Exploring Implicit Knowledge with the Red Rosettes

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Screenshot or it didn't happen...Screenshot or it didn't happen...

I had a productive session on Tuesday evening with the music team of the Red Rosettes, exploring musical features of the ballad I arranged for them last year. I would have met with the whole chorus, but their rehearsal clashes with my own, and while under normal circumstances I don’t mind occasionally abandoning my team to get on with things while I visit another chorus, under current conditions I’d rather not. Not that my team aren’t awesome, you understand, I just want to be there for them.

Anyway, the Red Rosettes were very understanding, and we recorded the session to share with the rest of their singers. There is an advantage in a smaller group that you have a more genuinely interactive session, so there were upsides too.

They had sent me a recording of the chorus singing the ballad just before lockdown, and whilst it was clearly still work-in-progress, you could hear that they are on the case: they have a clear intuitive feel for what the music is doing and what it asks of the singers. Our session largely involved bring this intuition to the surface, articulating things they have felt implicitly to help them understand their instincts.

The first area we did this in was a discussion of why the song was suitable for barbershop. When their director Emma had first asked me if I thought it would work, I actually found myself astonished that it wasn’t already a barbershop classic – it was a truly splendid choice for the genre. So we talked through why the team felt it worked so well.

As they identified various musical features (melodic shape, harmonic opportunities) and narrative features (combination of parallelism in verse structure and emotional development) that they had responded to, they collectively drew up a clear picture of the style’s classic repertoire. Indeed, possibly a clearer one than they’d have produced if asked to describe the genre in the abstract. Their comments in turn led me to articulate the way that the age of the song – it dates from the early 20th century, just after barbershop’s golden era – also contributed to its suitability: there’s a sense of authenticity, you don’t feel the song’s dressed up in the wrong clothes when arranged for barbershop.

We then looked at details in the arrangement, tracing first the changes between parallel verses. As a general principle, when the melody repeats exactly, I’ll repeat the arrangement exactly, unless there’s a particular reason to change things. It saves rehearsal time if people aren’t endlessly trying to remember which version happens which time. But equally, there will be expressive reasons to vary the material in places, and if the performers can identify why those changes are there, it will help them remember which verse is which.

What’s interesting with this process is that it doesn’t matter if they answers they come up with are the same as the ones the arranger was thinking about. We talk about a composer’s or an arranger’s ‘intentions’, but we can never actually know these for sure – even when you have the arranger there on the same zoom call with you. I was working on this a year ago and can’t remember the detail of every decision; probably at the time many of the decisions would have been made intuitively without fully articulating my reasoning.

What we can do is interrogate the music to see what its creator(s) might plausibly have been thinking. The thought experiment of ‘discovering intentions’ serves to bring the performer’s imaginative and analytical faculties together to generate a productive dialogue between felt patterns and conversant awareness. One of the participants remarked that it felt like her studies of English literature – which made me smile as I can remember having exactly the same thought as an undergraduate on my first music analysis assignment.

The final area we explored was features of melody. The whole Zoom experience leaves us short of harmony, but melody remains intact, and I was so pleased they had chosen a song with such a glorious tune that I had felt an even greater obligation than usual to make all the harmony parts as melodic as possible to match it.

After their Lead section leader had sung us the first verse, I highlighted a number of features that contributed to the pleasingness of the melody: its arcs, question and answer phrasing, gap-fill structures, and sequences. We then heard from each of the other sections and identified those features in their lines. Including, I should add, an extension of a sequence in the baritone line that I hadn’t consciously noticed before – I love it when people find things in my music that I haven’t spotted.

The thing I love about this kind of analysis is that, while it’s useful to scribble all over the sheet music to remind you what you’ve found, you can do the actual work by singing to each other. It is both specific (here is where gap is opened up and then filled), and accessible: you don’t actually have to be confident in music theory to be able to do it. And maybe, if you get comfortable getting down dirty in the musical detail like this, acquiring a bit more theory to go with it might feel both less daunting and more useful.

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