Tracing Emotional Shape with Affinity Show Choir

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Sunday took me back to Stockport for a longer follow-up to last month’s session with Affinity Show Choir on their new contest set for LABBS Convention in October. Having established the overall shape of their delivery last time, this visit focused on developing narrative depth and clarifying the turning points in the story. I’m nostly focusing on their ballad here as our work on this was both more time-consuming and more complex, and so more useful for me to reflect on. But we also left their up-tune in a more sparkling state than we found it.

2arcsSo, their ballad works in two parallel arcs, the second slightly shorter than the first, but more urgent in expression – it has the same kind of musical shape, but it is compressed and emotionally escalated. As ever, I’m not going to tell you the song (that is Affinity’s to reveal when they choose), but I will share the diagram we developed of its trajectory:

Within this concept of form, we found some useful details that helped pin it down to the story, to turn it from a generalised shape into a dynamic chart of events.

The first were a series of pivotal moments: events in the music that signal where the story turns, usually defined by a cadence or point of arrival onto a distinctive chord that imbued the moment with a particular emotional flavour. These correlated with events in the narrative, sometimes as directly stated by the lyrics, sometimes needing to be inferred from them, acting in effect as musical reaction shots.

The second was a specific voicing of II ½ dim that occurs periodically throughout the arrangement, often, though not always, at these pivotal moments. I hadn’t been aware of thematising the chord this way while arranging the chart, though of course I was highly aware of the appropriateness of its emotional connotations for this song. As we repeatedly encountered it through our work, we found its yearny quality tying the piece together, in the way it mediated between despairing and hopeful phases of the narrative.

A third was the usefulness of the ‘cry’ (and/or ‘sob’) vocal quality for passages of emotionally fragility. It offers clean adduction of the vocal folds, so you get quietness without breathiness, along with a fully-committed approach to delivery, both physical and emotional, since finding this vocal quality requires imaginative engagement and invites a vital connection between voice and breath. And of course it is inherently expressively meaningful – if you hear this tone in the voice of someone who phones you, you know immediately that all is not well.

It is a recurrent theme in these coaching reports over the years how the communicating musician has an extraordinary power to solve technical problems intuitively. Throughout the day, I frequently found myself with two details to address, one expressive and one technical, and nearly every time sorting the expressive detail fixed the technical issue with no further intervention. (I always made sure to point the latter out afterwards, though. Both so that the chorus could enjoy the effectiveness of their musicianship, and so they know it’s there in case should it unfix itself and ask for a bit more TLC at a later date.)

October will be the first time Affinity have competed at LABBS since 2016, and the first time under their current director. They will be bringing quite a few singers to the event who have never been before as well as two brand new arrangements. So if you’re going to be in Llandudno next month, please make a point of going in to cheer them on – even if you’re not interested in hearing my new charts, I’m sure you’ll want to go and encourage all their first-timers!

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