Shape note singer and composer Tristan Gordon at work

Tristan Gordon (Northampton, MA) is a composer and ardent shape note singer. Shape note or Sacred Harp singing is a participatory practice of singing music in the style of early American hymns and folk tunes. It is not oriented towards an audience who listens patiently to performers. Instead, it is a practice for members of a community to come together and sing for each other collectively. Singers take turns choosing and leading songs, providing everyone a chance to direct a song. This aims to restructure conventional hierarchies often found in performance and ignites a deeper sense of community.

Many shape note tunes are named after specific locations, often referencing where they were written or a source of the song’s inspiration. Goose Neck, a road junction at North Mountain, is now a title of one of Tristan’s songs. “I find myself and many fellow singers excited and intrigued by different encounters with place, like an unfamiliar landscape, an old chapel’s acoustics, or a community of singers that one visits.” Might Goose Neck be sung as a trail guide to understanding a new place?

Western Mass Sacred Harp singers: "Goose Neck" (Tristan Gordon)

While in residence, Tristan spent a lot of time outdoors. Their short walks turned into long hikes along the trails, which soon became off-trail explorations. On July 4th, an intense storm washed water and forest debris down the mountain, revealing new trails. The natural formation of the new trails inspired Tristan to contemplate the shared qualities of trail building and songwriting: “Trail building guides people through a place in an intuitive manner, similar to writing music that will be singable by groups of people of varying abilities. I hope that my trail building leads people to a place they would not otherwise go.”

After leaving North Mountain, Tristan will continue to compose and sing with others, including in Sweden at the second annual Uppsala Sacred Harp All-Day Singing. Follow their explorations and participation in the Sacred Harp tradition at tgrdn.com and learn more about shape note singing at fasola.org.