Arranging and Performance Styles

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On Saturday night, Magenta had the pleasure of performing in a concert featuring five early-career opera singers. (Two of them, as it happens, were ex-students of mine from Birmingham Conservatoire, though the invitation to participate arose from a suggestion by the Director of Music at the church that hosted the concert – one of those nice ‘small world’ moments.)

The second half featured some arrangements of spirituals for solo singer and piano by Moses Hogan and Peter Daley, and the comparison of the arranging styles of the two had me thinking about the relationship between arranging and performing styles again.

Only that morning I had published a blog post in which I said:

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.

and this was clearly and audibly true of the piano parts in these spirituals arrangements too.

Moses Hogan probably needs no introduction. I was familiar with his choral arrangements of spirituals, which are some of the most successful transformations of traditional songs for formal choirs I have heard. They find ways for the spirituals to sit on trained voices in ways that nonetheless seem to retain a sense of authenticity of expression, even while processing the material into a high-art performance world. On the basis of Saturday’s listening experience, I’d say the same of his solo arrangements.

Peter Daley is less well known as yet – though that is changing fast. He was one of my first students when I took over the masters course at Birmingham Conservatoire, and since leaving he has rapidly established himself as a composer and as a performer in musical worlds that move between gospel and jazz.

Now, my revelation on Saturday was that, on first listening, Peter’s piano accompaniments sounded a little blocky and less convincing than Hogan’s. But as I focused in on them, I could listen through the performance I was hearing to how Peter would play them. Over the years, I’ve heard him play in gigs, in choir rehearsals and just busking with other students before class, so I could imagine the way he would play those parts – and it wouldn’t be blocky, it would have zizz and colour and a real projection of his particular musical personality. But in the hands of a classical pianist who didn’t know him, they managed to sound somewhat distanced from the expressive world that the singer found in the shape of the song.

Hogan’s accompaniments, meanwhile, had been designed for the delivery style of a classical pianist and, while were arguably less ‘authentic’ in terms of proximity to the performing traditions of the communities from which the repertoire came, gave more opportunities for a classical pianist to perform them in a way that was ‘authentic’ to her.

It is a truism of performance practice research that notation can tell us (mostly) what to perform, but stutters or stays silent when it tries to tell us how. But when we bump up against these questions in negotiating between current, rather than historical, styles, it opens up all sorts of questions of identity and aesthetics as well the pragmatics of how to perform.

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