With One Voice...

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When I was about 11, we did an art project at school that involved groups of about six painting a life-size portrait of one member of the group. I initially got the job of doing the face, and I was quite pleased with the likeness I produced. However, during a later session when I was not there (I have no recollection of why I was missing), another member of the group completely painted over all my work. I was quite hurt but, typically, didn’t say anything.

This incident came to mind back in the summer, when I was commissioned to revise Clay Hine’s arrangement of ‘I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm’ for The Great British Barbershop Boys’ Christmas album. I am generally reluctant to jigger with other people’s arrangements, but I was reassured that Clay was okay with me doing so, and it was simply a matter that I happened to be available to help out in the timescale they needed. Still, I didn’t want Clay to end up feeling that I’d painted over the face of his work.

Now, I find the collaborative process interesting anyway. We tend to experience a piece of music as an utterance, as a message from a communicating consciousness. Even where there are 4 (or indeed 60) people singing at once, there is a sense that we are being addressed by an ‘I’, a single identity. And musical aesthetics has often projected this individuality of utterance onto the person who writes the music, interpreting the experience of musical coherence from a listener’s perspective as a result of the creative autonomy of the writer.

So collaboration is a process of multiple people creating a product that gives the illusion of speaking with a single voice. You do sometimes get joint projects that maintain a separation between voices to display a sense of dialogue - Benjamin and Rosemary Zander write a bit like this, and indeed the ‘guest artist’ style of duet articulates this at the level of performance. But mostly the idea is to make the whole seamless: if a song is by Lennon and McCartney, we’re supposed to hear the song as a song, not as a collection of Lennonish bits and McCartneyesque sections.

My job, therefore, was fulfil the brief of extending the arrangement and adjusting the balance between the quartet and guest vocalist Jodie Prenger whilst making it sound like it had been intended to be like that all along. The collaboration needed to produce a unitary result, but the process was a serial one rather than a process of dialogue – and the starting point was an already fully-developed vision of how the arrangement should go.

I found the process both fascinating and challenging, and for the same reasons. The great thing of collaborating is that you get access to all kinds of ideas that your own brain wouldn’t have come up with. So it was very exciting to move into Clay’s head for the duration of the project. But by the same token that made the arranging decisions I had to make that much harder as they were all starting from a place I wouldn’t normally find myself in. Indeed, the dimension of the task that took the most time and effort was simply absorbing the existing music deeply enough that I could work from within it.

As ever, certain pragmatic constraints were significant in driving decisions. As there wasn’t very much time for the singers to learn the arrangement, it was important that they could get on with learning the original while I did the revisions and have that work stand them in good stead. So I re-used literally as much of the original as possible, and then crafted the new material using those features that seemed to most define the arrangement’s character.

It was like unpicking a sweater and re-knitting it in a bigger size. You want to reuse the wool and find added wool that matches well, and you want to follow the original design as much as possible, but you actually need to do quite a lot of unpicking if the whole is to make sense when re-knitted. It’s not merely a matter of leaving the original garment as it is and grafting in an extra sleeve – that would be the quickest approach, but you’d have problems with coherence. Nor is it a matter of unravelling the whole thing and knitting a new sweater with the wool – that would give a sense of coherence, but the only arranger’s voice audible would be mine; it would no longer be a collaboration.

It only occurred to me after I had finished that the process of serial collaboration is actually essentially the same as the interpretive process that the arranger goes through when working with the composer’s song and that the performer goes through when bringing the written music to life. We experience this sense of moving into another musician’s head and making sense of their work all the time – but we usually do it as part of transforming the music from one stage of development to the next rather than within a single stage.

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