A joyful noise

Special to The Times

Enraptured by some unseen force, Tim Eriksen lifts his palms skyward, assumes a stance in the small recording studio and carefully sounds out a stanza of fa, so, la and mi "shape-notes" before launching into the tormented lyrics of "Idumea":

And am I born to die

To lay this body down!

And must my trembling spirit fly

Into a world unknown?

Throughout the session, the strong-voiced tenor gazes heavenward. Softly at first, then loud and soulful, each verse of the 18th century a cappella hymn rises to a crescendo before tapering off to a tender ending.

There's no need to look at the heavy Sacred Harp songbook, for Eriksen knows this tune by heart; it's the same soul-searching fugue he and other Sacred Harp aficionados recorded last summer for "Cold Mountain" director Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient," "The Talented Mr. Ripley") and musical director T Bone Burnett ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?") in a small church in Henagar, Ala. The group rendition has been earmarked for a bloody battle scene in "Cold Mountain," but at there is no guarantee that Eriksen's solo will survive the editing process.

Eriksen is far from troubled by this uncertainty. For him, it's the musical journey, the sheer joy of Sacred Harp singing, that counts.

Already stirring visions of Oscars before its Christmas Day release, the Miramax Films version of Charles Frazier's award-winning 1997 Civil War novel stars Nicole Kidman as Ada, Jude Law as Inman, Renee Zellweger as Ruby, Jack White as Georgie, and a sort of musical phonics called shape-note singing. Song leaders in Colonial New England devised the method, commonly called Sacred Harp after the popular 1844 book of the same name, to prod their off-key congregations into learning the hymns.

Often held in stark churches with no upholstery, curtains or carpet to mask the natural acoustics, Sacred Harp singings are making a comeback in cities across the U.S. Altos, sopranos, basses and tenors sit facing one another in a "hollow square" and take turns leading mournful ballads, joyful Psalms and patriotic marches as the room swells with a reverent, transcendent hum. The harmonizing is so intense that Eriksen, a Minneapolis-based musician who taught Law and Kidman how to sing using shape-notes, likens the Sacred Harp experience to "being inside a violin."

A lean fellow with a shaved head, a golden loop in his left earlobe and fingers stacked with silver rings, Eriksen looks more like a punk rocker than a 37-year-old connoisseur of traditional American music. Actually, he's both. He's even been known to combine the genres, once recording a punk version of "Idumea" with his eclectic world-music band, Cordelia's Dad, and scheduling tours in the U.S., Canada and Europe to allow time for Sacred Harp singings.

"One time we did 30 gigs in 30 days in England and then came back in time for a singing in western Massachusetts," recalls Eriksen, who grew up in that part of the U.S. "I was as blown out as I've ever been." Eriksen's youthful ardor for Sacred Harp and other 18th and 19th century tunes prompted Burnett to hire him as a consultant for the "Cold Mountain" film and soundtrack.

"It was important to Anthony [Minghella] not to make a middle-aged record, not to make a stuffy folk record," Burnett says just moments before leaving the Nashville studio for a screening in New York. "So we started looking for exciting voices from people we hadn't heard that could possibly breathe some new life into these old songs."

Eriksen was originally brought in to provide the singing voice of the "Cold Mountain" character Stobrod, played by burly Irish actor Brendan Gleeson.

When asked to gather some singers for a studio session, he coaxed Burnett and Minghella into documenting the real deal at Alabama's Liberty Baptist Church. "I've learned that in order to record a Sacred Harp singing," Eriksen says, "you have to have a Sacred Harp singing. That includes everything -- dinner on the grounds, letting go of control over the songs, letting the craft sort itself out."

Eriksen's contributions to "Cold Mountain" didn't stop there. He also played a bit part as the choirmaster; recorded a number of period songs, some solo, some with other Sacred Harp singers, some with folk artists Riley Baugus and Tim O'Brien; and accompanied the cast to rain-soaked Romania, where, through an interpreter, he taught 50 Romanian extras how to sing that type of music.

Even his son Luka, who turns 2 the day the movie debuts, appeared in a scene with Zellweger. And Eriksen served as a Sacred Harp mentor to Kidman and Law, neither of whom was familiar with this type of singing.

"Nicole is a quick study and an amazingly hard worker, like so many folks in this picture," Eriksen says. "She's a good treble singer. She said she liked it a lot and she might take her kids [to a singing]."

Thanks in part to Eriksen's contagious zeal for the music, what began as an incidental Sacred Harp cameo evolved into two pivotal movie backdrops: "Idumea," the powerful score for the battle at Petersburg, Va., and "I'm Going Home," used in a church scene where Kidman and Law exchange glances as male parishioners are called off to war.

Unique notation

Burnett became so enamored with the genre that he and Eriksen are planning to co-produce a separate album of the Sacred Harp songs recorded at Liberty Baptist. In the meantime, Eriksen's creative stamp as arranger and vocalist appears on six "Cold Mountain" album tracks, including the "Idumea" solo.

Eriksen's initiation into shape-note singing came in high school when he unearthed an old Library of Congress album while playing in a hard-core garage-rock band and dabbling in everything from Black Sabbath and whaling ballads to Japanese Koto and South Indian classical music, his major at Amherst College.

He later taught himself to read music with the trademark Sacred Harp triangles, circles, diamonds and squares. One winter while visiting friends at a Massachusetts farmhouse with few entertainment venues, not even a TV, "we just started singing out of the Sacred Harp [songbook] every night, and we finally figured out that there were more people that do this. It took a while to take. But you reach a certain point that it's so under your skin that you can't get rid of it."

While a graduate student at Wesleyan University, he met his future wife, Mirjana Lausevic, an ethnomusicologist from Sarajevo and what he calls a "kindred musical spirit." He helped her form a Bosnian band, and she fell in love with Sacred Harp singing, still his favorite style.

"In my punk rock days, even if you were on stage, you kind of felt like you were a part of something. Sacred Harp is even more like that, with a spiritual angle. I just don't like feeling like I'm fooling somebody. I'd rather have somebody see me with all my flaws, like you do at a singing. They accept you for who you are."

Despite working closely with Minghella and Burnett and sharing the "Cold Mountain" soundtrack with such name attractions as Elvis Costello and Sting, Eriksen is anything but star-struck, and he loathes self-promotion. He'd prefer to chair Sacred Harp conventions, teach the method at colleges and art festivals, and accept the occasional stint as music professor.

He describes "What It Is," his band's first new CD in five years, as "kind of like the ["Cold Mountain"] movie -- a mosaic, an odyssey." What makes Eriksen nervous is the possibility that, with the release of "Cold Mountain," shape-note singing will morph from an unadulterated art form into a weak hybrid with mass-market appeal. "My main concern is introducing some strange commercial element to Sacred Harp singing. That's the only down side of this, the possibility of making things weird. But I want it to be out there, to be known. I want people to hear about it and care about it."

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