A permanent sound installation in the historic silo

Inspired by early wordless Shaker songs, Williams College music professor Brad Wells designed an installation that offers visitors an immersive musical experience featuring some of the Shakers’ oldest melodies or, as they called them, “solemn songs.” (Solemn songs are textless melodies—without harmony or counterpoint—used in early Shaker worship from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth centuries.) Wells’ songs arc and weave in the silo in patterns that echo dances for which the Shakers are famous. The simplicity, the order of the space, and the mysterious melodies of these songs are intended to evoke a trance-like state in which they were originally conceived. The melodies are sung by Sam Amidon, Rhiannon Giddens, Eamon O’Leary, and Caroline Shaw—award-winning artists with decades of influential music making—and a choir of local Berkshire singers. Together they conjure the ecstatic feel of Shaker worship services and suggest the feeling that Mother Ann’s original singing evoked in her followers, one in which “the spacious apartment would ring with beautiful songs which no man could learn.”

Folk revivalist Sam Amidon has been making music since he was three, and “in his hands, old American songs live and breathe, proving that sometimes irreverence is the best path to faithfulness” (NOW Magazine). Rhiannon Giddens, singer, violinist, banjo player, and a founding member of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, as The New York Times puts it, plays “with the fervor of a spiritual, the yips of a folk holler, and the sultry insinuation of the blues.” Eamon O’Leary (of The Murphy Beds) presents traditional and original folk songs and deft instrumental arrangements. He has collaborated with artists including Jefferson Hamer, Beth Orton, and Sam Amidon. Caroline Shaw is a New York-based violinist, singer, and composer awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013 for her a cappella piece Partita for 8 Voices.

Silo Songs weds several musical threads for Brad Wells, who has studied and incorporated singing traditions from around the world and advocated for their place as art music. A professor of music at Williams College, he has performed and produced several site-specific sound art projects throughout the United States. In Silo Songs, his exploration of world singing traditions comes home to a uniquely American—indeed, Western Massachusetts-based—song form. In the creation of this permanent work, Wells furthers his mission of both investigating and sharing unfamiliar singing traditions and, inspired by those traditions, creating new, meaningful work for contemporary audiences.

Silo Songs draws on numerous aspects of Shaker life, dating to their beginnings. Known for their minimal design and early commitment to social reform and innovation in agriculture, industry, and education, the Shakers are less known for their impact on music in America. Music played a central role in Shaker worship and life, from the early wordless songs that expressed pure emotion to later hymns that reflected the political, social, and emotional fabric of the times. “There’s as much reverence in pulling an onion as there is in singing Hallelujah,” said one Shaker. Brad Wells takes these songs and brings them to life in an enduring, celebratory, contemporary way—and in a historic silo, an iconic symbol of rural preservation and sustainability.

The songs

The Shakers wrote thousands of radiant, heart-rousing songs—while bringing cows in from the fields, when they were worshipping, while washing clothes—that have had a tremendous impact on the American musical canon. “Simple Gifts,” for example, immortalized by Aaron Copland, is a Shaker tune. Famously celibate, Shaker men and women worked and slept apart but sang and danced together, creating a pattern of being separate but woven together—from their crafts (the webbing on chairs was an alternating pattern of two colors) to dance (men and women danced separately but together). Silo Songs draws on these features of Shaker life and was inspired by songs from printed Hancock hymnals and original song sheets housed in the library at Hancock Shaker Village, as well as songs from the 1931 Wight Collection at Williams College. Edward Brockway Wight was an undergraduate at Williams in 1907 who, especially interested in the sociological side of communal life, visited the Shakers and collected (eventually donating to Williams) a substantial private collection of songbooks that include handwritten lyrics and musical notations. 

The songs used in the piece are:

Solemn Song No. 1: A melody sung at Enfield, Connecticut, as early as 1780 or 1781

Solemn Song No. 12: One of the songs sung at Mother Ann’s funeral in 1784

Father James’ Song: Father James Whittaker was one of the first converts, having the vision that brought the Shakers to America

Father William’s Song No. 2: Father William Lee was Ann Lee’s brother; he made the journey from England with his sister

The site/structural details

An integral part of the rural landscape, the two wooden silos, erected in 1908, stored feed corn for livestock. While many wooden silos across America have succumbed to disrepair or suburban sprawl (they haven’t been built since 1942, when fiberglass silos were introduced), the two at Hancock Shaker Village stand tall as silent sentinels, beautiful icons of the culture of rural preservation and farming in America. The sound work operates on a fifty-minute cycle, with fourteen small speakers attached on the inside wall of the silo. These speakers are arranged in a spiral formation, some at low heights for children, and some at the upper reaches of the structure. Have you ever been to the Sistine Chapel, where you sit on a bench leaning your back against the wall and look up at the ceiling? Imagine being inside a silo for the first time in your life—leaning against the wall, looking up inside this majestic structure, and hearing separate male and female voices coming together in harmony.

About the artist

Grammy-winning conductor, singer, composer and Roomful of Teeth Founder/Artistic Director Brad Wells directs the choral program, oversees and teaches studio voice, and leads courses in conducting, voice, and sound art at Williams College. Wells has led Roomful of Teeth in premieres of more than fifty works by many of today’s leading composers, including Judd Greenstein, Caroline Shaw, Rinde Eckert, Caleb Burhans, William Brittelle, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Missy Mazzoli, Michael Harrison, Glenn Kotche, Ambrose Akinmusire, Anna Clyne, Terry Riley, Ted Hearne, and Julia Wolfe, among others. This new music “vocal band,” praised by WQXR as “the future of vocal music,” performs regularly in festivals, on concert stages, and in educational residencies around the world. Roomful of Teeth’s debut recording (2012), directed by Wells and praised as “sensually stunning” by The New York Times, included the Pulitzer-winning composition Partita for 8 Voices, written for Roomful of Teeth by ensemble member Caroline Shaw. His own compositions, featured on the group’s Grammy-nominated second album, Render (2015), have been described as “objectively and subjectively gorgeous” (I Care If You Listen). His title work for the album was selected as one of NPR’s Favorite Songs of 2015. Wells has composed and arranged vocal and instrumental works that have been performed throughout the United States and Europe. He previously held conducting positions at Yale University, Trinity College, and UC Berkeley and has directed choirs that have appeared throughout North and South America, South Africa, and Europe.

Major support provided by Anonymous, Carmela and Paul Haklisch, Susan and Duncan Brown, Pittsfield Cultural Council, Northern Berkshire Cultural Council, Martha Boschen Porter Fund and Sennheiser /Neumann

Additional credit also goes to Jody Elff for sound design, Ron Kuhnke for installation assistance, and the Berkshire County singers: Betsy Burris, Amrita Lash, Deb Burns, Susan Yates, Celia Twomey, Katie Schmidt, Linda Burlak, Eric Kerns, Daishiro Nishida, Jared Polen, Paul McFarland, and Daniel Aalberts