Naturally 7

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On Thursday night I went with my friends from Magenta to see Naturally 7 on their Wall of Sound Tour at Birmingham Town Hall. They’ve been pretty well promoted in recent weeks and months, but if you’ve not come across them, here's a clip of the title track of their album and tour. It was, as you can imagine, a fun night out – they are skilled performers with a well-crafted show, and, moreover, come over as really nice guys.

I came home with a collection of Things To Think About Later:

  • They judged the volume level really well – loud enough that you experienced the music viscerally as well as audibly, but not so loud to stop you listening to the detail. It was clear from the structure of the show that they get the audience’s fascination with the detail of what they do as well as the overall impact, and they balanced our access to the pleasures of analytical listening and getting with the groove really nicely.
  • They explored the journey from ‘traditional’ a cappella to what they call ‘vocal play’. By the former, they meant textures that were about vocal harmonies – the examples they sang were largely homophonic and featured rich extended harmonies. The latter is when they get into vocal percussion and other instrumental imitations. Interestingly, in the ‘traditional’ world they were less impressive – it was good to have it on the programme for variety, but the tuning and blend was a little squiffy in places – whereas in the vocal play world they were stunning – much more precise and chiselling fascinating textures out of the distinct vocal sounds. What I particularly enjoyed, though, was when you’d suddenly get vocal/homophonic moment punctuating a complex instrumental passage – it was like the entire band just dropped their instruments for 8 seconds, then picked them up again instantaneously.
  • One of the things that makes a star in popular music is the distinctive voice – by which I mean both the vocal sounds, and the individual expressive world they evoke with it. I found here that the lead singers (several took turns at this in different numbers, as is routine in contemporary a cappella) weren’t the ones who made this kind of impression with me. They were good, for sure, but didn’t have that distinctiveness and originality of sound that inspires fandom. However, some of the instrumental voices had that aura. The bass guy is amazing, and lead guitar voice has the kind of individuality you associate with great guitarists like Brian May or The Edge. (And indeed his solo of God Save the Queen at the start of the second half shows he wants us to hear him in that league.)
  • There’s a fun study to be done by someone in music and gesture studies about contemporary a cappella performance. The stage movements range from choreographed boy-band dance moves, through to spontaneous gestures of the kinds that many singers use to help themselves think. In between, there are all the instrumental gestures, which seem to be playing a dual purpose. On one hand, they help the audience find their way round the musical textures, giving visual cues not only to timbral worlds they evoke (shades here of Old School’s concept of the Look of the Sound), but also to the structure of the texture – which parts are working as a unit at any moment, and which are independent. On the other, they are also clearly part of how the performers are thinking about the musical content: the gestures are musicotopographic* as well as being a form of display. And what’s really interesting here is the way the gestures slide between quite literal echoes of the body movements needed to play the instruments to more abstracted metaphoric gestures that had a clear origin in instrumental performance, but were also encapsulating other ways of thinking about musical shape.
  • There’s a certain irony in the group’s name, given that quite a lot of the ‘wall of sound’ effects relied on looping technology to make it work. But they did one number completely unplugged in their encore, which was nice. It was also interesting how their spatial relationships changed dramatically when they sang without amplification.
  • I’d happily go hear them again. Thanks to Rachel for suggesting we do this!

* Musicotopographic is a term I coined in my book on choral conducting, by analogy with logicotographic (a gesture that refers to the shape of the speakers thought processes rather than to an external referent), but acknowledging that not all thought is necessarily verbal.

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