Soapbox: Allocating Parts for Emotional Damage

soapboxIn SATB music, it’s relatively easy figure out which part people should sing if they don’t already know. The texture is built around a divide by sex, with a split between higher and lower voices in each. So you just see what kind of range someone has, and slot them in where the notes they have and the notes the music needs coincide. Some people (counter-tenors, female tenors) defy the first part, but the stratification by range still works, so the model as a whole presents safe a generalisation of how to go about things.

One of the defining characteristics of barbershop music is that the parts are all much less differentiated by range (there’s a clue in the description ‘close-harmony’). Thus, most people can readily sing at least two of the parts, usually three, sometimes all four. You’d think this would take some of the pressure off the decision-making process of part-allocation, but in fact it seems more often to intensify the reliance on social stereotyping in identifying parts.

Three-Part Textures and Complete Chords

I have been working with a couple of composers and arrangers recently who have been working in textures with three vocal lines, accompanied by a piano (in one case with several other instruments too, but with the piano at the heart of the band). A question that has cropped up with all of them is to what extent you need the vocal parts to present a complete harmonic texture if the piano is there to fill in the chords for you.

Of course, you can’t actually get complete chords in a three-voice texture unless you only use triads, but you can still make the differences between something that sounds like it is giving you enough harmonic information and something that sounds empty. All this is in the context of the harmonic conventions of western tonality as used in 20th-century popular song traditions; other conventions are available of course, but this was the world to which these particular musicians had made their stylistic commitments.

The generalisations we came up with about how this texture works best are as follows:

Remote Rehearsing and Trust

When I asked the Telfordaires Music Team what we’d look back on this period and see as something we gained from it, our bass section leader Eddie identified increased levels of trust within the chorus. This not only warmed my heart, but offered some interesting thoughts to reflect on about the structure of activities and how they shape relationships within a group.

When he talked about trust, Eddie was thinking primarily about the way the practicalities of remote rehearsing mean people spend much more time singing to each other than singing together. It makes you feel more vulnerable to do this, but by the same token your fellow singers are moved to be more supportive in recognition of this. We do much of this in smaller groupings – sections, pairs/threes – so that it’s a more personal and private environment in which to put yourself on the line. This also allows reciprocity – if everyone is taking it in turn to do this, everyone is in the same boat.

Into the Wilderness

The choral world is currently processing the consensus that emerged last week that singing in groups is one of the highest risk activities for spreading Covid-19 and that we shouldn’t expect to restart rehearsals until there’s an effective vaccine.* There’s a fair bit of denial going on, and occasional anger (to be expected, as the first stages of grief), but we are collectively gradually moving on to ask: okay, so now what?

Before all this broke last week, I had scheduled a post on a thought experiment about what it would take to return to normal, but I deleted it as it was overtaken by events. I suppose it’s worth noting that the primary thing I was contemplating as a pre-requisite for a return to rehearsal – a robust contact-tracing regime – may still actually be fine for those countries like New Zealand and South Korea that have succeeded in getting their community transmission rates right down. But for those of us in the UK and US where not only are transmission rates still high, but there doesn’t appear to be much political will to reduce them, the advice that we shouldn’t revert to our beloved super-spreading habits until there’s a vaccine remains more realistic for now.

So, now we are staring the despair in the face, what do we do?

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