Hidden messages and performance decisions

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dynamicsOne of the students on my Vocal Close Harmony course this semester, Amy, made the observation that you don’t see a lot of performance instructions such as dynamic markings on close-harmony arrangements. It takes somebody new to a style to point out things that you had forgotten were note-worthy - and in doing so, Amy made me think afresh about the hidden expressive codes that note-smiths (whether composers or arrangers) and performers share.

As we all know, the addition of dynamic markings to musical scores started in the late-sixteenth century, but didn’t really catch on in a significant way until the eighteenth century. It wasn’t that people didn’t shape music in performance, it was just that it was felt that if you were a good enough musician to be able to play the music in the first place, you could work out how it needed to be shaped from how it went.

Rose Rosengard Subotnik has interpreted the proliferation of markings (particularly dynamic accents) in Beethoven as a breakdown in this semiotic certainty, or a form of notational mistrust. It was no longer enough to mark a chord out by texture and range – you needed an sf too if the performer was to get the idea that it should stand out. In this light, you can see the increasing abundance of expressive markings in scores of the last two hundred years as a by-product of the cult of compositional individualism. If every composer is aiming to speak their own musical language, detailed performance directions function as expressive subtitles.

But in musical traditions such as the various styles of popular a cappella in which there is both a strong sense of shared musical vocabulary and a significant overlap in personnel between those who write and those who perform, the older model seems to prevail. It is possible to make interpretive decisions based on a combination of awareness of the general performance habits of the style and the clues buried in how the music is written.

Factors that arrangers use to give hints to performers about how the music should go include the following:

  1. Tempo
    • Voicing. Tighter voicing implies a faster tempo; wider voicing implies a slower tempo.
    • Behaviour of lines. Lots of repeated notes and small steps suggest a faster tempo than rangy lines with large intervals.
    • Harmonic rhythm. The more frequent the chord changes, the slower the tempo.
    • Harmonic colour. The dirtier the harmony, the slower the tempo. If it’s all triads and dominant sevenths, it should rollock along at a sprightly pace; if it’s all half-diminished chords and minor sevenths, you need to hang around and luxuriate in them.
  2. Dynamics
    • Range. We all know that higher notes carry further (at least through air – whales take a different approach to pitch and communication from parrots). So, we can usually expect the dynamic contour of a song to correlate with the melodic contour. Sure, there are exceptions where the highest melodic note may want to be floated pianissimo – but we can usually identify these moments by the behaviour of the other parts (see below). If all parts are high in their voices, that’s a good hint that it really is the dynamic climax.
    • Voicing. High, tight chords produce big bright sounds (aka ‘you can ring the snot out of the them’); lower and widely spaced chords want balancing a little more carefully and usually sit most happily in a lower dynamic level. This is related to the point above about range, of course, as width of voicing results from relative pitch level of the parts.
    • Harmonic colour. You can use my chart of harmonic charge to make these decisions. Chords in the relaxed, soft and passive regions will need singing more relaxed, softly and passively than chords in the bright, tense and active dimensions.
  3. Rhythm/rubato.
    • Homophony. If all the parts are singing the same words at the same time, you have more opportunity to play with the rhythmic delivery of the melody. Conversely, if the parts are working more independently, they’ll all (including the melody) need to coordinate to the external reference point of regular metre rather than to the vagaries of a rubato-clad melody.
    • Syncopation. Likewise, if the notation indicates syncopated rhythms, this obligates the performer to present a clear and well-characterised rhythmic framework to bounce the syncopations off. The entire point of syncopation, after all, is its interplay with the metre, so the audience needs to hear the metre as well as the syncopations if they’re to have any fun.
    • Embellishments. I thought I’d save the most obvious to last. Embellishments are where the arranger drops hints about performance that really aren’t hidden at all. Harmonically-rich swipes at the end of phrases tell you to ease your way gradually out of that phrase and into the next, while propulsive up-beats in the bass line chivvy the rhythm along. The embellishments are the place where the arranger tells you most clearly how they’d sing the song.
  4. To illustrate these principles when Amy raised the point in class, I played Nightlife’s performance of David Wright’s arrangement of Basin Street Blues – as clear an example as you’ll ever get of the shaping of dynamics, tempo and rhythm over the entire form using the structural elements of the arrangement. And it follows that, just as you can judge the quality of a performance by how well it picks up on the hints encoded in the chart, you can judge the quality of an arrangement by the clarity and consistency of the hints it drops.

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