The White Rosettes and the Conductor-Choir Bond

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I spent Wednesday evening with my friends the White Rosettes in Leeds with the remit to feed into their developing vision of two new contest numbers. In part this was a reality-check regarding the ideas they are exploring for a delivery that in places departs significantly from the previous performance tradition of those songs. When you have been getting excited about reimagining music in new ways, it can be useful to have an outsider available to verify that you’re still going to connect with people who are used to hearing it the conventional way.

In this case, the answer was: yes, that’s a great vision, and here are a few adjustments to its execution that will help you realise it more easily.

(The reason the description of this process is written so abstractly is not just due to my penchant for theorising. It’s actually so I don’t give the game away about the detail of what they’re doing. Quite a lot of the audience these songs are intended for read this blog and I don’t want to spoil the surprise.)

I have written before about the notion of ‘benign unintended consequences’, that is, how you can tell something was a good idea because it delivers unanticipated side-effects that are also beneficial. Usually I think about this in terms of things like rehearsal techniques, but I was noticing it here in terms of the tweaks we were making to the shaping of some passages. We’d make one small change, and all kinds of other things would sort themselves out without needing specific attention.

So that’s a useful feedback process to note: you can tell if a change is what the music was asking for if it shortens your to-do list of other changes to make.

When developing the performance of songs new to an ensemble, a lot of the work is in taking the general shape of the whole, and colouring it in, finding the shape and texture that brings the surface of the music to life. (The image that comes to mind here is that of the Magic Eye pictures - despite the fact that I am hopeless of seeing the hidden pictures in those.)

Several times during this process, we found that the key to bringing out a particular moment wasn’t actually to do anything to the detail itself, but to change what happens immediately before it. For instance, there was particular vocal colour they were introducing at the moment of a harmonic change that was exactly what was needed, but which wasn’t producing the impact it should because the previous phrase was too similar.

The White Rosettes’ director, Sally McLean, is one of the four conductors whose technique I profiled in detail in my second book; she remains the most consistently successful barbershop director in the UK and is a joy to watch in action. On this encounter, I was particularly noticing the relationship between her ears and her gestures, as I am in the middle of writing a series of posts about expressive gesture (coming soon!).

When a director and ensemble inhabit what Merleau-Ponty refers to as ‘the same house of being’, you move beyond a world in which the director displays for the chorus to follow, into a space that is much more deeply interactive. You can hear in the musical texture where the conductor is focusing their attention, and how they are mentally inviting the singers to bridge the gap between the physical sound in the room and their imagined ideal. You see gestural changes that are far too subtle to effect consciously or deliberately, but which are instead part of the director’s thought process.

That’s what’s going on when I say I enjoy watching Sal listen chords into tune.

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