8-Parter Project: The Cost-per-Wear Problem

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One of the practical issues facing a chorus or quartet planning to join with another for a joint piece on a particular performance is that it needs rehearsing properly to bring it to the stage, but you don’t get nearly so much performance use out of it, unless the two ensembles are appearing together regularly. 8-parter, double-ensemble pieces are inherently expensive of rehearsal time on a cost-per-wear basis.

Hence, one of the challenges I set myself during my exploration of this form is to discover whether it is possible to produce an 8-part, double ensemble chart in which the parts for each separate ensemble are also musically complete in their own right. It would be much more useful, after all, if you could both learn a song in parts that fit your own range properly, use it in your regular performance programme, and then sing it together at joint events.

My first experiment was to take a couple of phrases of my chart for White Christmas that I did for my former quartet, and add the parallel men’s parts to see if it looked even possible to do this. I picked this one because I thought of it as bass melody, and thus imagined that the men’s lead line would work at the same pitch quite happily. In fact, though, it turned out to be Lara melody, not bass. Lara usually sang bass in our quartet, but since we were all from Magenta and thus used to switching around parts at will, when I wrote for us specifically, I had the ranges much more tangled up than usual.

Hence, it took a bit of reworking of the original women’s arrangement to start this experiment off, and I ended up playing with bass melody in the men and lead melody in the women an octave higher. Men’s tenor and women’s baritone spent a good deal of time doubling, as did men’s lead and women’ bass. Interestingly, though, you couldn’t just mechanically transfer the parts over; they’d go for a couple of bars in tandem, then either the range or the voicings would become awkward and it would need tweaking. Still, it was clear that it was going to be possible to get this kind of parallel chart working.

Having ascertained the viability of the project, I stopped on that one. Partly because I didn’t really want to have two versions of White Christmas out there, and partly because my chorus already includes this song in a medley. I’m not doing this project specifically for my chorus, but I would like its outcomes at least to be potentially useful for them.

So at this point I turned my attention to the song ‘The Parting Glass’, a classic ‘thank-you-and-goodbye’ song which would be an appropriate show-closer at joint events. It also works nicely as a bass melody for the men in the outer phrases, and for the women in the middle phrase. It seems to me, given the respective prime ranges of men’s and women’s barbershop, you’re usually going to need songs that suit at least some bass melody to make this combined texture work.

One thing I found interesting as I worked through the detail was where it became possible to take the two groups in different directions. I set the first verse as pretty much entirely homophonic, since this kind of song invites everyone to participate in the lyric, but then introduced some textural variety for verse 2. And whilst of course the harmonies were the same for both groups, I ended up with somewhat different textural effects in the bridge, thus offering a rather more luxuriant and opulent effect when they are combined.

Having completed this chart, my feeling is that it fills a very useful ecological niche in the repertoire, but that you’re not going to want many of them in your performing set at any one time. The constraints of the form – i.e. both ensembles having musically complete textures to themselves – means that the combined sound is something of a Christmas pudding kind of experience. Very rich, full of fruit and nuts, soused in brandy, served with something creamy and artery-clogging. A special experience for a special occasion, but not something you’d eat every day, and best enjoyed in helpings of moderate size. (Specifically, the feature that creates this feel is the concentration of doubled 3rds. If the two ensembles didn't each have to have complete chords, I would be much more sparing with these, to give a more varied mouthfeel to the texture.)

At a technical level, this has been an excellent experience for increasing my sense of control over the voicings of the combined ensembles, and at an artistic level has increased my appreciation for the textural opportunities available when you don’t give yourself such strict constraints.

At a human level, I have developed a new criterion for assessing singability of lines. By chance, I was at the polishing stage of this arrangement the day that Jonathan and I met with our lawyer to sign new wills, and the juxtaposition got me thinking about opportunities for congregational singing at non-religious memorial events. I went back home and found myself judging the baritone lines by whether they’d make my friends trying to sight-sing them at my funeral curse my dead body.

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