Fascinating Rhythm on South Rampart Street

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FRmar12Saturday saw me back with my friends Fascinating Rhythm to work with them on David Wright’s arrangement of ‘South Rampart Street Parade’. It is a classic chart for reasons that I came away with a renewed appreciation for, and it is a good choice for them at their current stage of development: they have to raise their game to sing it, but it is a challenge within their reach. And it has that wonderful characteristic that, tricky as it is, it lifts performers – it actually helps them out-perform what they previously thought they were capable of.

The primary challenges the arrangement presents are that it is (a) long and (b) full of intricate detail. It can start to feel rather relentless – a dash down the motorway to the destination rather than a journey with interesting sights to see en route. But it turns out that the solution to problem (a) can be found by relishing point (b). Once you start to enjoy all the fun things you come across on the way past, you get a much clearer sense of the song’s route-map, and it stops feeling such a drain on your stamina.

The arrangement has characteristic patterns of contrast in multiple dimensions. For instance, there are the quasi-orchestral contrasts between solid harmony and patter-like riffs that feel like juxtapositions of wind/brass sonorities with percussive effects. We spent a lot of time talking about the textures in terms of instrumental colour.

Then there are the contrasts between the march and the dance, between the military associations of a parading band and the jazz associations of New Orleans. The overall feel is of the marching band, but there are constant irruptions of a more un-buttoned musical world as blue notes and syncopated push-beats spice up the narrative. The cultural miscegenation* that spawned barbershop from both European and African-American traditions lurks behind every phrase.

As we explored these contrasts, we discovered that the song’s form proceeds in patterns of build-up and release. Building phases are achieved in two ways. First, by never repeating any parallel statement (whether on the smaller or larger scale) without intensification. Direct repetition invites disengagement – people already know what’s coming because they’ve heard it before – so embellishment acts as a counter to these diminishing returns. Second, the switches are more frequent and more dramatic during the build-up phases, which release into more continuous phrases that work in longer musical units.

Even in the more relaxed sections, however, the arrangement is constantly playing with expectations. As soon as any kind of pattern is set up, this becomes an opportunity for a surprise – maybe subtle, maybe fleeting, but clearly a moment that makes you feel ‘ooh!’ This is why it comes over as a very witty arrangement.

So, this post looks on the face of it like it’s an account of David’s arranging skills rather than an account of our day’s work on performance. But in fact, it’s both at once. Most of what we did was delving into the detail of the arrangement and asking, ‘What’s that? Why is there? What does it mean?’ The answers to these questions meant that, ‘How should we sing it?’ pretty much answered itself. It is one of those songs in which you don’t need to remember a plan for the performance, you just need to understand how the music goes.

One moment I’d like to remark on in particular because it helped show a way out of the problem of semantic depletion in rehearsal. By the time you know a piece well enough to perform it, you are so used to it that you have stopped being surprised by the surprising bits, and tend to perform them as if they were perfectly obvious.

The key change that introduces the ‘Marching around’ section is like this. You’ve already had three different keys in as many phrases since the start of the song (which is pretty dizzying in itself), but you have this sense that things are going to get more continuous after the third statement (as things so often do). And they do indeed get more continuous – but only after another, bonus key change.

So we talked about why this was surprising, and it started sounding surprising…then start to drift back to normal. It got another dose of startlement when I asked the singers to pretend they were surprised …but started to slip again. By this time, I had figured out that a bit more oomph in the ‘r’ of ‘around’ would help energise the pivot chord – so this time I asked the singers to use this energised word sound as a means to surprise the music. Instead of the song goosing them, they were pinching the song’s bottom (this being the emotional impact of this series of key lifts I always think).

And this is something they can do at will. Indeed, they can get better at doing it with practice. Instead of surprise being an experience that fades away with familiarity, it becomes something that they control. I think that idea will come in handy again in the future.

* Good word, eh? I even figured out how to spell it without looking it up, which I am more pleased about than is strictly necessary.

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