Harmonious Yorkshire Spirits

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SpiritFeb17Thursday evening took me up to the Vale of York to work with Spirit of Harmony on some arrangements I delivered to them last year. I had arranged for the chorus several times some years ago, and also worked with a couple of smaller ensembles from within the chorus, but this was my first time coaching the full body of singers. As ever, I’m not going to tell you what the songs are so as not to anticipate the moment the chorus chooses to reveal them, but I can reflect on the process.

It’s an endlessly fascinating exercise in practical aesthetics negotiating how music should go: who decides, and how you decide. As an arranger I’ll have always imagined the delivery in depth as part of the arranging process – as Neil Watkins used to say, the arranger’s task is to conjour up the full performance in their mind, then write that down. But equally, it is the performer’s job and prerogative to bring their own creative imagination to the shaping of the narrative.

Consequently, the first time I hear an arrangement sung, it feels as if the voices in my head have moved out into the real world, and I never know exactly what they’re going to come out with. There’s quite a lot of, ‘Oh I wouldn’t have thought of that, but I see exactly what you mean’, as well as - particularly at this stage of the development process - a certain amount of, ‘I think this would work better done this way’.

The practical challenge is thus to negotiate the latter into something I find more convincing (since I have been invited to coach on the understanding that the arranger has a legitimate opinion on the matter), without trampling all over the sensibilities of performers who need to find their own way through the music if they are to perform it with conviction.

These differences of vision precipitate analysis. We all have to work out why the music is leading us in the direction we feel it. And, in the same way that listening to different performances of the same piece gives you a richer understanding of its substance (as I discussed last week), teasing out the implications of the different musical elements we are each responding to deepens all of our appreciation of both the detail and the whole.

The thing I find particularly interesting about this is the way that the performer informs the arranger as well as vice versa. The stereotypical concept of the musical work sees it as a kind of production line, going from composer, through arranger where relevant, to performers, to listeners, with a clear sense of hierarchy: the further up the chain you are, the more authority you have. But in practice, it’s much more fluid – more like the product design cycle, through which the designer updates their concept in the light of prototype testing.

Actually, the product design cycle is a particularly apt comparison when, as in cases like this, the music has been commissioned by a particular ensemble. Although I’ve not coached the chorus before, I have heard their contest performances over several years, so had a reasonably clear sense of the voices and characters to imagine. And I know their director, Sally McLean, very well indeed. Those of you who have read my second book will recognise her name as one of the four directors I discussed in detail for my comparative analysis of choral conducting styles in different musical traditions. It’s not merely that I’m very fond of her as a friend, I have spent hours and hours documenting and theorising her musical gestures.

Consequently, these arrangements had been crafted with a clear and vivid picture of how I anticipated Sally would shape them. There were more than a couple of, ‘Oh I knew you’d do it that way’ moments. On the bits where we needed to negotiate adjustments to the delivery, I almost had to stop myself from saying, ‘I think you’ll find Sal would do it like this…’

After all that abstraction, I’d like to share my favourite metaphor of the evening, one of Sally’s. We were discussing why you need to have completed a tempo change and be securely in the new framework in plenty of time for a key change, and not let the two processes get tangled up. ‘It’s the same,’ she said, ‘as you have to get into the outside lane at 90 miles an hour before you get out your yoghurt and your spoon.’ Quite so.

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