Green Street Blues and the Integrated Song

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On Tuesday I spent an evening with Green Street Blues to help kick off their pre-convention preparation season, and the focus of our work was on the new contest uptune that they commissioned from me earlier in the year. During my last visit back in April we had established the overall expressive approach to it, and our task now was move into the detail.

Whether I’m coaching my own arrangements or someone else’s, I’ll often find myself asking the ensemble to identify why an arranger might have written a certain detail in the way they did. And, interestingly, this interaction doesn’t feel very different whether or not I am the arranger. Sometimes I can recall having made specific decisions for particular reasons (and if so, I will share my reasoning), but more often singers will come up with a range of perfectly feasible reasons that I had not necessarily thought of.

For the purposes of singing the music, what matters is that people are thinking about how it is put together and making sense of it for themselves. Figuring out the ‘arranger’s intentions’ is a mental device, and ultimately it doesn’t really matter whether or not you get your head in exactly the same place as the arranger did, so long as you get your head in a place that plausibly accounts for the decisions the arranger made. And the arranger themself probably only has half a clue anyway.

Green Street Blues’s new uptune is Nat King Cole’s ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right’, and working with the detail gave me a renewed appreciation of the way a well-written lyric has musical qualities that can shape the whole characterisation. This song has certain key vowel sounds that keep returning (ride/fly/right/eye/lie; papa/top) and the choice of how to place these therefore colours the overall texture of the song. An English Home Counties pronunciation would tend to keep these placed quite far back, but by bringing them forward with an ‘a’ rather than an ‘ah’ quality (cat rather than cart), you get a brighter, edgier feel that fits with the tight, snappy rhythmic qualities.

Once these vowels are imbued with this feel, the vowels that are placed further back as a matter of course (‘cool down’) are more clearly contrasted, and sound inherently softer. Given the shape of the melody and the meaning of the lyric, the instinct would be to sing the ‘cool down’ phrase somewhat more quietly anyway, but it turns out the very way the words are shaped also promotes this effect.

We tend to think of vocal craft as being somewhat separate from musical interpretation. And we tend to think of the presentational dimension of performance as something slightly different again. And these distinctions are of course partly valid – they are things you can abstract and work on independently from each other in order to build specific skills and techniques.

But the distinctions are only partly valid. When you’re preparing the performance of a particular piece of music, you’re just preparing one thing: a performance. The musical structures, the message of the story and the physical sounds themselves aren’t experienced as simultaneous streams, the work together to give an overall impression. (Indeed, just as you don’t think of a chorus performance as 30 simultaneous performances from 30 different people but as a single, over-arching experience.)

At one point during the evening, I was asked whether the approach we were taking to the details was about the music, or was it more about the attitude of the song. And, you know, it was impossible to say that it was one or the other – it was just how it needed to go.

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