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A joyful noise

A sometime punk rocker infuses the Civil War saga 'Cold Mountain' with the sound of Sacred Harp singing.

November 09, 2003|Nancy Henderson Wurst | Special to The Times

Nashville — 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]."

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