Capital Embellishments

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Wednesday evening took me down to work with my friends in West London, Capital Connection. Our task was to work on two new contest songs which are quite well sung in, and thus ripe for enhancement - adding colour, nuance and emotional depth to an already well-shaped delivery.

Although it is 6 months since I last worked with the chorus, the intensive period back in the autumn of several visits in quick succession had left its mark with our working methods. It felt like we were able to cover a considerable range of musical issues in a short time: melodic flow, harmonic colour, texture and expressive register, rhythmic feel, tension and release. Actually, now I write it out, I am even more impressed by the rate at which the singers were absorbing and applying ideas to their performance.

A topic that came up with both songs was embellishment.

It can sometimes feel as if barbershop fetishises this musical element somewhat, but it does have something of a special role in the genre's mode of expression. Melody, lyric and rhythm work together to create the musical narrative, and the default mode for the style is to deliver this clothed in a harmonic texture, where everyone sings the same words at the same time. The places where extra stuff is layered onto or interpolated into this texture, thus function as a purely musical commentary upon this narrative.

If I find people getting too exclusively hung-up on the content of a song's story, I will sometimes frame songs in terms of the words telling you what's going on, while the music tells you how to feel about it. Embellishments are the purest form of this idea. The way barbershop arranging is commonly taught, the embellishments are added afterwards, they are additional to the song and its harmonisation. And whilst a song with few embellishments can feel incomplete artistically, the musical and lyrical narrative would usually work if the embellishments were omitted.

So attending to their detail makes us ask: what is the arranger telling us about here? What is going on in the life of the song?

The first song we looked at was Nancy Bergman's classic arrangement of 'If You Love Me, Really Love Me'. The embellishment strategy in the main body of the song is almost entirely harmonic, with the liberal use of swipes (changing chord on a sustained syllable) both at the orthodox points at the ends of phrases, and also mid-phrase, most markedly within the hook-line of the song.

We explored this shifts through the question: what changes, emotionally, when the chord changes? We found places where the implications of a dramatic - even catastrophic - lyric were inflected by optimism; we found a sense of warmth and wonder at the possibility of love; we found bravery in the face of adversity sustained by this love.

What I love in exploring these meanings is that as people start listening out for these emotional nuances, their voices become infused by all kind of subtle colour changes that you could never achieve by controlling the voice consciously. The attention to the overall sound also produces balanced, well-tuned execution at a level beyond conscious technical control. Intuitive musicianship is a powerful thing.

The other main embellishment type we explored was the echo, which is a strong feature of their new up-tempo number. Echoes are great for rhythmic impetus, but they also have the danger that they start to sound like you're singing with your parrot. From a structural perspective, the repetition may be there to propel the music from one phrase to the next, but it also needs to make sense from a narrative perspective.

This is where thinking of the lyric in dramatic/conversational terms does make sense. Because people do repeat themselves sometimes, but it's never just for the sake of repetition. It's because they realise something further about the idea as they say it - they realise it's more important than they thought (repetition as emphasis), or they realise that it's sillier than they thought (repetition as mockery), or they discover they are more outraged than they thought (repetition as critique). So, working out why the song's persona needs to repeat the phrase end helps motivate the performance.

The other thing to note here is that the term 'echo' can be expressively misleading. An echo is by definition a meaningless repetition. You may as well call them 'vacant afterthoughts'. But the embellishing device of repeating the lyric/rhythm of a phrase end is almost always a process of expressive intensification. You repeat because it matters more than a single statement will express. Reframing an embellishment strategy that relies heavily on echoes as a 'call-and-response' effect can help keep these embellishments enlivened and participating in the narrative.

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