What Makes Expressive Effects Expressive?

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If you spend any significant amount of time watching and listening to amateur vocal ensembles, you witness a lot of performance decisions intended to add expressive colour to the music. What’s interesting is that some of them succeed in having their intended emotional impact, and others just look like techniques. So, why are some of these effects believable, while others leave us cold? What are the expressive performers doing that’s different from the ones where we can see the artifice?

The expressive effects I’m talking about here are both visual and vocal. They include dynamic shaping, changes in tone colour, inflections on words, and rubato in the vocal dimension, and body language, facial expression and choreographed moves in the visual dimension. This is quite a varied range performance parameters, but you tend to get similar effects in all of them within a single ensemble. You don’t often hear believability while you see technique; rather you are either convinced by the whole performance or you’re not.

This gives a useful pointer that it’s not what performers are doing that is the key thing: you get dynamic changes in both moving and mechanical performances. Rather, it’s about how they deploy them.

One standard answer to this is about authenticity of emotion. The ensemble has to believe in their own characterisation, the argument goes, if we are to join in that belief. However, whilst I’m not going to argue with that in principle (as anybody who has seen me coach will realise!), I don’t think it provides a complete explanation. You often have performances in which the singers themselves would report that they were fully emotionally involved, yet the audience just sees effects rather than expression.

I think it is more subject to analysis than a blanket appeal to emotionality would suggest. Indeed, I would argue that the singers’ emotional involvement is the result rather than the cause of a successful engagement with a song.

That success – according to my current working hypothesis – is to do with narrative. By this I mean not just the back-story kind of planning that builds characterisation, but carrying the thread of the song as it unfolds through time. This is both a lyrical and a musical process. Melodic and harmonic shapes create implications that are later confirmed or denied, and it makes a difference whether your resting point at the end of a phrase is fulfilling a musical promise or adding a twist to the tale. Lyrical phrases connect one to the next to create complete ideas that may likewise take you in one direction then turn back on themselves.

The problem with effects that show their technique is that they are not integrated into that narrative structure. As I discovered while working with Amersham A Cappella recently, the most colourful or striking word in a sentence is not necessarily the one that is key to the meaning. A vocal inflection on an interesting adjective, by itself, sounds like a gimmick; but if it is used – as the adjective is – to inflect the meaning of the noun it describes, it sounds expressive. Poignant chords likewise have a beauty in their own right, but only gain meaning in the context of where they have come from and where they resolve.

The creation of emotion, therefore, is dependent upon the generation of meaning. And the challenge for performers is to create meaning for a listener who may hear them only once in a performance that they have rehearsed so many times they are no longer surprised by it. And that is a big enough question to deserve a whole post in its own right another day.

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