Arranging for choral or one-a-part groups

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I mentioned in my post a few months ago on arranging for 8 parts that I’d need to come back to the question of what makes an arrangement suitable for a choral ensemble versus a quartet/octet – and indeed, what makes an arrangement suitable for either.

The barbershop tradition ostensibly makes no differentiation: the chorus is treated, for the purposes of contest repertoire, as a huge quartet, and thus should not indulge in anything a quartet could not manage (e.g. divisi writing or extended choral breathing). But we all know this is notional rather than absolute, and choruses in fact do lots of things that you can’t do in quartet, such as adjust balance by changing the number of voices on each part. But there’s still lots of interchange of repertoire between the two types of groups, and a sufficiently unified performing tradition that this works.

Arrangers, however, will still tend to be thinking of either quartet or chorus when they write (well, speaking for myself – but I have at least anecdotal evidence that I’m not alone in this). Sometimes – often – this is because we’re doing an arrangement for a specific group. One of the really fun things, indeed, is to be able to imagine the particular voices and personalities of an ensemble as you arrange for them. It acts as a very real set of constraints or guiding/limiting principles as you write, but in a holistic, intuitive way.

Even when I’m arranging something just because I want to, not for a commission, I’ll have a sense of the people I’d like to hear singing it. And so, I am always in fact arranging for a one-a-part ensemble or a chorus, but it’s never articulated at that categorical level. It’s Crossfire, or Eu4ia, or Capital Connection in my imagination. So I think I do take different approaches, but I haven’t really thought about it in either/or terms before.

For choruses, I’d tend to make more generic vocal demands. Both the limitations and capabilities you encounter in a quartet are very specific: range, best-sounding tessitura, flexibility, timbre can all be anticipated individually when thinking of the specific person who will sing a line. When it’s several people in a part, you know the general skill level and performing personality of the chorus, but you need to write things that are less idiosyncratic and more susceptible to being taught in the kind of production-line approach that large ensembles use.

Conversely, for choruses you can be, as Jay Giallombardo puts it, more orchestral in approach. You can make bigger gestures, knowing that there will be a bigger body of sound available. A really good quartet can of course produce enough lock and ring to give that sense of a wall of sound that a show theme-tune arrangement like ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’ was designed to produce, but it’s a more precarious operation.

Hauling things you do intuitively out into the light of day for analysis is always an interesting activity, but I don’t really feel I’ve got to the heart of the matter on this one yet. I’d be interested to hear from other arrangers what their thoughts are on the subject.

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