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Amersham A CappellaAmersham A CappellaI spent last Tuesday evening with my friends Amersham A Cappella, who had extended their usual rehearsal time and sacrificed their tea break in order to fit in as much coaching time as possible. The main agenda for the evening was working on an up-tempo number that they learned last year intending it for contest, but mothballed when it didn’t quite come into focus. So this was music they knew quite well – they weren’t struggling to remember notes and words – but did not have an ingrained imaginative or interpretive approach to it. In other words, it was ripe for an investigative session – indeed, the singers’ palpable desire to pull it into shape is what made the evening really productive.

We found ourselves using filmic metaphors frequently – not an unusual technique for me, but the results were quite striking and got me reflecting on the ways in which they work. There were three dimensions they were helping us in on this occasion.

  1. Concrete Imagery. I’ve noticed before that the more specific and detailed the singers’ imaginative engagement with the world of a song is, the more colour, texture and inflection comes through their voices. There’s a section in the song they’re working on that describes a group of jazz musicians arriving, which they were singing with a perfectly sensible dynamic plan – but it sounded rather like, well, a sensible dynamic plan rather than a dramatic moment in a story. Once we’d had a conversation about what these guys were wearing, the section sounded much more like a narrative infused with emotional (and indeed sexual) response.
  2. Characterisation. Once we started talking about the characters described by the lyrics, that propelled us into a discussion of the point of view of the song – who are ‘we’ when we sing this? Are we a fly-on-the-wall observer, an omniscient narrator, or a protagonist in story? And who is the audience? Thinking about how the camera’s eye positions us is a really useful analytical tool to work through these questions (which are not always stable in either songs or movies). Come to think of it, is the song diagetic or non-diagetic? That is, can the protagonists hear the music that the audience hears? (Again, the answer is not always stable.)
  3. Structure The camera’s eye also gives a vivid metaphor to conceptualise a song’s internal form. The main statement of the melody may work like an establishing shot, while sudden shifts of key work like cuts between shots. Cinematic gestures like panning can be heard in blossom effects. Stasis and motion are defined not just by the content (musical and lyrical) of a particular phrase, but also by the pace of the ‘editing’ within the scene. You can use music-analytic terminology to articulate these shapes (and I certainly use music-analytic categories to identify them), but visual and narrative metaphors produce more vivid performances. Not only are they easier to remember for the singers, but they also plug directly into their concept of the song as a dynamic experience, rather than sitting as a separate list of instructions to be followed alongside their understanding of the song’s content.

I was hosted for the night by Justine Nye at Springwell Barn, which is a gorgeous canalside barn conversion just minutes away from the M25. If you ever need a B&B in the Rickmansworth area, you’ll be pushed to find a better combination of beauty, comfort and convenience. She looked after me very well indeed and it’s the least I can do in thanks to give her a quick plug here!

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