Harmonious Yorkshire Spirits

SpiritFeb17Thursday evening took me up to the Vale of York to work with Spirit of Harmony on some arrangements I delivered to them last year. I had arranged for the chorus several times some years ago, and also worked with a couple of smaller ensembles from within the chorus, but this was my first time coaching the full body of singers. As ever, I’m not going to tell you what the songs are so as not to anticipate the moment the chorus chooses to reveal them, but I can reflect on the process.

It’s an endlessly fascinating exercise in practical aesthetics negotiating how music should go: who decides, and how you decide. As an arranger I’ll have always imagined the delivery in depth as part of the arranging process – as Neil Watkins used to say, the arranger’s task is to conjour up the full performance in their mind, then write that down. But equally, it is the performer’s job and prerogative to bring their own creative imagination to the shaping of the narrative.

Interval Class and Vocal Style

One of the first aspects of barbershop harmony I wrote about in my early years of discovering it (and which found its way in into Chapter 2 of my book) was the genre’s idiosyncratic approach to the concepts of consonance and dissonance. Traditional music theory sees these as unfolding in alternation, with dissonance injecting energy into the sound which is released with the resolution into consonance. Much of our experience of musical tension and release comes from this harmonic process.

But the barbershop world associates the concept ‘consonant’ with its characteristic soundworld of lock and ring. So it includes the perfect intervals and triads of tonal theory, but also adds to the category a bunch of other chords – mostly notably the dominant-type (or barbershop) 7ths – that tonal theory would label dissonant for their capacity to generate a sense of forward motion.

Constructing Medleys

Putting more than one song together to make a bigger structure is a standard part of the arranger’s craft. There are all kinds of interesting things to think about the how you join the songs together, but today my interest is on the more fundamental level of how you choose them.

I think about medleys in two types. One is a collection of tunes that share a common origin or set of associations. Say, selections from a show, or songs by (or made famous by) a particular artist or group, such as my Madonna Medley or Meatloaf Medley. I tend to think of these as show pieces, useful as they offer a longer span of musical time without a break than single songs would, in much the same way that classical concert programming places more substantial works as focal points amongst the shorter items.

Musings on ‘Old Barbershop’

Some time in the early part of the millennium, around when I was writing my first book, my then boss asked me what were the new and happening things in the world of barbershop. The question entertained me, as I had been in the midst of documenting the ways in which the genre has been built on an aesthetic of nostalgia. The slogan ‘Keep it Barbershop’ (and the identity label derived from it: KIBBERs), which was still in some currency at that time, was about the resolute resistance to innovation.

It is hard to put your finger on exactly the moment it changed (Michigan Jake? Team OC Times + Aaron Dale? Westminster Chorus?), but the last decade and a half has seen not only a good deal of innovation, but also a cultural shift to a world in which the new is greeted with excitement. The seeds were planted in the early 1990s with changes to the judging system that allowed a greater range of repertoire and arranging techniques, but it has taken nigh on a quarter-century to change people’s felt experience in relation to the defined boundaries. Back in 2005, when I wrote my article on ‘Cool Charts or Barbertrash?’, this was still a very active area of contention.

On Voicings for Mixed Barbershop Choruses

Heavy Medals from BinG!: Leading the world in mixed-chorus barbershopHeavy Medals from BinG!: Leading the world in mixed-chorus barbershop

I had a couple of conversations at the recent LABBS Convention about repertoire for mixed barbershop choruses, and the specific needs/constraints on voice ranges the genre produces. I realised part-way through one of these conversations that the question is more precise and intricate than I had headspace to work through in a mid-contest coffee break, so I have come home to work it out in detail.

The mixed chorus is curiously both more and less flexible than the mixed quartet. In a quartet, the four voices you’ve got available are your absolute constraints: anything out of range for one of them means a chart isn’t usable. In a chorus, you can shuffle people about between parts to an extent, and thus in some ways get more of the benefit of the extended range of having both male and female singers. At the same time, though, the fact that you have both male and female singers on a part means you have to be careful at both top and bottom of the range.

Loved-Up with LABBS

LABBS Beacon of Harmony: displayed in the Convention history roomLABBS Beacon of Harmony: displayed in the Convention history roomLast weekend saw the 40th-anniversary celebrations of the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers culminate at our annual Convention. I chose my title to report on it for both personal and analytical reasons. I’ll be selfish and talk about the personal stuff first, and then leave you with the broader analysis of the event, as the more useful take-away for other people wanting to craft wonderful experiences for their memberships (or, as I felt it this weekend, their tribes.)

So, I was feeling specifically loved-up as an arranger. The most obvious reason for this was being honoured with one of the 40th anniversary awards for contributions to the association, specifically for my arranging efforts. Which was lovely in itself, but they also said a whole load of other nice things about me before calling me up to receive it. There is nothing like being told publicly that you’ve made a difference to make you feel like you belong. Oh, I’m getting all teary again just writing this. Do excuse me.

Arranging: The Hidden Best Bits

Every time I finish an arrangement, I realise the bits I am most proud of are the bits that nobody else will ever notice. In fact, this is why I am proud of them: they are usually the places where I struggled with some technical or artistic problem, but have found a solution that appears perfectly natural. The whole point is not to have anyone be impressed with the ingenuity of how I solved it, it’s for them never to notice there was a problem in the first place.

I have written over the years in general terms about this phase of the arranging process, and in more detail about how to generate a smooth and singable line that allows performers to commit to the song’s message without too much interference from their inner Manager.

The Arrangement Triangle

arrangementtriangle(Or rather, an arrangement triangle; this might not be the only aspect of the process that can be thought about in this kind of structure...)

Some years ago, a friend introduced me to a project management tool he called the Golden Triangle. It framed a project in terms of three dimensions: time, scope and resource. That is, how long you had to complete the project, what you needed to do to complete it, and what resources (human and other) you had available to do it.

The point of the triangle is that you can only ever control two out of the three dimensions. Projects, by definition, are special-occasion enterprises, things you do as one-offs, so each one is new and, whilst it may have routine elements, will overall represent something you’ve not done before. So, you will likely encounter unforeseen obstacles.

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