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Exploring Compensating Rubato with LaBOOM

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Saturday took my musical attention back to Munich, though my body stayed at home. The amenity of Skype allowed me to spend a couple of hours with LaBOOM quartet working on two new songs I arranged for them back in the autumn. They quite sensibly wanted to get this session done early in the learning process, to shape the overall concept of the songs before they’d got too settled in their habits with them.

The most challenging area we tackled during the session was getting a feel for compensating rubato. Their ballad is in a gentle ¾ time, and they had been feeling as quite strongly waltz-like. Our task was to ease this framework up into something slightly more flexible without spoiling the sense of poetic metre or the lilt that the time signature provided.

Compensating rubato is taking the idea of ‘stolen time’ (rubare = to steal), and applying it across whole phrases. The idea is that the time you steal more or less balances the time you give back – e.g. you compensate for speeding up into a phrase by easing up towards the end of it.

In theory the whole thing should take about the same amount of time to sing as it would if you sang it straight. In practice, it rarely adds up like that, but it remains a good metaphor through which to approach flexible delivery. This kind of balance is a felt phenomenon in performance, even if it is elusive to measure.

The reason the song was asking for this kind of delivery is that it allows you to draw attention to melody and lyric more vividly than to rhythm. If you stay true to the metronome, then the waltz time becomes the key feature that stands out, as every bar is the same duration whatever the narrative is saying at that point. Thinking about the phrases as longer units, each of which communicates a complete idea allows you to foreground the melopoetics over the rhythm.

One way to explore this idea is to take the lyrics out, and just be guided by the ebb and flow of melodic and harmonic shape. Singing to ‘ya-da-ya-da…’ helps you find the musical focal points without being distracted by lyrics. I think this works in several ways. At a vocal level, you are minimising the activity needed in your mouth so your brain can latch onto the sense of desired shape without the process of articulation interfering with how it comes out. At a cognitive level, you are connecting more directly with your non-verbal modes of thinking, which allows you to think more gesturally and holistically than you might when processing language as well.

Another approach was the converse: take out the musical content and just see what the poetry told us. Interestingly, the first exercise – to sing the words to a single note – didn’t succeed in loosening the grip of the regular metre. It did all kinds of useful things for voice matching and locking vowels – I could hear the overtones over Skype! – but it wasn’t helping with our primary goal.

So then we switched to just speaking the words, feeling the way you’d say them as natural language, which is rather different from how you’d intone them. The stresses come in the same place, but you get a sense of the unstressed syllables becoming lighter and quicker in spoken text. One of the by-products of working on a consistent tone as a singer is that you sometimes find yourself making all syllables very alike, and this is compounded when they are durationally equal. Re-connecting with spoken language helps develop your sense of the expressive goal to which you are going to turn your well-honed legato.

These processes will take more time to work through than we had in a single coaching session (especially since we had already worked through the other song in detail too!). And they are the kinds of things that rightly take time to brew. Working on this music again took me back to how much time I had spent thinking through the shaping of these phrases in daily life while I was arranging it. It is work you do when out for a walk, when in the shower, on the edge of sleep, as much as when you are consciously focusing on the music as your primary task.

When you are working as a quartet, the process will involve each singer’s individual processing and feeling of shape as they go through life, and also a process of exchange and negotiation as you come together to rehearse it. The lead, as singer of the melody, gets to take the lead on many of these decisions.

But she still needs to have a sense of dialogue with the other parts. There are places in this song where the melody is quite static – a device songwriters use to place attention onto the words. And the words might therefore have a variety of ways of being shaped. However, the arranger has counterpointed these static lines with some sweepingly melodic bass lines. The way these lines are asking to be shaped will inform the decisions the lead can make.

One of the fun things about coaching your own charts is that you already know where these places are. (Though it has to be said, one of the fun things about coaching other people’s music is discovering what they’ve done.) And reflecting on our work together on Saturday, I realise that the journey I was inviting the quartet to take – from the note-to-note detail out into the wider sweep of the narrative – is very much like the journey you take as an arranger.

At the early stages you’re thinking about the nitty-gritty of chord choices and voicings: am I arranging in this in a realistic key for the parts to work out in sensible tessituras, and with chord choices that will make sense to the ear and offer singable voice-leading? Then as you get a sense of how the harmony will function, you start shaping the lines to create direction and focal points, moulding the use of range to chart the emotional journey of the narrative, articulating the turning-points in the overall form. In both activities, artistry is a process of synthesis, where you assimilate the detail into the whole.

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