Cheshire Chord Company

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CCCSunday saw me up in Warrington to work with the Cheshire Chord Company. Our primary task was getting inside a new ballad they are learning.* It is a relatively recent arrangement by David Wright, and is chock full of the kind of harmonic twists and turns he uses to turn the purposely limited chord vocabulary of the barbershop style to surprising and original effect.

It was clear that there was more in the music than we were going to be able to explore in only one day – but then isn’t always the case? – so the goal developed into a kind of double vision: to use the work on this specific music as a way to learn about the kinds of things it is possible to find, so that the chorus had methods they could continue to use on the parts of the song we didn’t have time to examine in detail. And, indeed, on entirely different songs.

As it happens, this arrangement actually presents some rather good opportunities for structured learning, as several gestures that develop into features of the arrangement as a whole appear within the first eight bars. It’s almost as if David wrote an introduction that would set up the expressive world for the rest of the song.

We spent well over an hour identifying a collection of both chord choices and aspects of part-writing that appear in the introduction, and discussing their emotional or expressive functions. We then had a fund of previously-shared ideas and experiences to draw upon as we encountered these same features in later portions of the song. The music is somehow more believable when we hear things return that have been hinted at before.

As a result the learning process followed a trajectory that mirrored the sense of ‘managed déjà vu’ that David talks about in musical structures. As we found ourselves shunting back and forward between harmonies or voicings in the intro and the body of the song, we found each instance colouring the other’s meaning. Meanings unfold as the implicit, musical sense of a gesture accrues narrative meaning in a new context. But the associations a musical feature pick up through lyrical narrative carry more resonance, an aura of extra significance, from having been foreshadowed at the opening of the song.

Highlights included singing chords where the basses were on the 3rd on one (to embody the vulnerability and therefore attention to balance they need), learning to lock and balance Chinese 7ths (of which this arrangement has an unusually high number), and recognising drama of the chord sequence bVII-V7 (aka the ‘Dallas’ progression). The behaviour of the bass line also held a lot of implications for pacing and delivery: where it moved melodically, by step, it offered a sense of swooshy-throughiness (never one to shy away from technical vocabulary, me), whilst where it leaps, it needs to gather energy in preparation.

Cheshire Chord Company is a chorus that evidently thrives on metaphors. We had ski-jumps, bell-ringing, Wuthering Heights and the light of Heaven making appearances at various points of the song. But the joy of this kind of discursive world is that it engages the Communicator more than the Manager in the concept of the music and its performance. One of the first things we established in our explorations was that in recognising the sense and effect of musical elements, we don’t have to try and ‘do’ things in response. The goal is to outsource as much of the expressive work as possible to our intuition.

We also spent some time on another David Wright arrangement that they already know well and have performed in contest, developing its shaping and rhythmic feel. We used the device of imaginatively scoring the arrangement for a jazz orchestra as a method for introducing variety in vocal colour and articulation in response to the changes textures in the arrangement.

The first chorus is dominated by a basic contrast between trumpets and saxophones – which we explored by switching between ‘ba-ba-da’ sounds and ‘woo-woo’ – while the second is more varied, featuring a succession of different gestures evoking the taking in turns of solo instrumentalists. You can tell you’re onto something when a chorus takes a fairly broad-brush idea like this and uses it to introduce all kinds of interesting inflections that you’ve not actually discussed.

But then, the orchestration metaphor has that strength of being a very naturalistic way of thinking about music without being at all simplistic. Indeed, perhaps saying something is naturalistic means that it’s not simplistic – things become simplistic when they’re abstracted from a real-life scenario.

* You’ll note I haven’t mentioned the title of it. This is deliberate, so they can choose the timing and manner in which they spring their new material on an unsuspecting universe.

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