Soapbox: Allocating Parts for Emotional Damage

soapboxIn SATB music, it’s relatively easy figure out which part people should sing if they don’t already know. The texture is built around a divide by sex, with a split between higher and lower voices in each. So you just see what kind of range someone has, and slot them in where the notes they have and the notes the music needs coincide. Some people (counter-tenors, female tenors) defy the first part, but the stratification by range still works, so the model as a whole presents safe a generalisation of how to go about things.

One of the defining characteristics of barbershop music is that the parts are all much less differentiated by range (there’s a clue in the description ‘close-harmony’). Thus, most people can readily sing at least two of the parts, usually three, sometimes all four. You’d think this would take some of the pressure off the decision-making process of part-allocation, but in fact it seems more often to intensify the reliance on social stereotyping in identifying parts.

Three-Part Textures and Complete Chords

I have been working with a couple of composers and arrangers recently who have been working in textures with three vocal lines, accompanied by a piano (in one case with several other instruments too, but with the piano at the heart of the band). A question that has cropped up with all of them is to what extent you need the vocal parts to present a complete harmonic texture if the piano is there to fill in the chords for you.

Of course, you can’t actually get complete chords in a three-voice texture unless you only use triads, but you can still make the differences between something that sounds like it is giving you enough harmonic information and something that sounds empty. All this is in the context of the harmonic conventions of western tonality as used in 20th-century popular song traditions; other conventions are available of course, but this was the world to which these particular musicians had made their stylistic commitments.

The generalisations we came up with about how this texture works best are as follows:

Remote Rehearsing and Trust

When I asked the Telfordaires Music Team what we’d look back on this period and see as something we gained from it, our bass section leader Eddie identified increased levels of trust within the chorus. This not only warmed my heart, but offered some interesting thoughts to reflect on about the structure of activities and how they shape relationships within a group.

When he talked about trust, Eddie was thinking primarily about the way the practicalities of remote rehearsing mean people spend much more time singing to each other than singing together. It makes you feel more vulnerable to do this, but by the same token your fellow singers are moved to be more supportive in recognition of this. We do much of this in smaller groupings – sections, pairs/threes – so that it’s a more personal and private environment in which to put yourself on the line. This also allows reciprocity – if everyone is taking it in turn to do this, everyone is in the same boat.

Into the Wilderness

The choral world is currently processing the consensus that emerged last week that singing in groups is one of the highest risk activities for spreading Covid-19 and that we shouldn’t expect to restart rehearsals until there’s an effective vaccine.* There’s a fair bit of denial going on, and occasional anger (to be expected, as the first stages of grief), but we are collectively gradually moving on to ask: okay, so now what?

Before all this broke last week, I had scheduled a post on a thought experiment about what it would take to return to normal, but I deleted it as it was overtaken by events. I suppose it’s worth noting that the primary thing I was contemplating as a pre-requisite for a return to rehearsal – a robust contact-tracing regime – may still actually be fine for those countries like New Zealand and South Korea that have succeeded in getting their community transmission rates right down. But for those of us in the UK and US where not only are transmission rates still high, but there doesn’t appear to be much political will to reduce them, the advice that we shouldn’t revert to our beloved super-spreading habits until there’s a vaccine remains more realistic for now.

So, now we are staring the despair in the face, what do we do?

Persistence versus Productivity: the Artist’s Dilemma

Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando follows its eponymous hero(ine) through several centuries of English history, from late medieval times to the ‘now’ in which Woolf was writing. When I first read it in my mid-teens, the thing that stayed with me, even more than the colourful panoply of history, was the relationship Orlando had with his/her art.

S/he aspired to be a poet, and was working on an epic work called ‘The Oak Tree’. (Goes off to check I’ve remembered that correctly…yes I did.) For much of the book, it is never quite satisfactory, and s/he keeps reworking it. Which, given the apparent immortality of the author, means that every time literary tastes change, the poem has to be re-written in the forms and styles of the day.

My 16-year-old self took this as a cautionary tale. If you wait until you have got something absolutely ‘right’, you may never get there, as what you consider to be ‘right’ might have changed in the interim. Obviously, for normal mortals like us, the problem isn’t the transition from Renaissance to Restoration styles, but that sense of shifting goal posts is still an issue.

Zooming back to Fascinating Rhythm

Same people, different orderSame people, different order

Normally, you wouldn’t visit a chorus 90 miles away for any hour at a time in consecutive weeks. When the travel involved is just going upstairs to your office rather than an hour and half each way down the M5, this becomes a more sensible proposition. Hence I found myself hanging out with my friends at Fascinating Rhythm for the second Thursday on the trot.

Having spent my last visit in presentation mode, explaining a number of musical concepts and their salience to the expressive world of the new arrangement they are working on, it was time to start exploring how this played out in practical terms. Hence we spent most of the time in duetting-coaching mode: each of the section leaders sang their part with the mic on for the others to duet with, I worked with them to develop their performance, then everyone had another go to apply that work themselves.

Soapbox: The Mute Button and the Abuse of Power

soapboxOne of the standard bits of etiquette in remote rehearsing, and indeed any other large-group gathering via video-conferencing platforms, is that you spend most of the time with most people’s microphones turned off. This way you can cough without the focus of the conversation highlighting your discomfort, and nobody else is distracted by the dogs barking from your next-door neighbour’s garden.

All good so far. But I have nonetheless felt uncomfortable when choral colleagues joke about how they wish they could have a ‘mute all’ button when they go back to normal rehearsals. Call me humourless, but aren’t you just saying by this that you run inefficient rehearsals that leave dead space for nattering? Or is it that you like to exert your leadership by fiat, rather than by consent? Either way, cutting across people to shut them up feels rude; if you wouldn’t go and stick a piece of masking tape over someone’s mouth mid-sentence in real life, then you wouldn’t want to slam on a 'mute all' button online.

Zooming in to Fascinating Rhythm

Screengrab or it didn't happen...Screengrab or it didn't happen...

Thursday evening brought the opportunity to spend an hour with my friends at Fascinating Rhythm. Just before lockdown they had just got the most recent arrangement I had done for them to the point where they basically knew it and could start refining it. They have persisted with that project remotely, and though we can’t yet hear the results of that work, they are at least spending their time deepening their insight into the song.

My visit was part of that project. This visit took the form of a seminar/presentation about certain aspects of the music, punctuated with a breakout task to get the chorus active in the process, and my next visit will involve working with the section leaders to explore how these ideas apply when actually sing the music.

One of the points I found myself most eager to share was a point about the relationship between motif and characterisation. Both because it was helping to make sense of a distinctive feature of this chart, and also because it was fun to share the story behind how it came to be. I often say that it’s in tackling the technical challenges of an arrangement that you find yourself developing the most creative artistic ideas, and this is a classic case in point.

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