Fascinating Rhythm and New Music

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On a glorious sunny Thursday evening, you could have had a really fun evening in Bristol watching the England and New Zealand women’s cricket teams play a 20-20 match. Or, you could have gone just a little north of the city as I did and had a fabulous evening making music with a different set of skilled and dedicated women.

Fascinating Rhythm are preparing to bring a package of two newly-commissioned arrangements to the LABBS Convention in the autumn for the fourth consecutive year. Yes, you read that right: we were working on the 7th and 8th new arrangements that they will be bringing to the contest stage since 2015. Up-for-itness doesn’t even being to describe their attitude.

As is my custom, I am not going to tell you what their songs are (that’s their prerogative), but I am going to tell you that the older of the two songs was written in 2006. And it’s not really the loosening of style criteria for contest music in recent years that has allowed them to connect with such recent repertoire – they are just rocking it with song choices, finding newer music that works well in barbershop.

They have been working a lot recently on certain aspects of vocal craft, especially consistency and continuity of resonance. Just hearing them warm up I could hear how their choral instrument is developing.

Our primary task for the evening was to take this wonderful sound and put it in service of varied and changing musical needs. On the one hand you want to keep that wall-of-sound effect of continuous ring, but on the other you want to find different colours, textures, and weights of sound to bring out the musical shape.

We started off with tempo and rhythmic feel. I knew from three years ago that the chorus had experience with the clave structures of a Latin feel (and indeed had arranged for them knowing they had this experience), so we worked through their up-tempo song with a succession of chorus members out front doing mimed and vocal percussion on woodblock and guiro to feel how the clave mapped onto the song. This also helped us increase the tempo a shade from the careful and meticulous speed at which they had learned it.

This process created a space in which the singers could be expressive. So we could then play with instrumental colours to sculpt the embellishments, and with feeling both small-scale and longer-range patterns of accent to shape the lyrics.

I’ve remarked before that in many ways coaching your own arrangement is much like coaching other people’s arrangements. Both involve a process working out what the singers need to be able to deliver what the music needs. There’s less sight-reading if you’ve actually written the arrangement, but equally, it’s some months since I was deep inside this music so there’s a lot of detail I’m coming to fresh.

But I did observe one significant difference this time, and it’s not in my relationship with the arrangement, but with the original versions of the songs. When I’m coaching other people’s arrangements, I may or may not know the famous performances of the songs, but I certainly won’t have spent as much time with them as I have with songs I have arranged. In more that one instance on Thursday, I suggested approaching a particular moment or passage through the lens of what the original performance of the song had done.

This is persuasive in itself – if people like a song enough to commission an arrangement of it, they are likely to have a positive relationship with its landmark performance(s). But the time I have spent with that reference performance in the arranging process means that my demonstrations come from that place where the intimate connection between original and transformed version was made. The sense of 'true to the original' isn't just on the paper, it's in my voice and my body from the process of absorbing this music to arrange it.

And coaching from that connection point then leaves the chorus with a reference they can return to when they come to consolidate the work we did together. Feel and shape are things you can’t write down – the best you can do is write something down that will help you find them again through a combination of imagination and memory.

But recorded performances allow you to revisit feel and shape and internalise them. Having been coached on shaping by reference to an original performance, the singers can now go back to that performance to find that world we created together and recreate it for themselves.

Obviously not every moment in an arrangement is attempting to recreate a performance – there are lots of bits that are about transforming the song into something new – so it’s a more complex process than just ‘copy what the original does’. But where there are key moments that have been arranged in a certain way in response to a performance, highlighting these to the singers brings clarity and shared purpose to the imagination work they are doing together.

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