Greetings friends! I'm writing to you from a coach trip through the Yorkshire Dales...or, from a Megabus on the motorway through Leeds' industrial outskirts, depending on whether you're a glass-half-full or half-empty kinda person. My soundtrack is Bon Iver's new album, and it doesn't take an optimist to know that's good news.
It's about a week since I got back from a half-work-all-pleasure two weeks in Boston. The Swingle Singers spent a week in Boston with the Boston Pops Orchestra, and Keith Lockhart, performing at Symphony Hall. It was our second trip with the BPO, having joined them on their Christmas tour in 2009. It's not unusual for us to perform with orchestra. We do a fair number of “light orchestral” and contemporary classical performances each year, including Luciano Berio's “Sinfonia” which the group is well known for in the classical world. But it was particularly exciting to perform with such a fantastic orchestra, especially with such stylistic versatility.
One interviewer asked us, “but if you're an a cappella group, surely the whole point is that you don't need instruments?”. It's a good question. If you function fully as a band with just voices, how do you adapt the roles of the singers so that the orchestra isn't a pretty yet redundant addition?
We do have some repertoire that is only written for this line-up, but some pieces have been adapted from our a cappella show. A few people have asked me recently how what we do differs in these gigs, so I thought I'd give a little run-down of the collaborative pieces we performed in Boston:
Badinerie (J. S. Bach) – Jo sang the lead throughout, accompanied in the first section by just the strings, second by us, and then strings and Swingles together. The singers' parts from the a cappella version didn't change, but were doubled in the strings or taken out for effect.
Overture from The Magic Flute (W. A. Mozart)– our a cappella version of this is abridged, so first thing was that we had to learn a few extra parts and remember not to skip the sections we weren't used to singing! We also do it a minor 3rd down from the original orchestral key. Of course the Pops didn't make a squeak about that, but I am sometimes conscious of string players who could play this piece in their sleep, wince as their internal ear squirms at the awkwardness of change. We may collectively have a 5-octave range, but that's our limit. You play in our key. ;-) The orchestra plays the introduction, then the Swingles take over for the main fugal section. The orchestra goes through the development while we chill out and try not to feel awkward standing in front of them doing nothing for several minutes, before joining them in glorious harmony for a rousing finish.
Flying High/When September Ends (from our latest album, Ferris Wheels) – our parts remained exactly the same, with the orchestration written around it.
Both Sides Now (also on Ferris Wheels) – I wrote both our a cappella version for FW, and also the full symphonic orchestration. The challenge here was to write something that was based on the same idea, wouldn't screw up our memory of the a cappella version, whilst avoiding sounding like I had added in the orchestra as an afterthought. In the aca version, only the solo voice sings the lyric all the way through, and there are three verses. The group provides mostly arpeggio accompaniment. I could rethink this entirely as noone was a necessity, everyone a luxury! I wanted a lush string intro, a moment of hush as it cuts down to a cappella for the start of the song (keeping the same parts as we already know), the orchestra joins, and then for the first chorus the voices can depart from function and sing the lyrics in lush 8-part homophony. The second verse our parts are exactly the same, and the orchestra fleshes it out, and for the third verse all voices sing in unison, bringing home the point by separating the voices/lyric entirely from the orchestra which by this point is getting more epic and symphonic. The final chorus is then all in harmony, and I allowed myself more rhythmic freedom with the phrasing in order to play off the different sections of the orchestra.
I Feel The Earth Move – arranged by Michele Weir especially for this series of gigs. I had asked her specifically to keep this as a group arrangement without too much of a solo focus. So essentially we sang BV-style backings the whole way through which is SO fun, especially for a group like ours where we often focus on quite intricate instrumental-type backings.
Beatles Medley – creatively entitled by Darmon Meader (New York Voices) who arranged it! Also arranged especially for the occasion, and a perfect mix of solo/group/instrumental-style/BVs. In my humble opinion. I also loved it because there were just some stonking stacked jazz chords which is my thang. All over. And I secretly want to be in the New York Voices.
This comes down a little to the functional distinctions between a cappella groups, and vocal groups that have rhythm sections etc. Stylistic traditions grow out of these functions, and it's a wonderful thing to analyse and articulate, so as to embrace all you can into whatever line-up your group might be. For example, if you have an instrumental rhythm section, switching to a section of vocal percussion is going to be all that more effective in contrast, rather than hearing it all the time. Use it! And for a cappella groups: when was the last time you had an arrangement where the rhythm section laid out and all the voices sang together, either in unisong or parallel harmonies, implying the rhythmic groove with the phrasing of the lyric? Try some stuff out... ;-)
I'd love to hear peoples’ thoughts on this – leave some comments underneath and let's see if people are trying some new things/ have additional thoughts!
About the author:
Clare Wheeler is a jazz singer, composer and arranger. She sings alto with The Swingle Singers, and lives in London. She studied violin and voice at Chethams School of Music, Manchester, and then jazz composition and singing at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. A fan of travelling, eating chocolate-based foods and twitter, she is also known as @dinkyswingle, Wheelie or Wheels.