Harmonic Charge, Voicing and Gesture

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Right back in the early days of this blog I spent some time thinking about a set of related concepts in close-harmony arranging and performing: harmonic charge, its relationship with voicing, and – more esoterically – the latter’s relationship with vowel sounds.

I have gradually observed over the years that these concepts have specific implications for conducting gesture: harmonies with a higher inherent energy (harmonic charge and/or tighter voicing) need to be squeezed.

I notice this most clearly when in trouble-shooting mode as a coach. Directors will respond to the energy in these moments whether or not they have consciously analysed the chords, but they run into difficulties when they translate this into action by making their gestures bigger. On the face of it, that would be the standard thing to do, following the bigger=louder metaphor* that underpins traditional conducting technique.

But the problem is, that a larger gesture, opens the arms out, and risks dissipating the harmonic energy rather than concentrating it. It is the gestural equivalent of putting a diminished 7th in a wide voicing, in that it asks for more energy but simultaneously gives it all away. The singers make all the effort, but don’t get the commensurate result – to them it feels like blowing up an inflatable toy with a hole in it.

Now, the place I first noticed this consciously was on the 2nd beat of a 4/4 bar. This is great, of course, as the pattern already travels inwards across the body and is thus ideally situated for squeezing music. The 4th beat is likewise well-placed to do this naturally.

Sometimes, however, particularly on changes to the primary harmony, you find the added harmonic oomph arriving on the 1st or the 3rd beat. The 3rd in particular is challenging gesturally, as it is the beat that most explicitly opens out in generosity.

It takes a long time to write posts like this because I have to keep stopping to conduct through examples to test how they work! The example in my head on this occasion is Tom Gentry’s arrangement of ‘If I Can Dream’ which I have recently studied in detail in preparation for the LABBS Directors Day last month.

In bar 22, beat 3 there is a huge lift from the tonic chord to I7 to herald the arrival of the bridge. It sees both the addition of harmonic charge in adding the 7th (voiced to phnert with the tonic), and concomitant narrowing of voicing from a 10th between highest and lowest parts to only a 6th. All this screams ‘squeeze me!’, yet of course the natural beat pattern doesn’t want to.

How you finesse this contradiction in practice is to make the outwards gesture here much more contained than others in the piece (e.g. in the intro, where the primary harmony relaxes from I down to vi, opening the voicing out, on beat 3). And you add the energy in your stance, maybe even bringing the gesture closer in to your body as you lift your posture.

As I say, this is stuff that a lot of the time people do intuitively, because they understand implicitly how music goes. But if you’re finding that you’re struggling to the get energy you want from a particular musical moment, this might be the reason why. And if you’re underconfident about analysing harmonic charge, the voicing is often a much easier clue to spot.

Though also: if you wondered what good it does directors being able to analyse harmony, this is one example as to why it is worth the effort to get better at it.

*For a full discussion of metaphor and non-verbal communication, this is the really really juicy bit in Part III of my book on choral conducting. I enjoyed writing bit that *so* much, so deeply theoretical but also so directly practical.

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