JaZZmine and Musical Meaning
I spent Saturday working with JaZZmine in preparation for the quartet contest at LABBS Convention next month. This will be their first contest as a quartet, though all four singers have considerable successful experience with previous ensembles. Their qualification for convention at the Prelims contest in June came two weeks after the arrival of Paula’s daughter, Georgina, by caesarean section. That they were able to participate at all under the circumstances is impressive, though they tell me it’s not a timing they’d necessarily recommend!
We spent the morning working through the emotional implications of the harmony in a fascinating Nancy Bergman arrangement of Berlin’s ‘Roses of Yesterday’. In their feedback from Prelims, they’d been questioned about whether its message was essentially happy or sad, and our exploration showed that it wasn’t unambiguously one or the other, but both in alternation – the yearning, nostalgic feel emerged from a subtle oscillation between regret and reconciliation that eventually settles into the latter.
The overall feel of the song is strongly coloured by the use of the augmented triad, bringing a bittersweet pang on each occurrence. And the way it resolves each time takes this instability in different emotional directions: sometimes to hope, sometimes to sadness, sometimes to longing. Berlin (and Bergman) encode a quite specific and consistent emotional vocabulary within the harmonic shape of the song.
This kind of work develops in an interestingly reflexive process. The quartet sings a short passage focusing on a particular harmonic progression, and then discusses what kind of feelings those chords evoke. Once they have achieved some kind of consensus (it’s not usually that they disagree, more that the emotional distinctions music can evoke are subtle enough that it can be hard to articulate one’s responses precisely in words), they sing it again, letting their voices’ colour respond to the meaning they have identified. So they are both taking meaning from and giving meaning to the harmony.
We moved onto an up-tempo medley in the afternoon, also arranged by Nancy Bergman. The key issue here was rhythmic characterisation. They were performing it with a general sense of the back-beat needed for a swing tune, but there was scope to bring the precise flavours of swing in the two songs into greater focus – and indeed into greater contrast.
The fun thing about this kind of work is that you can work on the big-picture stuff and all kinds of details of both vocal and visual performance sort themselves out without specific intervention. It’s as if the idea of ‘characterisation’ applies both to sense of individuality or distinctiveness (as opposed to generic-ness) and also to behaviour (as in the characters in a play). So once you’ve worked out what kind of a person a song is (what kind of a rhythmic feel it has), it simply follows how it would behave in certain situations (how it’s different melodic and lyrical gestures should be inflected).
We also focused into some of the harmonic implications of the embellishments in the medley using the same kind of methods as we did in the ballad. It’s easy to think of phrase-end swipes in primarily rhythmic terms: they’re there to give rhythmic propulsion to the phrase ends. But whilst this is true, it’s not all they do – it makes a difference what chords and voicings they use to do this. And by paying attention to this detail, we get narrative propulsion to the story as well as rhythmic propulsion to the phrase structure.