Connecting in the Capital

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Capital Connection

Well, I’ve not finished thinking about the Sing A Cappella day, but further thoughts on that have been interrupted by another foray down the M40 to London, this time to work with my friends in Capital Connection on the songs they’re taking to Llangollen International Eisteddfod this summer.

One of the songs they’re taking is a Nancy Bergman arrangement of the Glenn Miller tune ‘At Last’. It was one of those ones that, the more we worked on it, the more nice little arranging details we noticed. I always enjoy those discoveries – makes you feel like you’re in on a special secret when you find something that was there all along, but takes on a new meaning when realise how artistic it is. One of the things that’s interesting about the song itself is that it uses a lot of blue notes in the melody – that is, it takes a melodic feature that singers might apply to a tune as an expressive device, and builds it into the main structure. We talked about how this made a kind of double meaning: it was as if the songwriters had a straight (diatonic) version in mind, but decided to write it down as if it had already had the Billie Holliday treatment.

At the same time, there was an interesting double meaning thing going on with the timing of the delivery, and working with the chorus made me stop and think about the difference between a long note and an attenuated note. That is, the delivery was designed to give a dramatic application of rubato on the first blue note of the chorus, like this:

But there was a tendency to sing it as if it were actually just written as a long note, like this:

That is, an ornamental feature of the delivery strategy had morphed into a structural feature of the melody.

I would hypothesise that the reason it had become a long, rather than a stretched note is a combination of (a) having got so used to the length of the note through extensive rehearsal that it ceased to be experienced as an expressive distortion and (b) having absorbed the music from learning tracks which might not give the opportunity to notice the distortion in the first place.

Anyway, we dealt with this by re-experiencing the original shape: we had everybody sing the tune in a swing tempo. This was a classic bit of unfreezing – helping people change something by disrupting their habitual relationship with the music. The leads had the disruption of changing their rhythm, and the harmony parts had a double disruption in moving to the tune and into rhythm. But it was important that everybody understood the expressive pull of a melodic blue note, even if their own parts didn’t include it.

Once everyone had the feel of the melodic pull of the blue note, it was then possible to re-apply the dramatic rubato, and have everyone experience how stretching that note then became a way to intensify the expressive power of the melodic device. And you can tell when people really get an idea when they can then go and apply it through the rest of the song. When we went back to work on the intro last thing in the evening, we found a couple of blue notes right at the start, and once they were identified, the singers gave it that lovely yearny* inflection without any further prompting.

One of the things I find endlessly fascinating in working with performers (and indeed in arranging) is precisely this difference between the surface features of music and the way they hang together in more meaningful gestalts. It was particularly fascinating, therefore, to be exploring it at two levels at once, with the virtual straight notes behind the blue ones, and the virtual strict tempo behind the rubato.

* My spellchecker considers ‘yearny’ not to be a real word. I’m meaning it in the sense of the specific emotion you experience when undertaking a sentimental journey back home.

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