Arranging for 8 parts

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Having spent the last decade producing close-harmony arrangements for 4-part, single-sex ensembles, I’m starting to get interested in how to arrange for 8-part, mixed groups. Part of this is driven by demand – I’ve seen female and male quartets sing together often enough to notice that there’s a need for repertoire. Moreover, when I hear those performances, my response is almost always either (a) oh wow, that sounds great, I want to do that too! or (b) OMG that’s such a hokey chart, surely there must be better music out there!

Both of those are the kind of response to make me want to play this game.

So I’ve been looking at the various approaches other arrangers take, and here is my preliminary list of how you might go about this.

  1. Male quartet + Female quartet. This makes sense to ensembles and audiences if the 8 parts comes from the joining of two pre-existent quartets for a particular performance. My feeling is that it makes most sense musically when there is a boy-girl dynamic to the song. I used some boy+girl textures in Summer Nights, because it was built into the song. If it’s just done to feature the two groups, it feels a bit arbitrary to me – the ear is asked to flip between different vocal ranges without a clear narrative purpose.
  2. SATB quartet + SATB quartet. This gives the chance to indulge in layering, or echo or antiphonal type things while keeping the ears in the same pitch range, and keeping a complete musical texture available at all times. It draws attention to texture and interchange. It can be interspersed freely with the next one, too.
  3. SATB divisi. This texture is the one that gets used for really lush, dirty harmonies. If you want a big wash of sound over the complete range of a mixed voice ensemble, this is the one to use.
  4. Lead+choir+rhythm section. This is a texture that Deke Sharon uses, and that I really like. It rides a coach and horses through any preconceptions about voice part and role, or indeed the origin of the ensemble, and uses the instrumental textures of popular song traditions to divvy up the voices’ roles.

So, the nature of the musical material is one of the ways to decide on texture. There are also of course questions about performance conventions. You don’t want to be writing very agile, intricate and rangy lines a la Swingle unless the singers are going to be using microphones – you just can’t get the same level of flexibility if you are projecting at full voice.

There’s also the question of one voice per part or a choral ensemble. My intention in the first instance is to be producing arrangements that will work in both media, as I generally do when writing in four parts. (Hmm, those differences are ones I’ll need to haul out of my intuitive, nonverbal brain into my verbal one for a future post, I think.)

The origin of the ensemble also makes a difference in how you treat melody. I’ve spent so long embedding melodies into the middle of close-harmony textures, I find myself quite reluctant to stick it back on the top as you typically would for an ensemble that names its top part ‘soprano’. This is partly because barbershop tenors (male and female) are used to singing very lightly, tucking their notes into the top of the chord for sparkle without drawing attention to themselves, and can often sound quite unworldly and not very authoritative when required to sing the main musical idea. But then, there is also a hunch that it might be a good idea to tame sopranos into participating in the full texture, and giving them centre stage might not be the best way to do that.

In any case, it’s clear that vocal and performance habits picked up in other genres are going to have a significant impact on how singers approach these textures, so whatever approach I take for a particular song, it will be important to write the parts and the textures in a way that makes the vocal approach they call for unambiguous.

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