A Cappella

8-Parter Project: Exploring Duets

Having played with texture and voicing in arranging a single-persona song for a double quartet/chorus ensemble, I have turned by attention to double-persona songs, or duets as you’d call them when each persona is represented by an individual singer rather than a group. The structure of combining a male and female ensemble, each with a pre-existent and ongoing identity as a performing unit, maps very easily onto the classic girl-boy duet structure, and the practice of groups combining for numbers when they appear on shows together means there is a ready need for charts they can sing together.

The first two questions I’ve bumped up against are as follows.

Key

The norm in barbershop writing is that women sing in a key about a 4th or a 5th higher than men would for the same arrangement. Duets, on the other hand, are typically written with both singers singing in the same key. In 8-part charts this often leads to the men being pushed a bit lower than is comfortable for them and/or the women being pushed a bit too high.

Harmonising Blue Notes

At the start of this year, I was sharing some feedback with an arranger on a chart-in-progress, and went to send him my post on the difference between blue 3rds and minor 3rds. It turned out that I’d never actually written it, and what I was remembering having written took place in an email conversation with Adam Scott back in 2014 when he was commissioning ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ for the Barbershop Harmony Society.

So it looks like I should probably get around to writing it now, as the technical and artistic challenges of blue notes for a cappella arranging aren’t going to go away.

Reconnecting with the Rhubarbs

rhubarbsfeb20

After my evening of quartet coaching, I spent all of Saturday and until early afternoon Sunday with The Rhubarbs, the chorus from which Note-4-Note had originally formed. Two of the singers are still with the chorus, and there was a strong continuity of culture between the two ensembles. In particular the sense of everyone taking individual responsibility for her own voice, and the use of a common gestural vocabulary for musical thought was a shared strength.

Striking in both was also the capacity to keep applying a concept or technique once learned: there was still the need for periodic reminders (they are much like other human beings like this), but you could also see people continuing to work with the ideas between mentions. One of the advantages of a culture of using gesture to think is that not only I can see what people are working on, but they constantly reinforce things for each other too.

Coaching Note-4-Note

note-4-noteI spent my last evening as a citizen of the European Union in Bonn working with Note-4-Note quartet. I can highly recommend this as an experience as we could all get thoroughly immersed in the music and forget all the nonsense going on in the public sphere. Also, they are lovely people to work with. (Mind you, I say that a lot – maybe I only get booked by people who have figured out we’ll be compatible!)

They have been together for about three years now, and it was clear in the way they approached their warm-up that they were used to working together. There was a sense both of each singer taking responsibility for her own voice and vocal development, and of a coordinated approach to how to do this. They are very physically engaged as they sing, in the sense of keep the whole body flexible and connected to the vocal mechanism, and also in the sense of using gesture freely to aid their thought processes about both vocalising and musical shape.

8-Parter Project: Thoughts on Balance and Voicing

Having walked through the differences in range and characteristic vocal behaviours of the respective singers SSAATTBB versus M&F quartet textures, it is time to consider the implications for how we combine them into harmony. This is the bit where I’m finding, so far, the greatest tension between the idea of two discrete ensembles in combination and a single, 8-part texture.

First, a basic principle of voicing. Generally, you want the notes lower down in the chord to be spaced wider apart than those higher up in the chord. This is true not just of a cappella writing, but tonal music in general: having spent my formative years as a pianist, my left hand is actually bigger than my right, due to having perpetually to reach wider spans with it.

This is both relative and absolute. In both male and female barbershop textures, you’ll generally have the tenor tucked in tighter to the top of the chord, and the bass a bit further away in open voicings, and you’ll tend to avoid closed voicings in lower tessituras.

8-Parter Project: The Nature of the Ensemble

So, having thought about how different types of song persona play out in a mixed 8-part ensemble, it is time to think about the nature of that ensemble, in the first instance with a single-persona song. The process of revisiting my chart of ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’ from 2008 (coming soon to Sheet Music Plus) has got me reflecting on how an SSAATTBB group (or SATB divisi as it turns out easier to say in conversation) is quite a different animal from combined male and female barbershop ensembles, whether quartet or chorus.

Back in 2008 I was clearly thinking about SSAATTBB for this chart, and it is interesting to see how certain decisions I made back then signal it very clearly. In the process of revising it, I have deliberately chosen to recraft for combined barbershop groups, and this post articulates some of the ways in which the two formats of 8-part group differ. A later post will go on to reflect on balance and voicing.

8-Parter Project: Initial Thoughts

As I mentioned back in October, I have decided to stop taking arrangement commissions for the first half of 2020 in order to embark on a project to explore 8-part arranging that I’ve had on the ‘to do later’ pile for over a decade. I made all kinds of interesting inroads into the technical and artistic questions it raises back in 2007 when I arranged ‘Summer Nights’ for the combined LABBS and BABS youth choruses, and then followed up with an SSAATTBB chart of ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’ in 2008, which has never been sung.

That was probably one of the last charts I did just for the sheer fun of it, without a particular ensemble in mind, before I found myself blessed with a constant stream of commission requests. Having had the opportunity to perform Renee Craig’s 8-part chart of ‘With a Song in My Heart’ with the Telfordaires on our sister chorus’s 10th anniversary show in November, my thoughts had been turning back to these questions, and I decided that if I wanted to find time to explore them, I was going to have to make time.

Miscellaneous Thoughts on Tonality and Musical Architecture

Sometimes you get weeks when different areas of your life keep bringing you back to the same set of thoughts from different angles. Back in the summer I was thinking a lot about Schenker, in the context of a keynote paper I was writing on tonal integrity for the conference in Portugal at the start of November. In choral music we often think about tonal integrity in the simple, functional sense of not going flat, but Schenker is useful for standing back and considering tonality as both an organising principle for long spans of musical time and as a human quality: centredness, in touch with the true.

(I am aware that one of the reasons why most musicians avoid thinking too much about Schenker’s theories as metaphors for life is that he came out with some obnoxiously snobbish views in this mode. But you don’t have to agree with someone to learn from them, and I don’t mind too much if he ends up turning in his grave at the conclusions I end up drawing from his work.)

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