorical force is significantly amplified by its harmonic content. The transition from ♭VI to ♭III6 gives way to a progression from iv11 through v7 to I. Through this juxtaposition of sonorities borrowed from the parallel minor with the cadential arrival on D-flat major, Whitfield marshals one of the most conventional of tonal techniques to conjoin the arrival at the lyric's “home” to the arrival at the ethereal tonic.
It is not my argument that either Whitfield or the many audiences who engage his song intend or intuit some overt connection between this tonic and the notion of home. I aim only to point to the productive—and meaningful—interchange that is occasioned by this combination of music and text, which, in a context where sound is so consistently embodied through what I have called “the gospel stance,” has experiential significance. It is this brand of facilitation that the notion of affordance so aptly describes: the idea that the withholding of the tonic in the song's A and B sections contributes to an experience of transient drifting that creates a sonic context in which the C section's incessantly cadential structure acts as an agent of grounding. In this sense, the piece's specific sonic affordances, concomitant with their local efficacy, can be said to activate the potential energy of tonality itself. The kind of religious ecstasy that is frequently induced by performances of this song suggests that we think of its effect as enabling participants to feel “home.”88 This very sentiment was recently expressed in a Facebook post by one of the composers featured in this article, Richard Smallwood, after his participation in an impromptu performance of Whitfield's song at Aretha Franklin's funeral service: “something about those chords in Tommy Whitfields song I Shall Wear A Crown … right on ‘soon as I get Home’ … sends me to another dimension.”89 But one need not be an award-winning gospel composer to experience transcendence through the performance of “I Shall Wear a Crown.” This is the function of gospel song.
As this article has shown, the communal performance of African American gospel music grants its participants access to places, times, and beings that are not available to them under the conditions of the material world. We have seen that the centrality of the gospel vamp derives from its function as an interface that links form and faith, creating sonic environments that house religious experience. Taken together, close readings of Kurt Carr's “For Every Mountain,” Brenda Moore's “Perfect Praise,” Richard Smallwood's “I Will Sing Praises,” and Thomas Whitfield's “I Shall Wear a Crown,” alongside brief discussions of Twinkie Clark's “Balm in Gilead,” Norman Hutchins's “Because of You,” and A. Jeffrey LaValley's “Revelations 19:1,” have illustrated the affordances of gospel's characteristic combination of repetition and intensification—the capacity to organize both sound and perception in pursuit of transcendence. The poetics of gospel developed in the process has illustrated the way in which the musical arrangement of gospel vamps facilitates the experience of the lyrical messages of the songs, whether by musically manifesting mountains and valleys, lifting worshippers into the presence of God, performing the perfection of praise, or offering an anticipatory experience of eschatological delight. The analysis of gospel song, then, uncovers both the sonic remains of African American Christians’ interaction with the invisible subjects of their belief and the formal logic through which their ecstasy is achieved.