Zooming in to Fascinating Rhythm

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Screengrab or it didn't happen...Screengrab or it didn't happen...

Thursday evening brought the opportunity to spend an hour with my friends at Fascinating Rhythm. Just before lockdown they had just got the most recent arrangement I had done for them to the point where they basically knew it and could start refining it. They have persisted with that project remotely, and though we can’t yet hear the results of that work, they are at least spending their time deepening their insight into the song.

My visit was part of that project. This visit took the form of a seminar/presentation about certain aspects of the music, punctuated with a breakout task to get the chorus active in the process, and my next visit will involve working with the section leaders to explore how these ideas apply when actually sing the music.

One of the points I found myself most eager to share was a point about the relationship between motif and characterisation. Both because it was helping to make sense of a distinctive feature of this chart, and also because it was fun to share the story behind how it came to be. I often say that it’s in tackling the technical challenges of an arrangement that you find yourself developing the most creative artistic ideas, and this is a classic case in point.

(As usual, by the way, I’m not naming the song, as it is their place to reveal it the world. This was going to be at LABBS Convention in October, though this is looking less likely as time goes by. They’ll sing it to you one day.)

The technical niggle was this: the transition from the end of Verse 1 into the Pre-chorus needed an embellishment with a sense of lift and purpose, but the melody had cadenced on the bottom tonic, A3. The easiest voicing of a nicely perky II7 from there kept the lead low, leading to a mixed message: the harmonies added harmonic charge, but the tessitura remained in that part of the voice associated with internalised, reflective expression. Other voicings were available, but they mostly produced unmelodic lines, and I don’t do unmelodic.

The solution was go to the obvious voicing, then flip the lead line up an octave, producing a nicely caffeinated icicle 7th with the leads in their prime range to announce things to the world.

And it’s at this point that you have to start thinking about characterisation. Imagine in a novel that at the end of chapter 3, the main character does something reckless and outré. You need to have had some kind of hint in an earlier chapter that they were the kind of person capable of being reckless, or you lose narrative coherence. You stop believing the story and start questioning the author.

Now, an octave leap is, vocally speaking, a dramatic gesture; it’s making a point. When I found this solution to my voicing question, I suddenly had to re-evaluate the kind of persona the song was presenting. Oh, I thought, so this is the kind of person who goes around making a drama of things is it? The song certainly accommodates that kind of characterisation, even though this was adding a motif that doesn’t appear in what the songwriters gave us, and the chorus are also very ready to play up to that kind of thing.

So if we were dealing with the kind of person who would throw in an octave leap to make a point, that element of the characterisation needed to be embedded more fully into the song’s narrative. And the musical motif is the means to do this. The chart now also features octave leaps for the leads in the intro, at the lyrical climax (where the original conveniently also gives us a key change for added drama) and in the tag.

The thing I enjoyed about articulating this process is that motif isn’t just an abstract musical element, as it tends to be presented when you’re studying analytical techniques focused on 19th-century symphonic working. It’s an embodied quality: the way you have to hold yourself to be ready to jump up an octave at a moment’s notice shapes how you will present yourself posturally and gesturally, and how you will imagine yourself as you inhabit that role.

And there are leaps in other parts too. Not perhaps as featured or dramatic as those octaves, but the harmony parts will have their own contributions to this narrative. I am looking forward to working through these in practice next week.

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