Harmonic Explorations with Amersham A Cappella

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I spent a happy Tuesday evening with my friends at Amersham A Cappella, working on the music they are preparing to compete with at the European Barbershop Convention in Helsingborg in May. It was probably the closest to a ‘normal’ experience I’d had this side of the pandemic. Aside from the open door for ventilation, and the need to wear a mic so those unable to be there in person could watch via livestream, it felt just like old times.

Familiar faces helped this feeling of course – we have a long-standing relationship that made it easy to slot straight back into the kind of work we do together. And the nature of the work – diving deep into musical detail - slotted us back into a familiar context of how the major contest of events of the barbershop world organise the experience of their participants over the course of months.

Much of the evening was spent connecting harmonic colour and voicing to narrative. How does this chord make us feel? What does it tell us about what’s going on in the lyric? What does its voicing and tessitura tell us about its communicative intent?

Their ballad has an interesting set of genre references in its harmonic choices. The song itself comes from a Musical Theatre tradition, which brings with it a certain narrative style of delivery that dovetails effectively with the barbershop conventions of ‘balladised’ delivery. Its original harmonies, though rely more on diatonic dissonance than the tritone-powered harmonic charge of barbershop for its expressive colour.

The arrangement, by Brent Graham, finds a place for the two to coexist, living as much as possible in the overlap zone of the Venn diagram of the two genres. In particular, it exploits sonorities of added 9th, and much of the drama of the chart emerges in the juxtaposition of the ecstatic qualities these bring to the texture with, on one hand, the poignancy of barbershop colour chords, and on the other the comfort offered by a progression that goes exactly where you know it is going.

In one passage, we identified parallel chord progressions at the ends of successive phrases – not the same actual chords, but chords that had the same relationship with each other – and had an interesting conversation about this harmonic rhyme. And then had to ask: is Harmonic Rhyme a thing? I mean, obviously it is, because we found it in this arrangement, but it wasn’t a turn of phrase that sounded immediately familiar.

Later in the evening, when we were spending a short while on their up-tune for a change of focus, we discovered that David Wright does this too. So Harmonic Rhyme is definitely a valid concept, found in practice. On returning home, however, I found that Google wasn’t going to admit that anyone else has been talking about this, so it is possible that we coined a phrase this week.

I’m now also wondering if I do this too? It’s not something I’ve consciously thought about in my arrangements, but if it is there in the praxis of my colleagues, it’s entirely possible I had absorbed it as ‘one of the things one does’ without really thinking about it. If you spot it in any of my charts, do give me a shout! I shall also be interested to learn if my fellow arrangers think about this explicitly, and, if they do, what they call it? I like Harmonic Rhyme as a term, but if there’s another name for it already out there in use, I’m quite happy to switch to that.

I remarked at the start of this post on the sense of normality, of being back with familiar friends, making music in familiar ways. But even while we slipped right back into our well-known and happy modes of working together, there was a depth of appreciation for the experience that we would not have felt were it not for the Zoom era. How heroic we all were to hold it together through more than a year of attempting to make music online! But, oh, there is nothing like dangling a chord into space between you in real time and making it spin, and there's nothing like having had to do without that experience to make you grateful to be back in the middle of it.

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