I spent Saturday afternoon working with NoteOrious on two new songs they are introducing to their repertoire. For past LABBS quartet champions, it can be something of a challenge to find new goals to keep the group developing once they’ve fulfilled their contest ‘career’, and one of the ways (of several) that NoteOrious are dealing with this is clearly to give themselves more demanding repertoire to learn.
So, we spent most of the time on an arrangement of ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ by David Harrington. It is the one most famously sung by Max Q, though David has revoiced it somewhat for NoteOrious to sit better on their ranges.
It is an arrangement with demands in several dimensions. It is long, challenging stamina. It becomes increasingly dissonant and syncopated as it progresses, increasing both pitch and rhythmic challenges at the point when the stamina is starting to flag. And the song itself is complex both in its emotional and vocal mode of expression. The quartet were at the point where they could sing it accurately (no mean feat in itself), but had little breath or attention left over in doing so to get the song working expressively.
Our first strategy to get it under control was to work through it section by section from the end forwards. This meant that we addressed the most difficult section at the point when we were all freshest, and then as we added new sections on the front, they were always singing towards rather than away from the most familiar material.
The process we went through was largely one of making sense of the complexities: working out how the textures were put together so as to grasp their intended effect. And it’s a rewarding process, not just because making discoveries about the inner workings of the chart is interesting in its own right, but because it gives a greater sense of control. It becomes easier to sing once you can see bigger patterns rather than drowning in the details.
So, interesting things we discovered in this arrangement included:
- There is a kind of ‘virtual post’ in the last section. After the big cadence when the tune arrives on the tonic, the tonic note is sounded in one voice or another nearly (but not all) the time, while the other voices embellish with the kinds of gestures that typically embellish a long-held tonic note. So the ear is tricked into experiencing this as a post, even though nobody is actually holding the tonic for more than two or three beats. Clever stuff.
- The whole arrangement shifts from a musical mode of expression that is expansive and carefree to one that is much more assertive. The former is characterised by largely diatonic music, the latter by much more dissonant jazz chords, and the two modes are gradually interleaved, so that initially the dissonant adds punctuation to the expansive, whilst later on the diatonic offers brief relief from the aggressive.
- Working in tandem with this is a shift between melody and accompaniment textures and homophonic textures. It’s a safe generalisation that when you have lyrics to sing, you form part of the foreground, but when you only have syllables, you are part of the background. Observing this rule produces not only a clearly-structured dynamic plan over the whole piece, but with it a varied expressive structure from individual freedom to full-on direct address.
- Within the more dissonant sections, the key words are often brought out by a crunch between baritone and either lead or bass (where ‘crunch’ = a note a tone away). This tactical placement of dissonance brings generates a sense of texture and variety within the fast-moving complex lyrics, pointing up the sense rather than have them sweep by in a rush of syllables.
The other song we looked at was my arrangement for them of ‘Holding Out for a Hero’, which was in a much more developed state already, and indeed is already into their performance repertoire. This is another high-energy song so wasn’t exactly a relaxing way to finish the day for them, though of course I found it easier to work with as I already knew what was in it rather than having to figure it out as we went along!
But what I love about coaching is that you still learn things from the process, even when you think you’re on very familiar ground. There was a moment when we were working on a detail of synchronisation when the sentence came out: ‘Simultaneous isn’t necessarily the same as well-coordinated’, and Helen looked at me and said, ‘That’s going to be in the blog isn’t it?’ So here it is. But I’ll be wanting to think about it a bit more before I write at length about it.