Writing for Voice, Pt. 2: Putting Together the Music

I wrote in the previous post about how to consider setting a poem to music. In this part I’m going to talk about how I actually went about putting these words to music.

So my first concern with this piece was that it should be easily learnable and singable by an amateur choir. That meant not much in the way of chromaticism, nothing particularly odd rhythmically, no large melodic leaps and nothing outside a limited range.

So I was going to have to go back to writing tunes that are singable primarily, which requires some basic human intervention – not something I usually do. I tend to stay away from intuition when it comes to melodic writing, so this on the whole a bold new territory for me. But I’m nothing if not self-challenging!

Although now I think about it, my approach to melody is different when it comes to handling music with words; since I’m of the belief that in the case of song etc., music must largely work to support the dramatic and poetic intentions of the text. Hence, through the compositional process I try to find the melody that “fits” the words  the best. It’s an approach I used in a previous song I wrote – a setting of two Philip Larkin poems – in which I first laid out the harmonic structure using a series of randomly-generated harp pedallings, and then created a melodic line using these odd, rootless modes.

In fact, I’m rather ashamed to admit it, but I wrote the main melody for the song by just writing down the first tune that came to my head while reading the poem on the tube. And the following is what came out for the first line.

Fairly simple, right? I guess it’s sort of in G-melodic. Following on from that, I had three different ideas of how to continue, so I just whacked them all together, splitting into the three voice parts.

The words don’t quite fit each line in this reduction due to the dotted crotchets happening in different places. But it’s all syllabic, and makes sense. Trust. Also, the harmonic structure is certainly odd, as a result of three different lines of thinking about melody. I could analyse it as… A7, Bb maj7, Fsus/A7, Csus2/G, Ebdim, Ebm, F#. But I’m not sure why anyone would do that.

Anyway, the point is, this slightly odd approach to harmony comes from the meandering melodic lines (pointedly free from tedious ‘rules’ of counterpoint or harmony) weaving together like STREAMS forming a RIVER. See how the text influences the process? No? Do I need to make it more tediously obvious?

Anyway, this approach continues on for a while. For the chorus, I wrote three roughly ascending melodic lines, and had them run at the same time at 3 speeds – i.e., with each syllable corresponding to a crotchet, quaver or semiquaver. The result is a simple harmonic pattern that repeats itself in often interesting ways. I guess I could have gone longer with a fourth part singing minims, but that would just get boring.

It sort of continues around like that for a while. Anyone would think I’ve gone soft in my old age with all this regular rhythm and boring harmonies. I guess they might be right. But while each line is quite easy to sing on its own, when combined they produce a nice crunchy harmony, and with the middle part lifting on the offbeat it gives the whole thing a sense of movement which I quite like.

Anyway, that’s most of how the piece works! The second verse takes the same music and the first. It’s that simple. I deliberated a long time about how to fit verse and chorus together, because they’re sort of running with different ideas (and since this is to be sung a cappella it’s not like I can just whack in a nice middle 8 or something) but I reckon they work alright together in the end.

The final part (the line “we sing / we swell”) was where I could really push the boat out on non-traditional choral techniques. I was stuck on how to end the piece in a nice way that reflected the text. I wanted to have some sort of canonin writing going on, but it’s hard to do that sort of thing without strict conducting/learning/etc. Remember, this is a choir that normally sings Take That arrangement.

So in the end, I wrote three short loops of 6, 11 and 14 beats long. They start at the same time, but obviously go out of sync fairly swiftly. The idea is then for each singer to stop singing when they lose count, get bored, or whatever, and hold the final note (“swell”) until everyone’s there, at which point the conductor can bring them off together.

Next time! I put it all together, and hopefully get a recording of it!


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About thmsbsh

Sound poet, gauche leftist, occasional clarinettist.

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