Exploring New Music with the Venus Effect

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VEmay18Friday evening took me down to have another session with the Venus Effect. We were continuing our work on building the quartet sound, but had the fun of doing this in the context of a new song I’ve arranged for them. It’s always exciting when someone brings a new song to the barbershop contest stage, but even more so when it’s a song written this century. It won’t be ready for Prelims next month, but keep your ears open for it come LABBS Convention in October.

We approached the harmonic dimension of the work via duetting as a means to glue the parts together. It’s interesting to note how this offers different insights with music in the early stages of development than it does with more familiar music. As a method for refining well-known music, it focuses the ears on execution – matching of vowel and tone colour, balance, and details of articulation. With new music, it reveals more about the musical structure, and the relationship between the parts. In particular, a series of inner phnerts between lead and baritone emerged as a key element giving energy and sparkle to the texture.

We also explored the relationship between rhythmic profile and harmony. The song works in a snappy, crackling sling swing tempo, with embellishments modelled on the close-harmony trumpet sound of a swing band horn section. The sharper we got the articulation, the more locked and pingy the chords became.

This led to an interesting negotiation around the concept of legato. The quartet were working with an imperative to ‘smooth it all out’ (aka ‘taffy-pulling’) as a means to achieve continuity of sound, and therefore to maximise ring. However, the softness of these metaphors for legato were producing notes with an envelope of sound that was slightly lozenge-shaped, i.e. notes were starting and ending with slightly less intensity, and only reaching full resonance in the middle.

This not only compromised the rhythmic impact of the song’s feel, but actually reduced the amount of time in which they were experiencing full ring. A more square-edged envelope, getting straight into the core vowel produced both more harmonic value and a more sharply-defined rhythmic characterisation.

Of course, this kind of analysis is useful for understanding what’s going on, but when you just want to be able to *do* it, it’s more helpful to focus on being a brass instrument high in its range. (And you can tell when you’ve got the right feel when one of the singers’ children comes into the room pretending to play a trumpet.)

Another aspect of the rhythm we explored was hypermeter. Just as swing places its pulses on the 2nd and 4th beats of the bar, so this swing tune places its larger-scale pulses on the 2nd and 4th bars of the phrase. We used an ebb-and-flow gesture to articulate this pattern, and were immediately rewarded with all kinds of details of musical shape coming into focus.

Like many female quartets, the Venus Effect pursue their dedication to their hobby amidst complex lives that juggle jobs, partners, children, and pets. The level of organisational skill this requires is illustrated by the teamwork with which they handled my visit. The bass met me from the station, and took me to the lead’s house for dinner. She in turn walked me up to the baritone’s house for the coaching session, and to stay overnight. The tenor came back in the morning to ferry me to my next coaching gig 30 minutes away.

The logistical challenges also infuse the rehearsal process: singing was regularly interrupted with the needs of children and puppies – as well as being enhanced by their unselfconscious responses as noted above.

I mention this to provide extra context for our first activity of the evening – addressing their warm-up routine. They have a number of exercises useful for various aspects of this process, but each practice involves a negotiation starting, ‘What shall we do?’ My recommendation was that they develop a routine that they can launch into every week without having to renegotiate its content every time.

Cutting out discussion will both save time and increase the intensity of the work. It will also help their focus in the face of the distractions of life. If – when – they get interrupted, it will be easier to pick up threads again. Possibly more importantly, creating a routine will help them enter their shared world, allowing the demands of the day to recede back out of consciousness. And when they find themselves in less familiar circumstances, for example warming up for performance or contest, the sense of routine will help them feel more at home, as they bring their own world into whichever corner of the universe they are singing in that day.

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I'm spending 2017 getting to know some of the music by women that was missing from my education.

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