Musical Identity

On Surface Over-Compensating

When I was observing a lot of conductors as the heart of the research for my choral conducting book, I noticed how certain hand positions appear to correlate with certain types of relationship with the activity. In particular, I noted a kind of angular hand shape: wrists cocked back, fingers straight and folded forward at a right angle from the main knuckle, thumbs sticking up, and the ictus formed by a kind of scooping motion with the heel of the hand.

The choral sounds that this hand shape typically elicited were quite bright in tone, and reasonably well controlled, but often containing audible vocal tension and lacking bloom on the sound. The overall sound was often rather more contained and muted than you might have expected from the number of singers involved.

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.

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.

On Connecting with the Real

Last autumn, shortly after I’d blogged about the research stream at the abcd Choral Leaders Festival, I received an email from a reader about the diagram I had included from Michael Bonshor’s paper about the relationship between practice and research. I like everything about it so will quote in full:

It was very affirming to see that little diagram on your blog this evening.

I've been working for seven years as supply staff for a small, private children's nursery. Lots of frustrations, wondering how things could be done better. Meanwhile reading your blog makes me feel that I still have a functional brain when there is little other evidence. Thank you!

Now I'm about to embark on a Masters in Childhood and Youth Studies. I think they need more academics who have done the 7.30am starts and 6pm finishes, coming home covered in yoghurt and playdough to fall asleep during The Archers.

Hoping I might eventually complete that circle, help some people, change something for the better. (I sing a bit too)

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.

The Body in the Compositional Mind

My undergraduate education, especially as a composer, was firmly within a Modernist aesthetic, and one of its tenets was that you should learn to compose direct from your mind’s ear to paper, rather than at the piano. The reason given for this was that your pianistic habits would lead you into familiar musical gestures and thus become an obstacle to creating new, hitherto unimagined musical ideas.

(Note, by the way, the assumption that all musicians should be good keyboard players. Nobody ever warned you off composing though noodling on the guitar or oboe.)

Now, there’s something to this. Every so often I’ll see a novice arranger produce a chord for an a cappella group that tells me that they’re a pianist and we have to have a conversation about voicings that will work better for a vocal ensemble.

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