Friday Morning Frisson

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FrissonThe morning after my evening with Strictly A Cappella, I had the opportunity to work with a mixed quartet from within the group called Frisson. The morning was fresher than the night before, so maybe one shouldn’t be so impressed to encounter as good an integrity of pitch in the sub-group as in the main ensemble, but it would seem churlish not to mention it.

One of the things that this tonal reliability facilitates is the capacity to drop into songs at (almost) any point, and focus your attention on just that bit you want to work on without a distracting run-up to it. There’s just much less cognitive overhead in finding your place if you share an implicit trust in where your tonal centre is rather than having to listen out for it and adjust to it anew each time you start to sing.

As previously mentioned, we had more opportunities to play with harmonic complexity following on from the previous night’s explorations. With a smaller ensemble you can dig more minutely into the detail, suspending time on individual chords to allow their particular sonorities settle into place before feeling how the resolution into consonance changes its feeling. The acts of dissonance are more personal, too, when you are singing one to a part: the dissonant interval isn’t merely within the chord, it is between two people.

We also spent a good deal of time in the activity that is commonly called duetting, but which we soon came to refer to as the Perception Game. We first played with the upper three parts, in a texture where they were operating as a trio accompanying the fourth as a solo. We took a 4-bar passage, and had each member of the trio listen in turn to the other two in duet and say what they heard.

We ended up going round this loop three times, as each time they perceived more and more detail – comparing articulation of consonants, vowel shapes, vocal placement, tone quality. Indeed, if you just listened to the feedback, you’d think things were getting worse each time, as the mismatches in each duet were described in greater and greater detail each time.

What in fact was happening was that the singers were getting better and better at listening. When we put the trio back together again, their intuitive musicianship had integrated all kinds of detail from what they had learned through their close attention to each other’s voices, producing a much more glued-together sound.

We revisited the Perception Game with all four singers later on in a couple of passages of dissonant/extended harmonies. These kinds of chords are less forgiving of imperfections of ensemble than simpler harmonies for reasons you can consider in terms either of how the sound is produced, or how it is understood.

From an acoustic point of view, a triad ‘snaps to grid’ more readily than a dissonant chord, the overtones its notes have in common tying the notes into each other. Chords based on the first part of the harmonic series, that is, actively help the singers tune them, whereas those that include notes that contradict or cut across the harmonic series are more likely to resist being tuned and balanced cleanly. Possibly this is one of the sources of the expressive power – you can’t just whack them out there, you need to place them carefully, in the same way that counterfactual emotions induce introspection and depth of thought.

From a perceptual point of view (and this is the point we discussed during the session – I just thought of the other one as I wrote this), less commonly-heard chords are less readily comprehensible than your common-or-garden harmonies, so the listener is more likely to be confused or distracted by mismatches in the ensemble.

It’s to do with signal:noise ratio, if you like to take your music with a touch of information theory. You can understand a simple message that you are expecting to hear even over quite a crackly telephone line; if someone is using lots of long words to explain something you know nothing about, the crackles will have a greater impact on your capacity to understand.

Something that is fun about a quartet that draws its repertoire from a variety of approaches to a cappella arranging is that the textures don’t lock people into particular roles in the way that happens if you stick within a single tradition. And Frisson were very happy switching roles about not just between songs, but sometimes within them too. It’s an approach that encourages not just flexibility of musicianship, in adapting to the different roles in different contexts, but also fosters a culture in which each singer is not just responsible for their part, but also corporately for the whole music.

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