8-Parter Project: Managing Texture

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Texture has been a recurrent question in my various musings so far on arranging for combined male and female barbershop ensembles, as it is implicated in so many different aspects of the craft. How you conceive the ensemble, for example, and how you manage the mapping of song persona(s) onto performing people.

But it is also presents questions in its own right: beyond how it contributes to the way you make musical meaning, how do you make it sound any good?

Having eight parts of course offers textural opportunities you don’t get with only four. I would not have attempted to arrange Fat Boy Slim’s ‘Right Here Right Now’ for a normal barbershop ensemble, but have had a lot of fun exploring the layering, and antiphonal interchange, of different motifs for a version that is singable live and unamplified.

(Given that I prefer woodwind sounds over synthesised voice for playback in my notation program, the work in progress often made me think of what Stravinsky would have been like if he had worked in four-bar phrases. It wasn’t just the modality of the motifs themselves, but the placing of the architectural blocks, and particularly the trajectory of the build-release patterns, that brought this to mind. Anyway, it wasn’t a comparison I was expecting to make when I started, so I mention it in case it pleases you as much as it pleases me.)

But the nature of that challenge was in doing it at all. For material that you can’t write in four parts, developing the techniques to write in eight parts is breaking new ground rather than having to unlearn things you already do automatically. So it’s harder, but it’s also easier.

The textural challenge that made me start this post, though, is a much more routine one for an a cappella arranger in popular traditions: homophony. After Fat Boy Slim I moved onto a much more obvious candidate for this format, the classic duet‘I’ve Had the Time of My Life’ from Dirty Dancing. And this one falls into a very standard alternation of narrative verses and declarative choruses, thus lending itself to an alternation between melody-and-accompaniment textures and homophony to signal the pattern of expressive modes.

But, my goodness, homophony can sound claggy and bunged-up in eight parts. This is one of the things I have noticed sometimes as a listener: that what should be the inspirational moments of emotional unity can find it hard to soar as they’re weighed down by their own mass of sound. The message still flies, but more in the manner of a bumble bee than an eagle.

Part of the trick to managing this is, as I have remarked before, in managing balance and voicing, and in particular with the use of doublings. You don’t often need eight distinct pitches sounding at once, and a lumpen-sounding passage immediately improves when you allow a bit more light in the texture by reducing it to six.

This is not necessarily enough to leaven the texture, though. The contrast with the melody-and-accompaniment textures of the verses is too stark, and the chorus sags in the middle under its own weight. I seem to be finding myself into baking metaphors here, except that of course a chocolate cake that sags in the middle and needs to be levelled up with the icing is a thing of great delight. A wholemeal loaf with inadequate yeast or hydration is less exciting however, and feels rather hard work to eat.

The metaphor that came to mind when I was actually grappling with the choruses rather than writing about them, though, was one of cutting hair. My hair-dresser uses a technique he calls brick-cutting to take the weight out of the curls that have mysteriously appeared in my hair in middle-age. It involves twizzling a strand together then chipping out bits with glancing blows of the scissors along its length. When he’s done it, the curls spring up into a rather random but well-shaped jumble. When it needs doing again (I am writing, for future reference, in a time of covid-induced closure of such businesses, so am particularly aware of this situation right now), they flatten each other down into a misshapen blob.

Brick-cutting applied to a homophonic texture takes the weight out by reducing the frequency and continuity of everyone singing the same words together. You might have two or three syllables with everyone, then just three parts bridging over the less accented part of the line to the next key lyric. Or you might give a couple of voices a rest on the down-beat, with a little off-beat echo to bounce them in to join everyone else mid-bar. Or if you were planning on having some parts sings a phrase-end echo, you might stop those parts before the end of the phrase so the embellishment re-completes the texture.

(Partway through writing this post I realised that I also do this in four-part homophonic textures, especially in wordy passages. But when the full texture isn’t so full, the nicks you cut into it can be much lighter touch: often just giving the bass a rest for a note or two.)

It still feels like the declarative mode of homophony because when everyone is singing, they are singing the words, and they are still all singing them in full-ensemble rhythmic unison at least once per bar. But they never go very long without there being some relief…and as I wrote that last word I noticed the double meaning. Relief is both the description of using a 3D effect to a visual representation to increase interest and meaning, and the emotion you feel when you get a rest from something relentless.

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