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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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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:

Rivers

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

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…