March 10, 2020 ☼ music


Kilmarnock. Psalm 16: 8-9

This is recording of a church congregation from the village of Tong on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. It documents the region’s unique form of call-and-response a capella: a precentor sings a line from a psalm, and those assembled sing it back to them. Gaelic psalm singing is, however, a type of heterophony, in which every voice is given the space and time to embellish each line as they choose. This results in a startling richness, a dialectic of vocality in which the improvised, untrained individuation of each parishioner’s call builds into a transcendent collective mass.

I first heard the psalm singing of the Western Isles as a teenager, through the two volume CD compilation Salm: Gaelic Psalms from the Hebrides of Scotland, which opens with this recording of Psalm 16 (and which was reissued on vinyl by Arc Light Editions in 2018). I had been interested in choral music for a while, but the songs collected by Calum Martin across those two discs were quite unlike anything I had come across before. The melancholy and forceful quality of the billowed voices of each church seemed to suggest their walls as a kind of stone delay pedal, reminding me as much of the layered vocal experiments of Julianna Barwick or Grouper as any psalmody or devotional music I was familiar with. It was, and remains, the most piercingly, beautifully human singing I have ever heard.

Matthew Atkinson