Tone, Articulation & Venue

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In a comment on Thursday’s post on the Cheltenham Festival, my friend Sarra remarked on the subject of staccato singing:

… it's possible that in a very echoey space with many singers unused to such an acoustic, and preparing a performance in three days, it might be what you need. Just about.

On reflection it's a bit like running a car with vital bits tied on by string. :)

This reminded me that I’ve been intending to blog someday about the relationship between performance styles and the typical venues in which they’re found. Looks like someday has arrived.

So, when people talk about performance venues and musical style, they tend to get exercised about particular buildings: the coro spezzato style developed for St Mark’s in Venice, for instance, or pieces that Edward Bairstow wrote for York Minster. But there are more obvious generic things to note I think – possibly so obvious that nobody other than me thinks they’re worth remarking on, but I do, so here goes.

The first observation is the relationship between over-articulation and the soupy, boomy acoustics you get in the old stone churches and cathedrals around Europe. These buildings are fantastic for carrying choral tone, but they can swallow up pretty much all text unless it is vigorously asserted. I once heard a postgrad choral conductor tell the choir he was working with, ‘You can never have too much of the consonants!’ and thought that, while this is excellent advice within the walls of the cathedral tradition, in the rather dry lecture room they were rehearsing in it was starting to produce a rather overdone and mannered effect.

And of course, since so many conductor’s of Britain’s amateur choirs have their roots in the Anglo-Catholic high church tradition (not least because of the amazing musical grounding it provides its choristers), this style of articulation gets carried into all kinds of venues for which it was not originally devised.

The other arena in which the stone buildings that shaped the British choral tradition is most clearly heard is in the approach to choral tone. If you read the American choral literature, there is something of a mistrust of the straight tone traditionally associated with men and boys choirs (and produced just as readily by adult women in Oxbridge colleges). Writers like Sandra Willetts and John Hylton consider this style, rather contradictorily, to be both authentic to Renaissance music, but unnatural and possibly unhealthy for modern singers in its lack of vibrato.

I wish I could remember what the choral recording was that gave me my penny-drop moment on this. It was a chamber choir, singing something quite harmonically rich on Radio 3 about 7 o’clock one morning (which is probably why I didn’t catch the details). But I can remember very clearly thinking: ‘this needs either less vibrato or a drier acoustic – Oh!’ So my working hypothesis is that all choral traditions like a degree of bloom on the sound, and depending on where they typically sing, they will add this either by the use of vibrato or by using the resonant acoustics of the venues.

This is true at a single choir level: all experienced directors know it is dangerous to rehearse regularly in an acoustic that is significantly more generous than the performance venue. But it’s also true at the level of a performance tradition’s generally accepted norms. To say that the British choral tradition is shaped by ecclesiastical structures and the American by school structures is refer both to their built environments and their processes of institutional knowledge by which people are trained up to know 'how we do this'.


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