A Cappella

Coaching Note-4-Note

note-4-noteI spent my last evening as a citizen of the European Union in Bonn working with Note-4-Note quartet. I can highly recommend this as an experience as we could all get thoroughly immersed in the music and forget all the nonsense going on in the public sphere. Also, they are lovely people to work with. (Mind you, I say that a lot – maybe I only get booked by people who have figured out we’ll be compatible!)

They have been together for about three years now, and it was clear in the way they approached their warm-up that they were used to working together. There was a sense both of each singer taking responsibility for her own voice and vocal development, and of a coordinated approach to how to do this. They are very physically engaged as they sing, in the sense of keep the whole body flexible and connected to the vocal mechanism, and also in the sense of using gesture freely to aid their thought processes about both vocalising and musical shape.

8-Parter Project: Thoughts on Balance and Voicing

Having walked through the differences in range and characteristic vocal behaviours of the respective singers SSAATTBB versus M&F quartet textures, it is time to consider the implications for how we combine them into harmony. This is the bit where I’m finding, so far, the greatest tension between the idea of two discrete ensembles in combination and a single, 8-part texture.

First, a basic principle of voicing. Generally, you want the notes lower down in the chord to be spaced wider apart than those higher up in the chord. This is true not just of a cappella writing, but tonal music in general: having spent my formative years as a pianist, my left hand is actually bigger than my right, due to having perpetually to reach wider spans with it.

This is both relative and absolute. In both male and female barbershop textures, you’ll generally have the tenor tucked in tighter to the top of the chord, and the bass a bit further away in open voicings, and you’ll tend to avoid closed voicings in lower tessituras.

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.

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