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Exploring New Music with Affinity Show Choir

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Action warm-up pic!Action warm-up pic!

Thursday evening took me up to Stockport to have an initial session with Affinity Show Choir on two new arrangements they have commissioned from me for LABBS Convention this autumn. We have a date in the diary for a full day on them next month, but they wanted and initial undergrowth-clearing session before then to get the big-picture issues identified so they could come into that day prepared and ready.

We’d already had a productive dialogue about how the songs wanted shaping during the commissioning process, as it was this package that inspired my post To Recreate or Reimagine?. Their director Andrew and I had had quite a long phone conversation that involved singing bits to each other to discuss phrasing, then he had put together a guide track to inform the person making learning tracks for him, and run that past me before commissioning the tracks. As a result I went in knowing that they had been learning the music from materials that made sense of the intended musical world, so we could get straight into refining the fit between musical detail and their expressive personality as a chorus.

The barbershop ballad style is a distinctive approach to phrasing that responds to poetic metre and harmonic shape, eschewing a sense of regular pulse for a very flexible rubato. The key dilemma for those interpreting music in this style is when to linger and luxuriate in the emotional colour of chords, and when to push on through to experience melodic and narrative flow. Any individual song offers multiple right answers, the trick is to find a balance between the two.

Our main task with Affinity’s ballad was to figure out which of the many possible chords they had identified to linger on they should feature. Each was sung beautifully and with an intuitive understanding of its expressive meaning, but if they lingered on all of them the song would just get too long, and start to become a strain on both their vocal stamina and the listener’s perceptual stamina.

For instance, a yearny III half-dim – VI7 swipe at the end of the first line of each of the three verses was begging to be a featured moment, but we negotiated leaving that moment until the third appearance, relegating the first two to gentle swells to connect into the next phrase. Conversely, the last line of the chorus, which includes the song title in its lyrics, was pointed up on its first time, but on repeat was given more momentum to propel the music into the tag.

At the back of my mind during this process was David Wright’s advice to arrangers that you ‘evoke poignancy by doing something once’. Though the metaphor that actually came out in real time was that of calorie-counting: you can have any treats, but it’s wiser not to have all of them. I could have a piece of lemon drizzle cake now, but I might prefer to wait and have a gin and tonic when I get home.

One of the things I love about coaching musical meaning is how when people understand the expressive intent of a particular moment, they sort out all kinds of other details in the vicinity. We spent a few minutes working on the final chord of the piece, some of it technical – bringing focus and clarity to the vowel – but also working through why it was voiced that way.

It is an emotionally complex song. By themselves the lyrics could seem rather passive and abject, but they are clothed in music that signal strength and even heroism. So that final chord contains both triumph and despair. You can tell when people have connected with the emotional import of a chord by the way overtones suddenly appear very clearly: that’s the sound of the laws of physics approving of the performance.

But also, when we then went back to put this chord into context, three or four harmonic moments on the approach to it that I had identified also needed clarifying also clicked into place. Once the singers had clued into the expressive trajectory of the passage they just used their own intuitive musicianship to make sense of the other steps on the journey.

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