The Holonomic Voice: Part 2

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In the confused ramble that was my last post, we explored the concept of the holonomic order, as discussed by Raymond Bradley. The reason I wanted to get to grips with this - apart from its interest in considering the social structure of choirs - is because it resonates with a remark made by a barbershop chorus director I was talking with back in the summer.

One of the questions this director was addressing was over-identification with voice-parts rather than the chorus as a whole. It was manifesting musically as too much contrast in vocal colour between the parts and consequently the harmonies were not always gelling. Socially, there was a degree of us-and-themness going on too.

It’s not just barbershop choruses who run into this problem of course, although some of that genre’s characteristic methods can encourage it. It is likely to emerge in any group, though, with some or all of the following features:

  • Large membership, such that it is hard to connect socially with all other members
  • Rehearsal methods that involve a significant amount of work in individual sections
  • Choral stacking largely by section
  • A culture of voice-part stereotypes

There are all kinds of things one can do, both musically and socially to mitigate this, and this director also shared a rather wonderful idea for approaching it vocally.

(I should add here that it goes against my instinct not to credit a good idea to the person who told it to me, but on the other hand I don’t want her singers to feel I’m talking about their intra-chorus issues in public. I’ve said thank you in private!)

What she was doing was to take the concept of pyramid balance, or cone of sound, which is the classic way to articulate the ideal for relationship between voice-parts in the genre, and she developed the idea that each individual voice should share that same structure. She was proposing that the voices should work holonomically.

Now, this is clever in all kinds of ways. In the first instance, it stops that flight to extremes that stereotypes of any kind promote. If you are characterised by what makes your role different from the others, it is all too easy to become reduced to that difference. And, whilst different voice parts do occupy different ranges and roles in any given genre, there’s an awful lot of overlap between them too. Singers are more alike than they are different.

Not only does the holonomic voice get people identifying with the whole rather than just the part, but it does so using genre-specific concepts. This is why I wanted the poncy word and put you through all that agony of definition in my last post.

Because you could deal with this problem, vocally, through addressing registers. You could help the basses find their head voices and mix them down into their fuller range. You could help the tenors open up their lower registers, and integrate them to support and enrich their top notes. You could help leads and baritones negotiate their passaggio in the context of their respective musical functions.

Those are all useful things to do of course. But using the concept of the overall texture as the means through which to address control of register is a very elegant way of doing things. It gives individuals fewer different things to try to remember at once, and it strengthens their understanding of the musical whole at the same time as it gives them a concept with which to control their voice.

One can use this same holonomic principle in other vocal textures of course. SATB music tends to use a more cylindrical than pyramidal ideal of balance, and a more polarised function between top and bottom lines. This in turn would encourage the singer to develop a slightly different relationship with their registration, just as the expectations for vocal colour and placement vary by genre.

The term ‘SATB music’ itself is a generalisation from a huge variety of choral repertories, and I would expect that you’d find quite significant variation in structure and texture depending on whether you were in baroque filligree or Beethovenian hugeness. But the notion of a holonomic voice still gives you a means to adapt sound to style, while still enrolling all singers in the same musical project.

You can see why I got excited about this idea, can’t you? Simple enough to grasp readily, flexible enough to work in all kinds of different musical circumstances, and holistically dealing with voice, music and identity in one neat package. What more could you ask from a concept?

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