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8-Parter Project: Thoughts on Balance and Voicing

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Having walked through the differences in range and characteristic vocal behaviours of the respective singers SSAATTBB versus M&F quartet textures, it is time to consider the implications for how we combine them into harmony. This is the bit where I’m finding, so far, the greatest tension between the idea of two discrete ensembles in combination and a single, 8-part texture.

First, a basic principle of voicing. Generally, you want the notes lower down in the chord to be spaced wider apart than those higher up in the chord. This is true not just of a cappella writing, but tonal music in general: having spent my formative years as a pianist, my left hand is actually bigger than my right, due to having perpetually to reach wider spans with it.

This is both relative and absolute. In both male and female barbershop textures, you’ll generally have the tenor tucked in tighter to the top of the chord, and the bass a bit further away in open voicings, and you’ll tend to avoid closed voicings in lower tessituras.

However, the voicing for female ensembles will generally be a bit closer than for male. The open voicings will very rarely go wider than a 12th, for example, whereas it’s more normal, if not all that frequent, in male arrangements, and you’ll use closed voicings a bit more frequently. The closer voicings for women is often explained in terms of the female voice having a smaller range, but it’s more to do with usage and acoustics. We rarely use the top 5th of the soprano range for female tenors, not because the voices won’t reach them, but because it would produce chords that are too widely spread for that pitch.

So, 8-part textures present us with both opportunities and challenges when we apply this principle. If we think of the 8 parts as a single unit, we have scope to open up some nice open textures at the bottom, exploiting the full lower range of the male voices, and piling up higher into the female ranges with a decent sonic support. All kinds of lushness become possible.

If we think of the 8 parts as two 4-part ensembles, however, each piling up from a more open bottom end to a closer top end, we can run into trouble where the two sets of ranges overlap. The pitch zone at which the upper male voices are starting to close in is exactly where the lower female voices want have some open space. It is very easy to get the chords feeling rather too congested here in the middle of the texture as a result.

The solution comes through the judicious use of doubling. You see this both in charts conceived as SATB divisi where S and A spend more time actually divisi than T and B, and in charts conceived as double quartet, where the male ensemble gets far more statement moments in unisons and octaves than the female one.

In effect, an 8-part texture rarely features 8 distinct notes, and when it does, it is usually when it is operating more as a single than combined double unit. The opportunities for textural lushness the ensemble offers thus look inevitably to be bought through compromising, to an extent, the typical vocal behaviours of its constituent parts. Female basses may need to be less bass-like, and tuck more up into the chord; male baritones may have to become more bass-like and take on a more structural rather than colouristic role. One of the fun challenges of this project is going to be finding ways to make these textures work that still allows singers to connect with the vocal identities they have fostered in the ensembles that combine to create them.

A key part of the voicing puzzle is likely to be choosing which notes to double, and where in the texture. Overlaying two groups typically voiced in a pyramid balance is going to give us rather more power in the middle than we are used to, and I think the overall balance is thus likely to be closer to the cylindrical norm of the choral world. But I think we have a good chance of keeping some connection to the barbershopper’s instinct to ring chords if we ensure that the roots and 5ths remain well represented in the texture, and that 3rds, 7ths and other colour notes are doubles sparingly and don’t crowd out the structural notes unduly. The strongest root may no longer be at the bottom of the chord, but we can still create opportunities for effective lock.

So far, whilst I’ve been studying both combined-quartet and SATB divisi charts to see what other people do, I’ve been working through the nitty-gritty of these decisions with a single-persona song, 'Ferry Cross the Mersey', now published. My next endeavour will be to start playing with songs structured as duets, which will likely entail addressing these challenges in interestingly different ways.

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