A Cappella

On Shifting Keys

Today’s reflections were sparked by a message from a friend asking the following question:

Question, how do you feel as an arranger, singer, and/or multi-genre musician about the practice of habitually shifting the keys of songs? One of my quartets casually shifts many songs up a tone or more as if it's nothing (including with little notice), and it's putting strain on me both vocally and conceptually. It's alright if the song is simple, but if there are mucho chromatics I have to perform integral calculus as I go, and it breaks my music memory. Can I put my foot down or am I being unreasonable?

It’s a good one, isn’t it? My immediate response was that there needs to be some sort of negotiation here – just because a different key is good for one or two voices, doesn’t make it good for all. And that if they are habitually picking arrangements that comfortably accommodate either low or high voices, but not both at once, they need to have a bit of a think about how they are going about this.

On the Liberalising of the Barbershop Style

One of the things that has happened in the five years since I stopped being a barbershop Music judge is that there has been a deliberate policy to frame both the category description and the way it is used in practice in ways that will encourage more new music. And you’d have to say it has been largely successful. We are hearing a much wider variety of songs in contest than we used to.

In part this has been about loosening rules so they express what is best practice rather than a ‘do-this-or-else’ approach. So, for example, the chord vocabulary is now presented in a hierarchy of ringability, rather than with the distinctions between chords that are allowed, those allowed under certain circumstances, and those not allowed. All chords are allowed, but if you want to score well, keep using lots of major triads and barbershop (dominant-type) 7ths as they are the most barbershoppy.

Exploring Compensating Rubato with LaBOOM

Action screen-shotAction screen-shot

Saturday took my musical attention back to Munich, though my body stayed at home. The amenity of Skype allowed me to spend a couple of hours with LaBOOM quartet working on two new songs I arranged for them back in the autumn. They quite sensibly wanted to get this session done early in the learning process, to shape the overall concept of the songs before they’d got too settled in their habits with them.

The most challenging area we tackled during the session was getting a feel for compensating rubato. Their ballad is in a gentle ¾ time, and they had been feeling as quite strongly waltz-like. Our task was to ease this framework up into something slightly more flexible without spoiling the sense of poetic metre or the lilt that the time signature provided.

Soapbox: On Possessive Lyrics

soapboxThere’s a moment in The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when Slatribartfast asks Arthur, ‘Is that your robot?’

‘No,’ says Marvin, ‘I’m mine.’

This scene comes to mind every time I hear a barbershop tag that finishes a love song with the information that the beloved is now, ‘Mine, all mine’. However much sympathy I have had for the sentiments expressed up to that point (which is often quite a lot; I’m a soppy old soul despite my misanthropic appearance), it largely evaporates in the face of this blatant possessiveness.

You can’t own the person you love most in the world. Even once they have decided to team up with you so you can build a life together, they are still their own person with their own preferences and opinions and needs and – most importantly – the right to determine their own destiny. Asserting that they are all yours doesn’t make you sound romantic, it makes you sound like Monty Burns gloating over a pile of gold.

To Recreate or Reimagine?

When arranging a popular song for a cappella, like any other type of cover version, you have two basic options for how to approach it. You can aim to recreate the original in the new medium, or you can use the act of transfer to reimagine the music. In the first approach, the primary pleasure for your listeners is recognition: Oh yes, I know this, here are all my favourite bits in a new context! In the second, it is rediscovery: Oh, I’ve never heard it this way before – now I hear it in an entirely new light!

As an arranger, I am often complimented for my work of the first type. People value the sense of being true to something they know and love. But sometimes I’ll choose instead to completely recast a song, either because somebody asks me to (as in my arrangement of I Will Survive), or to solve some essential problem that the song presents.

Sopebocks: On thuh Spelling Uv Kawdz

soapboxEvvry sew offen I fined mice-elf in konvasayshun with uh felloh uhraynja hoo addvokaytz spelling kawdz inkorrecktlee two mayck singing lyenz eezya. I thinck bye thiss thay meen righting awl lyenz ryzing bye semmytohn with shahps anned awl fawling bye semmytohn with phlatz.

I rooteenlee trie anned tawk them owt uv thiss on thuh baysiss that it maycks thuh myoozick mutch hahda two reed four thohz hoo undastanned hahmunny. Ewe haff two stop anned puzzul owt wot awl thee individyoual nohtz ah anned tranzlayt that ennhahmonickly intwo uh kawd rahtha than chust reeding thuh myoozick. At bessed it sloes ewe up, at wurst it chaynjezz thuh meeningz.

A Weekend with the Barberlights

Barberlights
Unless something unexpected happens very soon, last weekend was my last coaching trip to Germany for 2018. This time I was with the Barberlights in Remseck, near Stuttgart, and we had a full schedule together, starting Friday evening and continuing all day Saturday and most of Sunday too. To say this allowed us to get a lot done together would be an understatement.

It wasn’t just the sheer number of hours we spent together, I’d add, it was the chance to sleep on our experiences together and revisit the next day. In this sense, the session on Friday, though only an hour and a half long, really punched above its weight. Not only did we start Saturday having done some groundwork together, we’d also given our brains the chance to process, sort and embed the work.

A Brand New Endeavour

Warm-up action picWarm-up action pic

I spent Sunday working with Endeavour, a brand new mixed barbershop chorus. They have been in the planning for some time, but actually sang together for the first time on Saturday, so I had the honour being their first ever visiting coach. Their singers are drawn from barbershop groups in Ireland, the UK and Germany, so their rehearsals take the form of intensive weekends in locations handy for airports.

It is an auditioned chorus, and many of the singers know each other from participating in the various Harmony Brigades. Hence, it is populated with people with considerable experience and skill as singers, and who are accustomed to learning music independently. Their challenge is melding these vocal and musical resources into a coherent ensemble within a short timescale so as to make the most of the artistic potential available.

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