8-Parter Project: Double Quartet or Double Chorus?

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Having considered the nature of the 8-part ensemble from the perspective of genre (SATB divisi versus combined male and female barbershop ensembles), we also need to consider the question of whether we’re thinking about combined choruses or quartets, i.e. whether we have one person or several people singing each part.

This is something I’ve thought about in general terms, and I was interested to look back and see that it also was all the way back in 2009 that I first wrote about it, and moreover that my thoughts were relatively underdeveloped back then. I’ve done a lot more thinking since about the nature of doubling: how you can move more flexibly between different numbers of sounding lines when you have a multiple voices per part than you can with one-a-part textures. This was something I particularly enjoyed with Magenta; in a group where we all sang different parts for different songs, we could move seamlessly between unisons, duets and full harmonies because we were all accustomed to blending with different combinations of voices as a matter of course.

I was also surprised to discover, when I went back to look for this, that I had been blogging on the nature of the 8-part ensemble back in 2009. My current project is picking up pretty much directly where this left off, as 2009 was also the year that I suddenly found myself with more commissions than I could handle. Turns out I produced 36 charts that year, and whilst 6 or 7 of them were only fragments, I’m not surprised I didn’t find time to pursue these explorations back then.

Anyway, now that I’m returning to the 8-part ensemble, I find that the whole question of persona inflects these vocal/textural questions in interesting ways. If you are combining a male and a female chorus for an 8-part showpiece, you have very clear cues as to the two separate identities. Not just the audible cues such as vocal range and timbre, but visual cues such as costuming; whilst a mixed chorus will usually dress for coherence across the whole unit, groups coming together for a special occasion usually bring their standard costuming habits with them. Indeed, if the point is the special occasion, then this contrast adds to the impact.

As such, if you want to perform a single-persona song, in which all 8 parts collaborate to create a unified point of view, you are likely to stage the singers in an interspersed stack. If on the other hand you’re performing a duet between the two groups, you are more likely to operate more antiphonally, stacking the groups as separate, interacting units to highlight both visual and audible dialogue.

And, in my imagination at any rate, this implies that the musical textures are likewise going to operate as discrete units, with all singers in each ensemble participating in the persona it presents. In practical terms, this means that when each character has the centre of attention, the relevant ensemble is going to have a good deal of homophony, so that all singers get to participate in the lyric, as I discussed in my previous post on duets.

This can also work just fine for combined quartets, but they also have the possibility of embodying the two personas in a duet in two actual individuals, with the other six singers combining as a rich full-textured backing group. I had just finished my first exploration of this texture, when I heard from Theo Hicks, who had kindly sent me examples of his 8-part arrangements to study as part of this project. And, lo and behold, we see a lot of this type of writing in the charts he produced for his quartet Instant Classic to sing with GQ. I also found it interesting to see how he sometimes slips back and forth between soloist-as-persona and quartet-as-a-whole-as-persona within the same chart, without (to my ears) noticeable interruption of the suspension of disbelief. This is something I could see myself getting boxed in by over-thinking it, so these will be useful reference points to come back to.

The thing that I feel, from a standing start, could be less effective on quartet than chorus is doubling a melodic line within the ensemble, to give a more audibly projected melody, while the other two parts participate in accompaniment, as I did in places in Summer Nights. Or, in a similar vein, slipping in and out of divisi in SATB textures as Joey Minshall does in several of her 8-part charts. (To name another fellow arranger who has been generous with her work in support of this project. Whilst I’m being publicly grateful, I’m going to tip my hat to Carole Prietto too. Such generous friends this craft has given me!)

I have hitherto thought of this issue in terms of sound: it is easier to join and re-separate lines that are already made up from multiple people than it is to get two individual voices to sound as one, especially if they only need to do so intermittently. This insight goes back to advice Raymond Warren gave when I was studying composition with him as an undergraduate: one violin on a line, or three+ violins on a line sound fine, he said, but it’s really hard for two on a line to sound good. I think it may be less of a challenge for ensemble singers, given how much time and attention we give to techniques to meld our voices together, but it’s still a useful caution.

But even if you transcend the sonic challenges, you are left with the believability question of ‘am I looking to this individual singer to represent the song’s point of view, or this group?’ And it seems to an issue that affects duets much more overtly than single-persona songs.

That’s how it looks at the moment, at any rate. So far I have completed one chart in the soloist-as-persona duet mode, and have one in draft in the whole-quartet-as-persona mode, so there are likely to be more discoveries to be made as I explore further. I’m finding it useful to formulate hypotheses as I go, though, as it helps guide the decision-making process.

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