Cheshire Chords, Melodies and Musical Shapes

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CCC3On Thursday I finally made it up to Warrington to work with the Cheshire Chord Company. The visit had been scheduled for last month, but an accident on the M6 had on that occasion turned Birmingham to gridlock, and saw me spending an hour and 20 minutes to travel 8 miles and never even getting out of my home town. This time the M6 was really quite clear (by M6 standards, that is), and I was about the third person to arrive there!

One bright side to the postponement was that in the meantime the notes I had made on the chorus’s prize-winning performance at Llangollen International Eisteddfod had turned into a post on interpreting ballads. So, those chorus members who read my blog were already primed with some of the concepts we were going to be working with. There were just a handful of places where harmonic details or melodic shaping in the harmony parts suggested slight changes to the way they were delivering the melody.

There were three things I noticed during this process. First, how much difference these really quite minor changes made to the overall expressive impact. There is something magical about the specificity of response when people start to integrate these hidden details into their narrative. And there were a couple of moments in the arrangement that I had been slightly unconvinced about that suddenly made sense with these infinitesimal adjustments.

Second, that the balance of lingering and flowing through remained roughly the same - the places for each moved around a little, but the aggregate sense of overall shape and pacing remained. I found this interesting as a sign of the practical consciousness of the barbershop ballad style: there is certainly a sense of a style-specific grammar of delivery that both arranger and performers were using. My job was simply to adjust the performers’ application of this grammar to more completely match the arranger’s approach.

Third, that the key element in finding the most effective delivery is often weight rather than pacing. The actual duration of notes is sometimes less important than whether they are lifting the line or settling down. Of course, this does relate to duration: there were a few notes that had become so drawn-out that they had become weight-bearing by default, and so needed to flow through more to regain their lift. But once the direction of impulse is sorted out, there is a considerable amount of play available in the length of attenuation that will work.

Our work on their up-tempo number was more architectural, building a stronger structure to what is quite a long and complex arrangement. We first start by dramatising the posts, which appear at three major places: in the intro (pretty big); at the end of the first chorus (a shorter one at a lower register); and in the tag (several, handed from part to part). These provide the long-range scaffolding that bind the whole structure together, and need the commitment of the whole chorus to work.

The singers holding the post need to treat it as they would in quartet: as a major technical challenge designed to show off their prowess as performers, and the centre of the action. The singers decorating the post need to keep their attention on it the whole time, and give it their full moral support. If they have a breath-point, they can’t afford to relax, as that directly undermines their colleagues with the big moment.

Our other main task was to contain the energy in the first chorus. It needed to be there, driving the rhythm, but if it got too overt or muscular, they’d have nowhere to grow to as the form developed. Fortunately, they had a choreographic move part-way through that absolutely captured the light-on-your-feet, suppressed excitement feel it needed. So the task became to sing everything with that feel, even when there wasn’t the specific move associated with it. And once we’d got that in place, all kinds of other details of the arrangement started to emerge as interesting moments.

On reflection, the evening showed us, first, how attending to details impacts the effect of the whole, and, second, how attending to the global picture allows the details to come into focus.

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