Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Babylon is Fallen

Just purging some bookmarks, I rediscovered Ted Chiang's SF story Tower of Babylon, brilliantly imagining the practicalities of building of the Tower of Babel. This in turn reminded me of Alasdair Gray's collection Unlikely Stories, Mostly, which has a two-part fable on the same theme: The Start of the Axletree and The End of the Axletree, which uses the building of the Tower of Babel, and the evolving social structures within its workers and management, as an allegory for the development of human civilisation. The bookmarks also included several links for the hymn tune Babylon Is Fallen, which concluded the Topsham production of Tony Harrison's Mysteries earlier this year. It's a very catchy tune, open to considerable variation in style, whether the powerfully raw close harmony of Swan Arcade ...

... Sacred Harp devotional part singing ...

... or this grim anti-capitalist anthem by Plunderphoenix: Babylon muß fallen:

The tune is quite often claimed to be a 17th century Shaker hymn, but attribution doesn't seem to reliably track back further than the 1870s and William Edward Chute ...
His tune BABYLON IS FALLEN was printed in The Musical Million 6 (December 1875) and in Hauser's Olive Leaf (1878), where Hauser states that Prof. William E. Chute, then living in St. Thomas, Ontario, “composed the tune out of an old theme, and is too modest to claim any originality, but I do it for him."
- The Makers of the Sacred Harp, David Warren Steel, Richard H Hulan, University of Illinois Press, 2010
However, in an interesting Google Groups discussion on the tune - music for SH 117 BABYLON IS FALLEN - Gabriel Kastelle plausibly suggests a relation to an Irish tune called Reilly's Reel (see YouTube for basic tune, and this rather academic Celtic Trio arrangement - Babylon is Fallen fits perfectly with it).

Since 1991, it has been included in The Sacred Harp, a continually accreted collection of traditional American devotional choral singing (see Sacred Harp and Shape Note Singing and Wikipedia's article, Sacred Harp). I'm not sure what to make of the Sacred Harp tradition. Its choral music is not intended as a performance, and it's participatory and highly inclusive of all levels of ability: highly positive aspects that it's hard to disagree with. But as a musician used to striving for a polished performance, I find it sounds gratingly ramshackle. I guess you have to be in the mindset to appreciate it or not care about that.

- Ray

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