Arranging

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:

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.

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.

8-Parter Project: Reflections on Process

All of a sudden I find myself over halfway through the time I set aside for my project to explore arranging in eight parts. In some ways it feels like I have hardly started – it’s not fair that the time should have passed so quickly! – but then I also notice that I have completed 4 arrangements from scratch, reworked an older one, and have a small collection of sketches and part-done trials, at least one of which I intend to return to and finish. So things seem to have been moving.

In the last month of course I have been in a state of almost continual distraction as life has reconfigured itself around a global pandemic. When we stopped going out to do things with other people, we imagined that would give us all extra time to get on with our other projects. But it turns out that having to rethink all your automated habits takes a huge amount of cognitive capacity, never mind the work involved in taking rehearsals online. And the anxiety.

8-Parter Project: Managing Texture

Texture has been a recurrent question in my various musings so far on arranging for combined male and female barbershop ensembles, as it is implicated in so many different aspects of the craft. How you conceive the ensemble, for example, and how you manage the mapping of song persona(s) onto performing people.

But it is also presents questions in its own right: beyond how it contributes to the way you make musical meaning, how do you make it sound any good?

Having eight parts of course offers textural opportunities you don’t get with only four. I would not have attempted to arrange Fat Boy Slim’s ‘Right Here Right Now’ for a normal barbershop ensemble, but have had a lot of fun exploring the layering, and antiphonal interchange, of different motifs for a version that is singable live and unamplified.

8-Parter Project: The Cost-per-Wear Problem

One of the practical issues facing a chorus or quartet planning to join with another for a joint piece on a particular performance is that it needs rehearsing properly to bring it to the stage, but you don’t get nearly so much performance use out of it, unless the two ensembles are appearing together regularly. 8-parter, double-ensemble pieces are inherently expensive of rehearsal time on a cost-per-wear basis.

Hence, one of the challenges I set myself during my exploration of this form is to discover whether it is possible to produce an 8-part, double ensemble chart in which the parts for each separate ensemble are also musically complete in their own right. It would be much more useful, after all, if you could both learn a song in parts that fit your own range properly, use it in your regular performance programme, and then sing it together at joint events.

8-Parter Project: Double Quartet or Double Chorus?

Having considered the nature of the 8-part ensemble from the perspective of genre (SATB divisi versus combined male and female barbershop ensembles), we also need to consider the question of whether we’re thinking about combined choruses or quartets, i.e. whether we have one person or several people singing each part.

This is something I’ve thought about in general terms, and I was interested to look back and see that it also was all the way back in 2009 that I first wrote about it, and moreover that my thoughts were relatively underdeveloped back then. I’ve done a lot more thinking since about the nature of doubling: how you can move more flexibly between different numbers of sounding lines when you have a multiple voices per part than you can with one-a-part textures. This was something I particularly enjoyed with Magenta; in a group where we all sang different parts for different songs, we could move seamlessly between unisons, duets and full harmonies because we were all accustomed to blending with different combinations of voices as a matter of course.

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