On Finding Your Audience

I was recently asked some interesting questions by a composer I’ve been helping, and it struck me that the answers might have wider applicability beyond his circumstances. He’s been re-working a song that he originally wrote for classroom use into a more developed and sophisticated arrangement for vocal ensemble and band, and our conversations have hitherto been about things like crafting form through texture, harmonic voicing, and vocal writing.

Now these technical questions are getting more fully under control, he’s turning his attention to the real-life question of what kind of groups might want to take it on to perform it. He has been advised that it could easily be marketed to schools if he pared it down to a unison setting – which he already knows of course because that’s where the song has already been road-tested. But his personal aims in returning to composing after some time away has been to be more ambitious than this, both technically and artistically.

Reconnecting with the Rhubarbs


After my evening of quartet coaching, I spent all of Saturday and until early afternoon Sunday with The Rhubarbs, the chorus from which Note-4-Note had originally formed. Two of the singers are still with the chorus, and there was a strong continuity of culture between the two ensembles. In particular the sense of everyone taking individual responsibility for her own voice, and the use of a common gestural vocabulary for musical thought was a shared strength.

Striking in both was also the capacity to keep applying a concept or technique once learned: there was still the need for periodic reminders (they are much like other human beings like this), but you could also see people continuing to work with the ideas between mentions. One of the advantages of a culture of using gesture to think is that not only I can see what people are working on, but they constantly reinforce things for each other too.

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.

On Para-musical Performance Instructions, and Implicit Shaping

By ‘para-musical’ I mean all those annotations around musical notation that tell you how, as opposed to what, to play or sing. Dynamics, articulation, descriptive words - often in Italian, though Satie had a nice line in metaphors in his native French. This post emerges from helping an arranger recently who was working on a saxophone quartet: the question emerged of just how much of this stuff is needed?

The answer that emerged as generalisable for all musical contexts was: use what looks like a normal amount for the genre you’re working in. You do this by going at looking at other music that the ensemble routinely plays. Norms can vary enormously. Some orchestral scores, especially since the mid-20th-century, micromanage almost every note, whilst barbershop, like baroque music, rarely includes any. It’s not, as I have seen claimed in some undergraduate essays, that they didn’t do expressive shaping in the C17th, it’s just that it was assumed that anyone with sufficient skill to read the notes would have enough nous to figure out what to do with them.

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.

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