Phrase-end Embellishments and Voicing

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swipeFurther to my post a few weeks back about phrase-end swipes, I was recently looking at some arrangements to offer advice on, and noticed that the categories of swipe behaviour I discussed there could offer a useful framework for making decisions about voicing. In particular, the shape and internal energy of the embellishment can usefully inform which voice(s) move, and in what directions at the ends of phrases.

My last post in this subject was specifically about swipes, but I think the categories work for the harmonic content for echoes as well. Indeed, the question of who is doing what, to what effect is more immediately audible in an echo, since the use of extra word sounds draws attention to the embellishing activity.

But (and here is a nice new little guideline that I have only really articulated to myself as I type here), the expressive shape of a phrase-end embellishment should make sense in a purely harmonic sense as a swipe, whether or not we decide to add extra texture or rhythmicising effects through added word sounds. (You know, in much the same way that the delivery of a melody should make sense even to someone who doesn’t speak the language it’s sung in.)

So, the three basic patterns we have are:

  1. Holding pattern
  2. Delayed arrival
  3. Anticipatory

We can think of these in terms of harmonic charge. The start and end of a holding pattern embellishment have the same level of harmonic charge. Whether the phrase is settled when the melody cadences (perfect cadence) or open-ended (imperfect cadence), it will still have that same quality at the end of the embellishment. The delayed arrival pattern sees a decrease in harmonic charge through its length, since you delay the resting point by interpolating something less settled before you come to rest. The anticipatory pattern, by contrast, will go from a place of relative rest and increase the harmonic charge to create momentum into the next phrase.

Now, this already gives us quite a lot of information about voicing, if we follow the general principle that higher harmonic charge calls for, relatively, tighter voicing, and lower harmonic charge for looser. This (as discussed in that linked post) naturally brings with it a higher tessitura for the more energised chord than for the one with a lower charge. And this makes sense, in the same way that songs’ melodies are written so as to reflect relative levels of emotional urgency on relative registers of the voice. It’s how we speak as well as how we sing.

Implicit in these principles are guidelines about who (i.e. which part(s)) will be making this happen. If you want to move to a tighter-voiced chord to reflect a higher level of harmonic charge, you need to bring bass and tenor closer together. But if you do this by just moving the tenor down towards the bass, you will be lowering the overall tessitura and thus diluting the effect. You get a far more effective sense of anticipation by moving the bass (and often therefore also the baritone) up towards the tenor. The swipe I use as an illustration for this kind of post is classic for a reason.

Delayed arrival effects, conversely, will want either or both of a drop in tessitura and a move to a more open voicing. The tenor and/or bari will usually be involved in these moves, sometimes working together over a static lead and bass, more often with one or both working with the bass part. But the key thing for voicing is that the bass should not rise: if you are moving from greater tension to a state of relative rest, you want to avoid that sense of urgency that a rising bass line will instil.

There’s also a point about balance here, and thus the different parts’ relative impact on the expressive shape of an embellishment. Pyramid balance gives us greater oomph from the bass, with the tenor tucked in on top, giving us colour and sparkle rather than drive. Thus if you are moving from a triad to a 7th in an anticipatory swipe, you’ll get a greater sense of forward motion by giving the 7th to the baritone, as they’ll be in a position to give it some welly without overbalancing the chord. If the 7th is the resting-place after a crunchier delaying chord, then it’s fine in the hands of the tenor.

I’ve brought all those different factors into play before talking about the holding-pattern embellishment, because this one actually gives you the greatest number of options. Since you’re going to end up, harmonically, where you started, the decisions then become about the middle term - where you go to, and what you want to do there.

If you want to spritz the phrase-end with a squeeze of extra energy, you can move the bass up and back again, giving more harmonic charge in the process (as you might wish to when keeping the open-ended tension of an imperfect cadence alive). If you want to relax and settle into a tonic chord at the end of a major section, you might drop the bass down in passing to something based on IV (IV7 if the music is feeling cheerful and informal, IV minor 7 if it is angsty - colour as well as root movement making a difference here).

And the number of different singers involved in this has an impact on how striking the embellishment is. This again is partly to do with harmonic colour - changing more notes gives you scope to move a further harmonic distance. But it’s also to do with balance between static and active on the surface of the music. Bass and lead holding, with bari and tenor doing a colourful little shimmy gives a more rooted effect than all three harmony parts getting in on the action.

Two further points, one derived from all the above, the other just an important point I’ve not found a place for so far:

  1. Embellishments for tenor only are rarely effective. You can sometimes do a nice little twiddly for them, but since their power to effect root movement is nil, and since their volume in the balance is the smallest, it needs to be at a point where the music is happy to sit still for a moment and let them come through. Use sparingly, and at moments where the tenor singer will have space to have their moment feeling supported by the other parts, rather than fighting for attention over them
  2. Keep leads (or, more precisely, keep whoever is singing the melody at that moment) out of the embellishments wherever possible. Even where you’re arranging for singers who have the nous to spot the switch from melody to embellishment, it’s a distraction for them to get to the end of the phrase and then change role. Let them stay in the zone and feel the shape and flow the embellishment gives their voices.

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