Balancing Structure and Texture in the Capital
Wednesday saw the highest temperature of the year so far recorded in West London - which was where I spent that evening, coaching Capital Connection. I was fully prepared for it to be a bit of a steamy struggle, but the chorus was prepared. The combination of strategic positioning of the risers between open doors and windows, and two floor-standing fans kept the working environment reasonably civilised, and we were able to get on with making music without undue distraction.
We were working on the same material as in my last visit, but this time turning our attention to larger-scale structural processes, particularly in their up-tempo contest song. We started off considering the musical/emotional shape of sections of 16 bars - the span of the primary musical statements in this piece. By making the openings more narrative and less emphatic, there was room for a more dramatic growth to the arrival point of each phrase. Making the implicit shape more explicit allows the music room to grow and develop as it unfolds.
We also looked at the role some surprising harmonic shifts in the song's overall trajectory. At the end of the first complete statement of the chorus, there is a moment where what one expect to be a perfect cadence lands in dramatically unrelated key. It is a nice bit oaf arranging actually (David Wright, in case you hadn't guessed), with all the lines being quite simply singable, but producing a striking tonal result.
The fact that it was easily singable, however, meant that the chorus had learned it without remark, and were tending to sing it likewise without remark. They were singing it as if it were a normal rather than extraordinary thing to do. Well, they are used to doing it, so it is normal for them.
But for an audience member, this is the first and most vivid of a series of harmonic twists and turns that lift the second half of the song from mere repetition of material with a bit of decoration to an exciting tonal journey that raises the emotional stakes of the song considerably. So the chorus need to make conscious use of that moment to make the audience sit up in their seats.
Another issue we explored was managing balance in non-homophonic textures. Where there are different word sounds going on at the same time, it is easier for those in the melody to get swamped by its accompaniment. We are used to thinking of balance in terms of volume relationships, which in one sense it is, but thinking of it only like this risks producing a less engaged performance as the accompanying parts 'back off' in all senses at once.
And balance can never be 'set' as a fixed level of volume for each singer, since the acoustic relationships shift in different performance spaces, and with different personal. It needs to be controlled in real time, so we need methods to gauge and respond to the needs of the occasion. The basic trick is to listen out for the melody, and if you can't hear it, to listen louder until you can. Leading with your ears hands volume control over to your intuitive sense of musicianship and avoids that sense of disengagement you hear when people are using their technical brains to adjust their performance.
But we went beyond this basic technique, to explore balance in terms of expressive relationships. One passage counter-pointed a static melodic line with a series of echoes that ran into a continuous, quirky kind of patter effect. We modelled the relationship of this as making comments in real time to someone about something you are both witnessing, without wanting to distract attention away from that thing. You know, like when you mutter to your neighbour about a detail of the music while your director is giving you instructions, ahem.
This brought the relationship between the parts nicely into focus. The patter was invested with expressive energy, but it kept an eye on the main event the whole time.
We had a similar moment later with a bass melody in which the upper three parts had quite a lot of 'Oh's as backing. In this kind of texture, it's tempting to see these as neutral vowels that are just there to provide sonic wash, but as the vowels had clearly been chosen because of 'Oh!'s in the actual lyric, we looked at using them for their exclamatory power to keep the backing invested with meaning/characterisation.
To talk of a more 'complex' texture is usually presented from the listener's perspective - there's more going on at once that requires your attention. But it also requires a more complex response from the singers, expressively as well as technically. You're not just presenting a message together as you are in a homophonic passage, you're dividing your own attention between the primary message, which you may not yourself be involved in presenting, and other elements that need to subordinate without losing their expressive presence.