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8-Parter Project: The Nature of the Ensemble

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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.

The most obvious difference is in the relationships between the ranges across the ensemble. As the nomenclature suggests, each pair of parts in an SATB divisi group occupy a similar range, with the first of each pair typically sitting in a slightly higher tessitura: they’d be happy working together at the same pitch, but any time there’s a division, it’s clear which will usually take the higher note. There is overlap between the ranges of each voice-type (the altos’ higher notes are higher than the sopranos’ lower notes etc) but there is generally a clear sense of stratification: you wouldn’t normally voice a chord with, say, tenors below basses unless there was a particular reason to do so arising from voice-leading or melodic material.

Barbershop ensembles have very different relationships. Within each set of four voices, the middle two usually operate in largely the same pitch area, constantly overlapping, with tenor and bass largely remaining above and below. In some cases, this has a significant impact on the ranges they occupy. Female lead lies significantly lower than soprano 2, and male tenor lies rather higher than tenor 1 in SATB-world.

When I first encountered barbershop, I had been primarily singing soprano 2 hitherto and literally could not reach the bottom end of a lot of the lead lines as they were presented. One of the things barbershop has given me is access to that entire lower register which I had never needed in genres which outsourced all the lower notes to the blokes.

There is also a lot more overlap between the total ranges typically inhabited by male and female barbershop ensembles than there is in the more stratified SATB world. This is why female basses make good leads, and male tenors make good baritones, in mixed quartets. This overlap in the middle is something that can present challenges for 8-part textures, which I will be getting my teeth into in various ways as this project progresses.

But it also presents opportunities for interesting colours and textures you might not otherwise think to explore. I can see in my 2008 self a fascination with combinations in this overlap zone that harks back to things I was doing in the composition folio I produced for my undergraduate music degree.

These differences in range relationships also entail differences in vocal behaviour. Probably the most striking of these is the propensity of male barbershop tenors to sing primarily in falsetto. More subtle, but nonetheless significant is the way that lead and baritone, while operating in basically the same range, have very different approaches to projection, aiming respectively to cut through the texture and meld into it.

One of the ways I could tell I was thinking about SSAATTBB groups when I first arranged ‘Ferry’ was that I’d given the opening melody to A1 and T1 at unison, with the sopranos duetting above. There’s no way you’d give an opening melody to a barbershop baritone, then expect the lead to play in the background with the tenor, not if you wanted the texture to balance well without lots of intervention, whereas it makes much more sense to give primary thematic material to the first alto, with the sopranos working as a team above.

I’ve framed this as vocal behaviour, but of course in chorus contexts it’s also about balance. You tend to have smaller bari and tenor sections than lead and bass, and this always impacts on balance. But I would argue that you populate a chorus like that in order to secure the balance you want from the vocal behaviours implicit in the part roles. A quartet has an equal number of people on every part, but still operates within the conventions of the cone of sound. (And conversely, people who have both choral and barbershop experience change how they use their voices as they switch between genre contexts.)

Most of my changes to the 2008 chart have been about recasting SSAATTBB material for combined barbershop ensembles. (There have been a few other tweaks just to improve things, but in general I’m quite impressed by my past self – I had some imaginative ideas back then!) My feeling after the revision process is that both male and female bass parts still display their heritage as B2 and A2 respectively. The male part feels low for a regular bass line – it inhabits the lower end of the total bass range, while the male bari (also on the lowish side for a bari part) covers the upper end in the manner of B1. The female bass is less foundational than she would need to be without the male voices underneath, and plays more of a role in the harmonic fill.

But I think they’re still realistically within the universe of possibilities for people accustomed to taking these roles. If they approach the line using their voices as they are in the habit of doing, the music should make sense.

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