8-Parter Project: Initial Thoughts

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As I mentioned back in October, I have decided to stop taking arrangement commissions for the first half of 2020 in order to embark on a project to explore 8-part arranging that I’ve had on the ‘to do later’ pile for over a decade. I made all kinds of interesting inroads into the technical and artistic questions it raises back in 2007 when I arranged ‘Summer Nights’ for the combined LABBS and BABS youth choruses, and then followed up with an SSAATTBB chart of ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’ in 2008, which has never been sung.

That was probably one of the last charts I did just for the sheer fun of it, without a particular ensemble in mind, before I found myself blessed with a constant stream of commission requests. Having had the opportunity to perform Renee Craig’s 8-part chart of ‘With a Song in My Heart’ with the Telfordaires on our sister chorus’s 10th anniversary show in November, my thoughts had been turning back to these questions, and I decided that if I wanted to find time to explore them, I was going to have to make time.

So, the first issue I have been mulling over as I compile a list of songs to play with (still open to suggestions, by the way, if you have ideas), is that of persona. This is a concept from Edward Cone, who suggested that all the elements of a song – words, melody, setting – constitute a virtual character, from whose point of view the song represents. One of the interesting things about singing music originally written for solo singers arranged for ensemble is that you are creating this single persona through the actions of multiple human beings.

So, when writing music intended for male and female quartets or choruses to collaborate on, are we looking at a single persona, or does each constituent ensemble have a distinct persona that interacts with the other during the song? Or, to put it more simply, are we writing a duet here, or a solo?

This first basic question is essentially defined by the song’s content, but then drives a lot of the decisions about texture that follow. Of my two past forays into this genre, I have one of each. ‘Summer Nights’ makes a clear distinction between the two characters, by giving words to the ensemble of the gender of the character they are representing when it is their point of view foregrounded, with the other ensemble accompanying with various vocables; when the two characters sing together, everyone gets the words. ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’ has a single point of view, and the ensemble works as a single unit throughout, often with melodic activity in both male and female voice parts simultaneously.

An interesting complicating factor when considering songs’ personas is how gender is constituted within both the song and the ensemble. A girl-boy duet fits very conveniently onto a female and male quartet: the norms of the song line up with the norms of gender presentation in a heteronormative cultural framework. Some single-persona songs, as I have discussed before, constitute a gender-neutral subject position: they can be sung by a soloist of either gender without any suspension of disbelief (well, beyond the considerable level of suspension you always need to enter imaginatively into the world of musical performance!). These songs are straightforwardly suitable for 8-part treatment in terms of persona; whether they will make good vehicles for this texture will rely on matters more of musical complexity: is there enough stuff in it to keep 8 parts usefully occupied?

Other single-persona songs, though, clearly encode gender in their lyrics, their musical gestures, or both. A couple of interesting songs already on my ‘to explore’ list fall into this category, and I am yet to work out what I feel about them. As I noted in those previous discussions of gender and song, women are perfectly accustomed to being asked to take a male subject position in our culture, and readily appropriate music written with a male persona as a matter of course. So I’m sure a mixed 8-part group will be able to perform music with a masculine subject position with everybody in both ensemble and audience finding the experience transparent and meaningful.

However, part of me wonders whether this is something of a different dynamic from a female quartet taking on a boy song: it is more akin to the way waiting staff routinely address mixed groups as ‘guys’, casually erasing female presence. If you think I’m being over-sensitive on this, you need to have a read of Caroline Criado-Perez’s Invisible Women; I’m finding it quite a tough read because it is so enraging, but it is very clear on the consequences of our cultural habit to elide female experience into the male and assume the latter speaks for us all.

So of course I then spent a while wondering how it would work to flip this over, to use an unambiguously female persona for a mixed group. I can see it working just fine in textures where the male singers are cast as primarily accompanimental: boy instrumentalists backing girl singers is a well-established dynamic. But if you gave the words, and indeed the melody to male singers, centring those voices as representing the song’s subject position for at least part of the song, how would that play out?

I suspect that in some cases, the chart just wouldn’t be chosen for the group. Even if you didn’t see the weird masculine outrage at being asked to empathise with a female point of view that greeted women as Ghostbusters or Dr Who, there may be an intuitive judgement that it didn’t connect with them as well as some songs. But if they did choose it, would the suspension of disbelief be harder for an audience? It might be the musical equivalent of those browser plugins you can use to reverse all the gender markers in writing to test its level of implicit gender bias.

I’m undecided what to do with these thoughts. Part of me of course wants to try this out, just to see. But the pragmatist in me who actually wants to produce charts that will be embraced as usefully performable wonders if it’s a waste of time. Maybe this will be something for a fragment, and see if I can get someone to workshop it as an experiment. Not everything I explore in this project will be destined to become a finished product after all.

I love this line of thinking regarding gendered language. There was an episode of the Simpsons I watched as a kid where Ned Flanders has been abandoned by his community as an asteroid hurtles towards him and as he walks alone he sings “when I was just a little girl I asked my mother what will I be…etc” and it really stuck with me for that reason. It’s so rare to hear that it can be disarming and I wish more male singers were brave enough to do it more often without making a joke out of it. I enjoyed hearing the Trailblazers do that at the weekend with I’ve found a new baby.

Trailblazers live up to their name in all kinds of ways, and I'm really heartened by the way the barbershop community has embraced and celebrated how they've gone about upending the genre's traditionally heteronormative frame.

Glad you got the chance to hear them!

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