A Little Bit of Soul

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Much of the history of the choral music we Americans sing points back to European origins. The prominence of the church in societies of the 15-18 hundreds helped the pipe organ flourish. This was the first amplified instrument, and when fit properly into a cathedral it outclassed everything else used to keep up with a large group of assembled voices. Choral music built itself on what became the standard scale for European organs – the equal-tempered scale that Bach celebrated with those famous preludes and fugues.  A notation system was developed to preserve the contemporary melodies, harmonies and rhythms of hymns and other church music for the use of future generations. It focused on visual elements that were simple enough to be easily learned and even sight-read by singers and players alike.

We still use the same notation system today. Its influence on our choices as composers and arrangers is subtle but powerful, something subliminal, asking for compositions that fit the limitations of the notation system. How might we add a little bit of soul?

African societies were developing a variety of equally astounding music during the same several hundred years. They had no instruments to rival the power of a pipe organ, but they had the ultimate freedom of not being constrained by a single scalar alphabet. No system of notation was developed to describe musical thoughts on paper. The music was passed down as an oral (or perhaps aural) tradition. Scales could be conceived for each song, with built-in fluidity on pitched percussion, wind and string instruments imitating the flexibility of the human voice. Melodic rhythms on percussion instruments anchored the music with repeating patterns that supported counterpoint on plucked instruments. The deepest drum often spoke the downbeats against which everything else happened. The voices danced through this sonic playground with syncopated melodies and broad choruses. By repeating the forms once they had been established, the singers, players and dancers could raise the dynamic of the music until all were bathed in sweat. Beethoven couldn’t have done it better.

As an arranger I love to combine elements of both cultures in various different ways. A model I often use is to take “hymnal hits” and filter them through African lenses. If there’s a hymn I come across that has some pedal notes I’ll extend them and give that to the baritones, maybe morphing that into a repeated figure. I’ll give the melody to the tenors, transposing the piece as necessary. I’ll look for syncopation opportunities in the melody, then assign it in unison to the altos. I’ll simplify the harmonies that move too far beyond basic triads. The sopranos are now free to come and go with counterpoint rhythms or maybe even sustained notes that echo key words. I’ll develop slight variations from there, but nothing that goes beyond the original rhythmic motif.

The main thing I try to do when mixing these two cultures is to respect them both. European music has the intense logic of the even tempered scale and the notation system used to publish it. African music has its melodic rhythms and fluid scales. But I notice that many of the African rhythms I like look a bit strange on the page and sound a bit stiff if read too exactly. The same applies to pitches. Floating portamentos and quarter tones fall outside our European notation system, so we have to refer to recordings to learn the necessary nuances to describe the interpretive style for prospective performers. For our choir to “sing the blues”, demo mp3’s become a requirement.

So then this is my goal: Aural traditions combined with written recipes to produce an intriguing amalgam of sound. In the US this combination has yielded a rich harvest of choral music in Jazz, Blues, and especially in Black Gospel. Printed choral scores of good Black Gospel show the triad planing and syncopation of African roots combined with verse-chorus structure of the American Song catalogue. Great stuff!

Try taking a European style choral piece and use some of these methods to put in a little bit of soul. The intense rhythms and simplified harmonies can be a bunch of fun for you and your choir, even if your singers have to still be masked for a while. For some cool ideas, go to YouTube and search “Malawi music”, “Kenya music”, “Soweto music”, etc. Get ready to smile!

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