A Cappella

8-Parter Project: The Nature of the Ensemble

So, having thought about how different types of song persona play out in a mixed 8-part ensemble, it is time to think about the nature of that ensemble, in the first instance with a single-persona song. The process of revisiting my chart of ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’ from 2008 (coming soon to Sheet Music Plus) has got me reflecting on how an SSAATTBB group (or SATB divisi as it turns out easier to say in conversation) is quite a different animal from combined male and female barbershop ensembles, whether quartet or chorus.

Back in 2008 I was clearly thinking about SSAATTBB for this chart, and it is interesting to see how certain decisions I made back then signal it very clearly. In the process of revising it, I have deliberately chosen to recraft for combined barbershop groups, and this post articulates some of the ways in which the two formats of 8-part group differ. A later post will go on to reflect on balance and voicing.

8-Parter Project: Initial Thoughts

As I mentioned back in October, I have decided to stop taking arrangement commissions for the first half of 2020 in order to embark on a project to explore 8-part arranging that I’ve had on the ‘to do later’ pile for over a decade. I made all kinds of interesting inroads into the technical and artistic questions it raises back in 2007 when I arranged ‘Summer Nights’ for the combined LABBS and BABS youth choruses, and then followed up with an SSAATTBB chart of ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’ in 2008, which has never been sung.

That was probably one of the last charts I did just for the sheer fun of it, without a particular ensemble in mind, before I found myself blessed with a constant stream of commission requests. Having had the opportunity to perform Renee Craig’s 8-part chart of ‘With a Song in My Heart’ with the Telfordaires on our sister chorus’s 10th anniversary show in November, my thoughts had been turning back to these questions, and I decided that if I wanted to find time to explore them, I was going to have to make time.

Miscellaneous Thoughts on Tonality and Musical Architecture

Sometimes you get weeks when different areas of your life keep bringing you back to the same set of thoughts from different angles. Back in the summer I was thinking a lot about Schenker, in the context of a keynote paper I was writing on tonal integrity for the conference in Portugal at the start of November. In choral music we often think about tonal integrity in the simple, functional sense of not going flat, but Schenker is useful for standing back and considering tonality as both an organising principle for long spans of musical time and as a human quality: centredness, in touch with the true.

(I am aware that one of the reasons why most musicians avoid thinking too much about Schenker’s theories as metaphors for life is that he came out with some obnoxiously snobbish views in this mode. But you don’t have to agree with someone to learn from them, and I don’t mind too much if he ends up turning in his grave at the conclusions I end up drawing from his work.)

Basses on the 3rd

Or first-inversion chords as my classical friends will be accustomed to thinking of this. This is a sonority that is very normal in classical harmony, used frequently to help make the bass line melodic, and very unusual in barbershop harmony, where you can go entire songs without encountering it. (Conversely, the 2nd inversion – basses on the 5th – is entirely normal in barbershop, but hedged about with all kinds of voice-leading rules in the classical world.) One of the things this post will explore is the reason for this difference in frequency in the two worlds, as well as reflecting on the character of the sonority in itself.

In both worlds, the first inversion has a distinctive character, more poised to move on, than the settled quality of root-position chords. In part this is due to its melodic function – it often appears mid-way in a line’s route from starting-point to cadence. But it’s also about the sonority itself, and the acoustic needs for balance. This in turn will reveal why it is used so much less in barbershop music than classical, and why it therefore has a disproportionately significant impact when it is used.

Barbershop Actually!

I forgot to take a pic on Friday, but this one is nicer than anything I'd have managed!I forgot to take a pic on Friday, but this one is nicer than anything I'd have managed!

Friday evening brought the quartet Barbershop Actually! over for a coaching session. They are preparing for the mixed quartet contest to be held in Llandudno at the end of October, so are at a stage where they have a reasonably settled concept of what they’re doing with their songs. Our task therefore was get the most of that concept – the polishing, rather than the exploration phase.

There are certain exercises that never stop giving. An early session of bubbling gave all its usual benefits: by connecting the voice securely with the breath and increasing the continuity of resonance, it brought clarity to the sound and made it much easier to hear the detail. It can sometimes be tricky to coordinate the ensemble when you take out the word sounds - indeed, this is another of the useful ways bubbling makes a group work, in a musical rather than vocal dimension. So we found that taking a single phrase, then alternating it in bubbling and with word sounds helped everyone find their way round it.

Tracing Emotional Shape with Affinity Show Choir

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Sunday took me back to Stockport for a longer follow-up to last month’s session with Affinity Show Choir on their new contest set for LABBS Convention in October. Having established the overall shape of their delivery last time, this visit focused on developing narrative depth and clarifying the turning points in the story. I’m nostly focusing on their ballad here as our work on this was both more time-consuming and more complex, and so more useful for me to reflect on. But we also left their up-tune in a more sparkling state than we found it.

Playing with the Icicle 7th

click on the pic to see it biggerclick on the pic to see it biggerAt the Telfordaires we recently spent a chunk of rehearsal exploring the sonority of the Icicle 7th. And since I had in the process ended up with a nice picture of it, I thought I’d share it with you as well. The original picture I drew of this on our flipchart in rehearsal wasn’t either as neat or as colourful as this, but since I forgot to take a photo of it for our weekly notes, I had to recreate it at home, and took the opportunity to spiffy it up a bit.

So, we started out by singing a normal barbershop 7th. (That’s a dominant-type 7th for normal musicians; we let you use them, because we like to share, but know that they’re ours.) Basses on root, baris on the 3rd, leads on the 5th, tenors on the 7th.

How to Harmonise Missing Downbeats

One of the niche challenges of a cappella arranging is how to handle melodies that feature a rest on the first beat of the bar. The reason this is an issue is that the change of harmony at the start of a bar not only plays a role in supporting the melody and shaping the phrase, but is also the primary means by which we perceive metre.

Interestingly, this is a melodic feature that appears in a variety of rhythmic guises. I’ve come across it arranging in stylistic contexts from reggae tunes like One Love to ballads like Someone to Watch Over me.

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