Exploring Character and Narrative in Norwich

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I spent Saturday with my friends at Norwich Harmony further developing the contest set I had last worked with them on back in May. Unsurprisingly, given the elapsed time between visits, we could now build on the work we did last time on rhythm and harmony to explore how these elements contributed to the communicative dimensions of characterisation and story-telling.

We approached their up-tempo number as if it were a movie. Some songs strongly suggest a time, a place and even a filmic genre, and once you locate a song in this way, you have a common fund of imagery and associations that you can all draw on. One of the disadvantages of a cappella is that you don’t have a range of instrumental timbres to enhance the vividness of your performance; the commensurate advantage is that you have the imaginative freedom to build in opulent special effects to your concept without all the fuss of hiring an actual orchestra.

So not only could we switch from saxophones to strings to mark key emotional moment in the story, we could identify the moment when the movie went from black and white into technicolour.

We also gave attention to the role of the silences between the phrases. Some of these, especially in the freer-flowing sections functioned as thought-points, places where the character had successive new ideas that took the story onwards. Others were places where she would be looking for a response from the person she was addressing, responses that would motivate the next musical phrase.

When the song went into rhythm, by contrast, silences were there to set up the swing feel. A rest on a downbeat is a great arrangement device for giving a clear down-beat without pulling the accent away from the back-beat, but it needs to be sung with spritz and life if it is to set up the rhythmic character.

Our work in their ballad was more focused on exploring the arrangement and the way it told the story for us. Duetting a short passage, for example, drew everyone’s attention to how all the lines, not just the tune, are very melodic, carrying the emotional flow through the song. And tracing through the use of gestures that blossomed out from a unison gave us insight into how the song as a whole grew out from, and returned to, a core value that the song’s persona fundamentally believes in.

A feature of these blossom-originating phrases is that the last chord of each is the most surprising and colourful, and we spent some time having everyone focus on following through to this most interesting moment. The chorus fed back to me at the end of the day that, whilst they had been told countless times that it was important to sing through to the end of the phrase, this enabled them actually to achieve it. I was particularly pleased with how happy they were about this given that I had not even been thinking about singing, just harmonic colour.

We also sang the song as if flying on a magic carpet. This was an image I had used at Harmony University when coaching the song ‘A Whole New World’, which is literally all about riding on a flying carpet, but it worked so well I’m having no compunction in using it in songs about other things too.

Its primary purpose, both in Nashville and here, was as a means to bring melody to life. If you imagine melodic shape as if it were the contours of your carpet ride, you bring out its ebb and flow, connecting it all together into a seamless, but constantly-developing journey. In the process, you also guarantee that you are giving full bodily engagement to support your voice – you can’t stand passively while riding on a carpet.

The magic bit, of course, is the way the vocal and musical dimensions interact. How much, and what kind of, support a line needs varies constantly, depending on its length, its range, and its speed of motion. But if the metaphor you are using to engage that support is fundamentally focused on the shape of that line, then you will automatically be adjusting the vocal support to the musical need.

Putting this melodic responsiveness into the hands of the singers also served an agenda we explored all day, of finding ways to put the narrative into their hands rather than rely on their director Alison for all the detail. They have a strong and nuanced bond with her already, and our task was one of helping it move into a higher artistic gear.

When Alison was no longer generating all the musical shape, but accepting and shaping the music the singers were giving her, she was freed up to do much more subtle and artistic things with the sound. It is beautiful to behold a director whose ears are deep into the music intuitively adjust a chord into perfect balance with her left thumb.

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