Arranging

On Voicings for Mixed Barbershop Choruses

I am returning to this theme as a lot of people are grappling with the challenges of making a genre developed for and within single-sex ensembles work with mixed groups. Having interacted with a number of different ensembles in various capacities in recent times, I wanted to collate what I’ve learned from them about the difficulties they’ve faced and the solutions they have found.

First, though, it is worth thinking through why mixed barbershop can prove tricky, before looking at the consequences for lived experience, and what we can do about it. This may turn into more than one post; it has the feel of a question that expands as you think about it!

New Technical Term: Canute Passages

There are those who attempt to make music theory into a fully-rational and systematic endeavour, but those of use working at the sharp end of music-making* know that it is messier than that. Yes, you can organise a lot of it into logical patterns that help you generalise and draw inferences, but a lot of music theory is about finding ways to identify and make sense of stuff that happens in real life.

So, from the Concrete-Experiential school of music theory that brought you the Icicle 7th (Karri Quan), the Phnert (Lori Lyford) and Swooshythroughiness (me), I bring you the concept of Canute passages.

On Milestones and Skill Level

I noticed as I entered my most recent arrangement into my master list spreadsheet that the one I’m working on next will be the 250th row. I’d not been consciously counting charts, not least because it’s always a little ambiguous which ones to count. My master list doesn’t include some of my earliest efforts, nor a handful of throw-away pieces done for specific occasions (though it does include others throw-aways, such as the ones NoteOrious sang on Radio 1). And of course it doesn’t mention all the ones I started and never got round to finishing. But it does include quite a few that I don’t make available for various reasons (copyright complications, or simply that I don’t like them any more.)

But anyway, now that I’ve noticed the milestone, it sounds like quite a big number. I guess that’s what happens when you keep doing something for a lot of years.

Arranging the Silver Lining

Yesterday saw the premiere of a version of my arrangement of ‘Look for the Silver Lining’ at the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers’ annual Convention. It is a chart that comes with a story, not least of how it turns up in two versions simultaneously, and whilst LABBS members have heard some of that story at its premiere, others who might be interested in the song might not

Besides, in addition to all the background stuff about context and relationships, there’s the story of how the backstory shaped the chart itself.

The arrangement commission was funded by the Jen Mills Award, of whom the 2021 recipients were the quartet SoundHouse. The award commemorates Jen Mills, who was a source of great musical energy and insight in LABBS, as Music Judge, coach, and arranger until her untimely death in 2019, and it provides funding for a LABBS quartet each year to commission a new arrangement.

Explorations in Troubled Waters

Continuing with the theme of how returning to regular piano practice is having interesting cross-fertilisations with my vocal-harmony musical brain, today I’m going to share some discoveries made while working on Margaret Bonds’ piece ‘Troubled Water’.

The piece is based on the spiritual ‘Wade in the Water’ and was originally conceived as one of a suite, though it has developed an independent life having been published as a stand-alone piece in 1967. The suite was finally published in its entirety in 2020. I have linked to Samantha Ege's recording;'Troubled Waters' is the 3rd movement, starting at 6:58.

Miscellaneous Thoughts on Vocables

This post arises from a collection of random notes in my Thinking Book and conversations on social media, none of which were substantial enough to make a post of their own, but would if bundled together. So, a bit of a miscellany, but at least a themed one.

Vocables are the nonsense/neutral sysllables we use in a cappella to create accompanying textures. They are sometimes intended to evoke instrumental textures explicitly, but they’re often simply about creating a distinctive expressive profile for a song and providing expressive variety over the course of the musical narrative.

Change vocable when you change pattern

One of the things that takes up an awful lot of rehearsal time when working with human beings, especially human beings who work in idioms that involve memorising music, is handling the bits where a pattern changes. You set up a riff, and then some pesky musical detail like how the melody goes or a change in chord means you have to mess with it – in the process, messing with the singers’ heads just as they’d got settled into their stride.

Exploring Arrangement Choices with Amersham A Cappella

A topically sports-themed warm-upA topically sports-themed warm-up

Tuesday evening took me back to coach my friends at Amersham A Cappella on some of the new songs they’re working on. They seem to be in a particularly up-for-it and life-affirming mood right now in their repertoire choices, with anthems from Erasure and Aretha Franklin on the go as well as an exuberant number I arranged some years ago for Finesse quartet.

A recurrent theme of the evening was exploring the impact of who the music was arranged for on the arrangement choices. A fair number of the chorus had known Finesse, either in terms of hearing them perform, or knowing the individual singers personally. So it was useful for them to know that this was one of those charts where I’d been thinking not of the tenor, lead, bari and bass lines, but of the Helen, Beth, Tanya and Nicky lines. Handing round the melody wasn’t just a matter of seeing where the range fit best, but also of thinking about the personality and vocal colour of those individuals.

LABBS Quartet Prelims 2022

Seeded first on the day, In House talk to LABBS social mediaSeeded first on the day, In House talk to LABBS social media

On Saturday, The Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers held the preliminary contest for quartets to qualify to compete at Convention in the autumn. With 31 quartets competing for 16 places, it felt like the quartet scene is in good shape, and there were a good many new ones who have formed since we last convened in person in 2019. Many of the quartets stayed on for the Sunday to receive extended evaluations-cum-coaching sessions, a model that encapsulates the philosophy at the heart of LABBS contest system: that competing is a means for growth, and that education is an inherent part of the cycle.

A friend I ran into during the first break remarked that he always wonders, seeing me at the events, what I’m going to write about in my blog after it. This made me laugh, because at that point I was wondering the exact same thing! As it happens, two observations rose to the top as the day went on.

...found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may wish to make a donation to the causes I support to say thank you.


Archive by date

Syndicate content Syndicate content