Reflections on Texture, Persona, and Sharing the Candy

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When I joined the Telfordaires, the chorus repertoire included an arrangement of a popular ballad in which the leads had the melody, and, apart from a couple of short passages where the tenors duetted with them, everyone else sang ‘doo’ throughout. Members of the harmony parts had mixed feelings about the song. On the one hand, they recognised that it was very beautiful in performance and went down well with audiences (the Telfordaires really get their kicks from pleasing audiences), but on the other, having no lyrics to sing left them feeling a bit left out of the story.

I have been alert to the need to share the narrative and musical candy around ever since Sandra Lea-Riley commissioned me to arrange Moondance for Heartbeat with the memorable specification that they wanted a bassline that wasn’t just ‘all those damn dms’. So when I started to think about how I was going to approach another popular ballad I’ve recently been asked to arrange for a quartet, I went in with the thought that whilst the voice+guitar texture of the original lent itself beautifully to a melody+doo arrangement, I would find ways to move beyond this as the arrangement went on to keep all singers involved.

And then I had one of those penny-drop moments. I realised that the arrangement the Telfordaires used to sing was actually much more suited to a quartet than to a chorus. If a chart persistently features one part as the bearer of narrative, with the other three in the background, that is inviting the audience to invest their personal connection with the song in that particular singer. The soloist becomes the primary location of the song’s persona.

This is the source of the particular intimacy these kinds of song offer. As listeners, we can temporarily relax the suspension of disbelief that allows us to hear a four-person ensemble as representing the point of view of a single individual, and focus our attention on an actual individual as the character to identify with. In this context, sharing the candy round willy-nilly could risk disrupting that central connection.

In a chorus, you never get away from that central fiction that multiple people are presenting a single point of view. Even in an arrangement that features a single part as primary vehicle for the narrative, that part is made up of multiple voices. So, whereas in a quartet the role of the neutral-syllable harmony parts is to offer moral and musical support to a singer made more exposed and vulnerable than usual, the harmony parts in a chorus are more likely to feel short of material with which to be expressive.

So this penny-drop has not only revived my affection for the chart the chorus used to sing – I now want to hear it in quartet instead, though – but has got me thinking in fresh ways about how I’m going approach this new quartet commission. I’m still not going to keep the harmony parts on neutral syllables all the way through – my instinct is that would limit the emotional range of the arrangement – but I will be thinking less about sharing the candy around and more about how the audience identifies with the central persona of the song.

Central to these thoughts will be the concepts of intimacy and vulnerability that have emerged as I’ve reflected on the effects of different textures. There’s the intimacy between singer(s) and audience, and also within the ensemble. There’s the vulnerability, both vocal and personal, of the featured singer who loses the safe anonymity of being subsumed in the ensembles supra-identity to emerge as an individual. And there’s the emotional vulnerability of the song’s persona, in which lies the expressive heart of the song, and the reason the quartet have chosen to sing it.

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