Simultaneity and Coordination

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legosquishBack in February when I was coaching NoteOrious, I had one of those penny-drop moments where an idea pops out that you instantly recognise needs some thinking about. In this case it was the sentence: ‘Simultaneous isn’t necessarily the same as well-coordinated’.

We often think of the concept of ensemble in primarily terms of synchronisation. Singing (or playing) at the same time is central to our perception of the ‘tightness’ of a group, and a lack of synchronisation is often the most audible symptom of slightly (or endemically) dysfunctional relationships within the group.

But ensemble is more than just matching each other in time – it’s notable that we use the same word to mean both the group itself and particular quality of the group’s actions. So, whilst a lack of simultaneity is the most immediately striking aspect of a lack of ensemble, it isn’t necessarily the root of the problem. Working on getting your onsets and releases more together, while useful at one level, might not be enough to create the feeling that the group is working as a unit. Hence: ‘Simultaneous isn’t necessarily the same as well-coordinated’.

In this way, synchronisation is a bit like tuning, in that it’s more useful thought of as a way to diagnose more fundamental issues than as a problem to fix in its own right.

So, what are the extra qualities beyond simultaneity that make an ensemble sound well-coordinated? As I so often find myself writing, these can be thought of in two different dimensions.

First, there is the vocal/technical dimension – to what extent are the performers making sound in the same way? Elements that affect the sense of ensemble include:

  • Vocal colour: placement, resonance, vowel shape
  • Articulation: degree of muscular effort put into consonants, length of time taken over word sounds
  • Volume relationships: balance according to role of parts in texture and/or role of note in chord

Second, there is the musical/imaginative dimension – to what extent are the singers thinking and feeling the music in the same way? Questions of colour are in this context recast as questions of atmosphere and expressive purpose; questions of articulation become definitions of groove or rhythmic flavour. The vocal/technical dimension is about what you do, while the musical/imaginative dimension is about why you do it.

A successful ensemble will work in both of these dimensions, of course, shunting regularly between means and end as their primary focus. And when that flow is working well, it can be hard to tell which end you’re at. The prompt that made me come back to this idea was an image my friend Sarra came up with for getting harmonies to lock: ‘It’s like building lego,’ she said, ‘You can’t just lay the bricks on each other, you’ve got to squish them together.’ So is that technical or imaginative? The idea is clearly expressed in strongly metaphorical terms, but the process it describes is the vocal coordination of resonance.

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