The White Rosettes in Micro and Macro

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Wednesday took me up to Leeds to work with the White Rosettes on a collection of three stupendously big David Wright arrangements, any one of which would be a major undertaking for a normal chorus. But the White Rosettes aren’t particularly interested in normality, and it gave us the opportunity to explore the specific challenges that monster charts present.

The vocal challenges are those of stamina and control, of course. And the White Rosettes didn’t need my help with these. They operate at a high level of vocal fitness, engendered not just by the challenges they set themselves in their repertoire but also by the pace and intensity of their rehearsal habits.

But music such as this sets mental challenges too, and they can’t be solved purely by doing what you’d do for regular pieces, only more so.

These challenges operate in two dimensions, and both involve changing your level of focus away from the surface of the music. The process reminds me of those resources that illustrate different orders of magnitude of size outward from human scale. Complexity requires attention down into the micro-scale, while size requires attention to larger spans of musical time than usual.

One of the features of David Wright’s ambitious up-tempo arrangements is the use of fast rhythmic word sounds to provide fizz and sizzle in the embellishments. The consonants, especially the unvoiced sounds such as ss, t, k, and f, act as a percussion section to the chorus, akin to the high-hat and tambourine. We focused in on this dimension through whispering the music. Removing vocal tone draws attention to this rhythmic structure, and allows everyone to hear the effect when the sounds are really energised and precise.

Another way to focus in on the micro-scale is to slow the music right down and give attention to chords that, at tempo, only sound fleetingly. In the process we discovered that the chords that occur on linguistically strong syllables were much more secure and locked than those on the kind of de-emphasised syllables and/or neutral vowels that the brain tends to skip over in conversation. At the same time, it was typically the light, de-emphasised syllables that that the more interesting chords: the richer flavours, the dirtier feel. Giving time to notice and appreciate the expressive effects of sounds that in performance are too short to identify consciously gives a depth and a richness to the music that you can’t find when the mind is skipping over the surface like a skimmed stone on water.

At the macro scale, we first talked about song-mapping, about how having a mental overview of a piece gives a structure on which to hang the detail. Any piece of music, however long, can be represented on a single piece of paper, and doing so lifts you out of the overwhelming welter of detail to give you a clearer sense of where you are in the overall trajectory.

We then started to look at rhythm on scales bigger than the single bar. The chorus have a strong commitment to rhythm and metre, and are good at getting a sense of drive at this level. But in longer pieces, there are a lot of bars, and driving the rhythm using beat and bar alone gets very tiring. It’s like cycling in a low gear all the time.

So we started to look at hypermetre - that is the patterns of accent and lift that operate in longer rhythmic units. And the key point about this is to establish whereabouts the accents fall. In David’s arrangement of ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes’, you find the patterns are lift-pulse (rather than pulse-lift) whether you’re looking at groups of two bars, four bars or eight bars.

Once you start feeling these longer rhythmic units as framing and organising the drive at the level of beat and bar, it feels like you’re striding through the music in long graceful leaps rather than pumping hard taking innumerable exhaustingly little steps. And you start to find all kinds of extra drama and relief in the music as the longer-range rhythmic structures draw attention to details that no longer had to fight for attention amongst everything else that was going on.

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