Exploring Arrangement Choices with Amersham A Cappella

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A topically sports-themed warm-upA topically sports-themed warm-up

Tuesday evening took me back to coach my friends at Amersham A Cappella on some of the new songs they’re working on. They seem to be in a particularly up-for-it and life-affirming mood right now in their repertoire choices, with anthems from Erasure and Aretha Franklin on the go as well as an exuberant number I arranged some years ago for Finesse quartet.

A recurrent theme of the evening was exploring the impact of who the music was arranged for on the arrangement choices. A fair number of the chorus had known Finesse, either in terms of hearing them perform, or knowing the individual singers personally. So it was useful for them to know that this was one of those charts where I’d been thinking not of the tenor, lead, bari and bass lines, but of the Helen, Beth, Tanya and Nicky lines. Handing round the melody wasn’t just a matter of seeing where the range fit best, but also of thinking about the personality and vocal colour of those individuals.

For the chorus members who didn’t know the quartet, of course, it wasn’t any direct help to think about a particular bit as sung by Tanya or Helen, though the abstract idea that each part had a distinct personality and role in the overall musical narrative may have contributed to the development of an increasingly creative and characterful delivery during the evening.

Knowing in general terms that the arrangement had been crafted for a quartet also informed a lot of our explorations of texture and balance. In standard barbershop textures, each part has a defined role, so once you get the overall balance right in your chorus, you can sing your lines knowing that the melody will come through clearly and be appropriately supported by the harmonies without having to make many adjustments from phrase to phrase.

But when your chorus is performing music that was designed to feature different individual singers at different moments, individually, or in varying combinations, you have to be a lot more aware of the changing relationships within the musical texture and their implications for both balance and tone colour. In both the opening riff, which hands off between bass and bari, and the momentary duets between tenor and lead that are a feature of the verses, I was asking the singers to make it sound like there were the same number of singers in each part - as there are, by definition, in one-person-per-part ensembles.

We also found ourselves with a new technical term: tuney words. These are what you sing when you have the tune, or when you are singing homophonically with the tune, as opposed to words you might sing in an accompanying figure. Quite how I have got to this stage in my life without needing a label for this concept before I have no idea.

We had one moment where the voices of original ensemble had a very direct and specific impact on the challenges we faced. A particular triad, voiced with bari on root, lead on the 3rd and tenor on the 5th wasn’t balancing well, and, looking at the voicing, I thought: well of course it isn’t, there are far more leads than baris, but you want the root to be stronger for good balance. Why on earth did I choose that voicing? I wondered. Even in a quartet, where you don’t have the issue of numerical imbalance, I’d usually choose to give the note that needs tucking discreetly into the chord to the singer whose role is typically to fill out the texture without drawing attention to herself. But with that particular lead and bari, it made perfect sense, given the tessitura and tone colours of their voices; the other way round in this case, at this pitch, wouldn’t have sounded as good.

What we actually did to fix this was to switch a few leads to the bari note to even up the balance. And in a quartet with different voices, I might find myself suggesting they swap if balance was an issue. We had a discussion about whether we could have fixed it by the baris just giving it more welly (to use another technical term, though possibly not one with full international currency). But for me that was a less ideal option, because in adjusting volume relationships by using different levels of oomph (sorry, seem to be having a very technical day today) on different notes, you’d lose the sense of expressive unity across the chord.

Barbershop as a genre has traditionally regarded the chorus as a very large quartet, and defined the style for both in terms of what a quartet can achieve. By and large, this results in arrangements than can transfer from one ensemble type to the other just fine – and indeed this arrangement is going to sound fabulous on a chorus, can’t wait for you to hear it. You often don’t know which type of group any given arrangement was written for, and in some ways it doesn’t matter – you just go about addressing the artistic and technical challenges as you meet them. But where you have specific information available, it can help both in your problem-solving process, and in feeding your imagination as you bring the music to life.

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