Strictly A Cappella

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StrictlyI spent a hot and sticky Thursday night down in Radlett with Strictly A Cappella. We were working on bringing out the musical detail in a pleasantly varied range of songs – from Queen, to Duke Ellington, from Diana Ross to gospel. The heat and the closeness of the atmosphere make it all the more impressive to note that this is an ensemble that maintained absolute integrity of tonal centre all evening.

Their rehearsal room is quite small and quite lively, which for many vocal/choral genres can be dangerous – the risk is that people will get used to making a large resonant sound with the help of the walls and ceiling rather than with their own singing technique. But for a moderately large contemporary a cappella group like this, it actually makes their job harder. Much of their music benefits from quite intricate textures, and singing it in a space like that forces everyone to work much harder a keeping it clean and tight, so you don’t lose all the detail in the wash of sound.

We had a few of recurrent themes during the evening. One was that to make an intricate line (such as many of the bass riffs) speak, it helps to take the muscle out of the voice. What’s interesting is how, as the sound becomes cleaner and more nimble, it also becomes more resonant. The music speaks more clearly and vibrantly when the singers stop trying so hard and just let it through.

Another theme, unsurprisingly, was harmony and its expressive effects – the difference between singing chords accurately (as they already were) and singing them with meaning. In two instances, this involved moments of harmonic surprise – actually, now I think about it, they were both cases of juxtaposed chords with roots a 3rd apart, but with one note in common. This is a dramatic kind of gesture, and in both instances was part of a ramping-up of musical intensity towards the end of the song. The key thing with moments like this is simply to recognise the drama and sing it as an ‘Aha!’ moment, rather than as business-as-usual.

The other type of harmonic exploration was the use of added-note and other types of dissonant chords as a way to evoke emotional complexity. I talked about this a little last year, in relation to the idea of counterfactual emotions. And I was interested to encounter similar effects the following morning with the quartet Frisson (more on this anon), all in songs dealing with love almost but not entirely lost.

We also explored the relationship between musical texture and expressive register. Whilst the balance between homophony and more complex textures varies considerably between different styles of popular a cappella, it is a safe generalisation that the more parts are singing the same words at the same time, the more overt or declamatory is the message of those lyrics. As I have noted before, once an ensemble has got the hang of this principle, they can apply it for themselves, generating a dynamic/expressive shape that works very naturally with the musical structures, because it is directly derived from them.

This saves a lot of rehearsal time, since there is no need to give a lot of detailed instructions – the nitty-gritty is built into the arrangement itself – and because people don’t need to invest cognitive resources in remembering what they have been told, they just have to pay attention to what’s going on in the music around them. It makes good use of the intelligence in the room, and rewards a culture of mutual responsiveness.

There was an interesting exception to that generalisation in the form of call-and-response textures within the specific context of gospel music. This kind of gesture maps the roles of preacher and congregation onto the musical elements of lead and echo. Again, by drawing attention to the intended impact of the whole, all participants collaborate to make their parts balance effectively.

A third theme was using instrumental metaphors as a means to bring out the expressive detail of arrangements. In one case, where we were exploring the dissonant harmonies of complex emotion, reimagining the texture as a string ensemble brought a renewed clarity in the detail. In part this was because people adopted a lighter, clearer tone to evoke that timbral world. But it also affected how they approached the legato interplay of lines. Possibly because the bowing arm has to stay in motion to keep the sound going, but we got a more imaginatively-engaged continuity of sound through this metaphor.

When we got to the swing music, the instrumental groupings of the big band became the obvious framework for highlighting musical detail. The contrast between saxophone and brass not only brought variety in dynamic and tonal colour, but also actually brought some notes into tune that had been a trifle suspect. I find it fascinating how tuning difficulties are not always about technical deficit, but can be an issue of meaning and purpose. Sort out what the imagination is doing, and the technique looks after itself.

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