Writing for Voice, Pt. 1: Approaching the Text
Another project I’ve got on the backburner over the last few weeks or so has been a piece for a local community choir I was asked to write.
Now, this presents its own challenges. The choir is made up of 40 or so people, depending on who turns up to each rehearsal. As with most amateur choirs EVERYWHERE EVER, it’s largely full of female voices, and what few men turn up find it hard to sing in a classical tenor. There is an emphasis on learning music by ear rather than reading a score, so as to aid participation, and it’s not really the environment for anything particularly… well, you know. Anything a bit “new music”.
So what does this mean for me? A cerebral-type musician with a reverence for the score-as-artefact and an inability to write proper tunes? It means it’s time to go back to square one.
Of course, the first thing to decide is what the text should be. And while I’m not averse to writing words for things in certain capacities, I’ve never considered intersecting my own music and my own words. Strikes me as bit too egotistical to be honest. And always me of the following sketch.
So anyway, for this I consulted the the nearest occasional wordsmith I could find. My dad. Given the themes of the choir (and also, I think, our proximity to the river Wandle), he came up with the following:
Our roads run straight and parallel
Our homes and gardens we surround
Beneath the ground
An ancient source
Awakened by the rhythm of
The footsteps that we take along
The paths that brought us to this place.
When rivers run together they make
Unfamiliar current and leave
Ripples on the surface hiding
Overpowering movement and when
Music makes us bouyant we can
Open up the floodgates float our
Hopes and our ambitions on a
Rising tide of rhythm as we
Sing we swell
SO, with that in mind. How to put it to music? I’ve been thinking a lot about Shape Notes – and specifically, the Sacred Harp tradition with which they’re most associated. Not that this is a sacred piece, of course, but the choir practice is held in a church. Anyway. My understanding of that tradition of music (with which I have little to no connection) it that it’s split into usual SATB sections, but pitch is relative and everything’s sung a capella. Listening to youtube videos of performance (which, as a side note, are generally incredible), there’s little sense of the strong topline melody against the lower voices singing harmonies as is traditionally the case in sacred (and secular) choral music. Instead, the tune seems to pass through the parts, and the blend of (largely untrained) voices singing close harmony and similar melodies creates a more unified sound. It’s nice! I like it!
But how can I use this as inspiration? And how can I address the issues I set out earlier?
The Uneven Gender Balance
This is probably the greatest obstacle to creating a cohesive choral sound. The bottom end is weak because they just don’t have the numbers, and it’s a sad truth that a lot of men are less comfortable with singing than women. Frankly, that’s why I joined the choir in the first place – to provide some male support (fnarr).
So why bother splitting up based on voice type? If I’m going for a more unified sound, it’d be best to divide on something else. How about three parts made up of an equal mix of voice types, singing at a register that is comfortable for all voices (with the allowance of singing an octave above/below)? That sounds nice. We can divide by relative skill, if need be. But I’d rather not have a hierarchical approach to parts. The theme of the text is that of unification, not division.
Coming up next! The business of settling down to actually write the music…