Ensemble Singing and the Illusion of Oneness

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The Composer’s Voice by Edward Cone is a classic of music theory that, though flawed in many ways (as all startlingly innovative theories are), still fuels my thinking about music meaning and its illusions 25 years after I first read it. One of the flaws is how misleading the title is, since the book breaks out of the dominant post-Romantic cliché of music being all about the composer’s message to the listener, and gives a way to hear instead the virtual voices the composer has created.

The key concept he introduces is that of musical personae: virtual characters emerging from the music, whose story the music tells. There are all kinds of interesting questions this raises in instrumental music – how you identify personae, how you interpret the narratives – but his starting point is the simpler case of song. When you have lyrics to sing, it is clear that you are representing a character, a fictional being at a certain point in a story, and the clues as to your backstory and setting can be found in both the words and the musical setting.

However, the ways musical personae manifest in song is only genuinely straightforward if you are a soloist performing without accompaniment. Cone develops his theory by exploring how the voice-piano duo of Lieder creates the illusion of a single virtual character, and this illusion-weaving is even more clearly central to ensemble singing. Four people – or indeed 60 people – singing in the first person, singing as ‘I’, is heard as a single character with whom the audience identifies.

One of the key challenges for ensemble singers is how to create this illusion. It relies, of course, on the audience understanding the conventions of the genre and being willing to suspend disbelief. But what the singers do, both vocally and visually, can help or hinder the process. Each time a listener looks at a face, they want to see that individual singer’s believable involvement in the narrative; equally, they want to experience that individual involvement as part of, rather than a distraction from, the gestalt.

The thing that got me thinking about this again is an increasing trend in barbershop performances to place individuals out in front of a chorus performance to represent the characters in the narrative. This is a performance tradition that goes back many years of course, but it has been used relatively sparingly, at least in the UK, over the past two decades. Its appearance in relatively greater numbers of performances comes in response to the changing of contest judging categories from Presentation to Performance.

So, here’s the thing. I write purely as an audience member (though, it has to be said, an audience member who likes music theory). When I’m watching an individual play the part of the song’s primary persona, my attention is, not unreasonably focused on that person. In this sense, it is a supremely successful means to create the illusion of individuality out of a chorus of several dozen people.

But at the same time, it means I get to the end of the performance with very little sense of those other singers or their expressiveness. The performance has been designed to pull my eyes down to the one from the many, and it succeeds to the extent that I don’t see what the many are doing. I bet a lot of them are singing their hearts out. Their efforts are probably seen by Performance judges who are trained to look at everyone’s faces whatever other schtick is going on, but they are missed by most of the people they are there to sing to.

Something similar can happen to the music in these performances too. Because the song doesn’t originate from the representative performer, but is generated by the whole ensemble, it can start to act more as background music than as utterance. It can start to function as a commentary on the action, rather than the impulse from which the action flows. The dramatic persona, instead of helping create the illusion of the musical persona, comes to supplant it.

There’s something grounding in the old-fashioned principle that a barbershop chorus shouldn’t do anything a quartet couldn’t. It’s a principle that is increasingly stretched these days (choral breathing anyone?), but it is a useful unifying ethos that continues to maintain the forms of the genre in a usefully meaningful relationship with one another. Vocally and musically, each form acts as a useful training ground for the other.

It is a useful reference-point for performance choices too. The fascination of a quartet performance is in how four singers can meld into one persona, with the story of the lyric and the colours of the harmonies becoming more vivid than any of their individual egos. It has that same kind of emergent magic that an overtone does – the creation of something together that no one of them could to alone.

Of course, you can do all kinds of things visually with a chorus that you could never achieve with a quartet, and it would be a pity not to. But let’s remember the magic. Let’s aspire to make the imaginative whole greater than the merely real.

I don't doubt that I'll be shot down in flames for daring to say this out loud, but I really don't like the growing trend of "circus" with song. It is undeniable that a certain amount of animation can make a performance exciting IF it's appropriate and relevant to the song, but when I see someone cart-wheeling onto stage mid song my heart freezes over and I feel irritation rather than admiration. For me it's an unwanted distraction that adds nothing to the quality of the sound.

Well, it's important when people are trying out new stuff that they get feedback about how it's going over, so thank you for contributing to the debate! I'd rather people were experimenting than playing it safe all the time, but by definition this means that not everything is going to hit the mark for everyone and people need to hear thsee audience responses to get the information they need to develop their ideas effectively.

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