Composition and arranging techniques from Grand Union Orchestra composer/director Tony Haynes
If you are creating a choral piece – a chorus for a musical, say – it’s sensible to write all the harmony lines in a logical way, so that they are easy to sing (and learn, in the case of a theatre piece). This is even more important if you writing for actors or performers who can’t read music and learn by ear; and in any case it’s also good classical practice. In other words, each harmony line needs to be a melody in its own right.
It’s a small step from this to writing individual melodies first, for each voice or actor to sing, and then combining them so that they make a powerful, sonorous harmony. This also gives you two musical pieces for the price of one – a series of attractive solos, and a strong chorus! This is not unlike what happens in rounds and canons, where the simplest musical material accumulates to impressive effect.
At a crucial stage in my professional life, for many years I wrote and directed music for regional theatres across the whole UK, at a time (the 1970s) when they were really flourishing, and this is a technique I used frequently. It came in even more handy when there was little money to hire musicians (at the Liverpool Everyman or some of the smaller touring companies I worked for), and much of the music had to be a capella and performed by the actors alone.
In the Grand Union Orchestra, conditions were similar – a range of singers from different (mainly oral) traditions; and in any case I like the effect, so there are a lot of pieces like this in the shows! If Music Could… is an excellent example, and the live recording features five very different voices – from Ghana, Chile, Spain, the USA and finally a Scottish opera/folk singer!
So how is it done? And how is it made easy?
One of the simplest techniques is to start with a chord progression – it is likely (as here) to be 8 or 4 bars long – but of course a drone or an open (suspended 4th or 11th) chord, or indeed an irregular sequence, is equally usable as a basis. The advantage of setting different melodies to the same chord sequence is that (a) they have different points of tension in relation to the harmony, and (b) they are almost bound to fit together harmonically.
(If the sequence is irregular, like the 5-bar ground bass Purcell uses for Dido’s lament, but the melody remains in 4-bar phrases, the harmonic tension and resolution is even more spine-tingling.)
The progression needs to have some harmonic interest, but not be too eccentric; If Music Could… is a kind of jazz ballad which flows naturally across the whole 8 bars and only cadences when it returns to the beginning.
However – for musical reasons and to make the melodies simpler to learn – bars 5 and 6 in each voice are the same as, or only marginally varying from, bars 1 and 2, albeit against completely different harmony, which gives them a different emotional feel. All the voices complete their first phrase together on the first beat of bars 2 and 6 respectively. Their second phrase ‘we would do that’, however, is differently placed in each voice in such a way that the accent falls deliberately on a different word (‘would’, ‘that’ etc) in each part.
In the final line, ‘if music could we would’, all the voices move more or less together; and in each case the melodic line is simply a half-speed version of their opening melody. Furthermore, for added security and to get every line started confidently, all the voices start on an A flat on the word ‘if’; A flat is again the pickup note into the melodic repetition at bar 5; and A flat unites all the voices once more as they lead into their final line in bar 8.
What sounds like a fairly complex texture is thus quite simply constructed, and designed to be relatively easy to sing.
A similar technique is used for the instrumental parts to begin with. Each of the voices has a single instrument obbligato accompanying it; when the voices are combined, the obbligatos are combined also; and finally the obbligato instruments play the original vocal parts, to launch an improvised saxophone solo. The backing brass for the second solo chorus then becomes the backing for the reprise of the vocal chorus. The coda is free, but obviously based on the melodic figures and harmonic ‘feel’ of the main song.
Finally, If Music Could… comes originally from a show called A Book of Numbers (don’t even ask!), and this was number five, hence: 5 lines of verse, 5 verses, 5 voices, 5 obbligato instruments, 5 counter-melodies, 5 flats, 5 beats to the bar…
Because it can be rehearsed so easily, If Music Could… is suitable for – and very effective when sung by – amateur choirs. Copies of the music (including the more complex coda) and relevant permissions can be obtained from the Grand Union Orchestra direct (see website www.grandunion.org.uk for contact details). Enquire also about other choral pieces I have written for choirs.