Pop vs. Classical
Actor vs. Singer
Theatre vs. Concert
That makes it sound like a competition, like I’m pitting everyone against everyone else. Nothing could be further from the truth, let me assure you! The next time I appear in concert is in The Beatles Unplugged and although it’s proving to be quite a steep learning curve, I’m loving it.
I’ve already blogged on why I love arranging pop songs for choirs. With Sydney Philharmonia Chamber Singers I’ve really been enjoying that magical unanimity that you can really only find with a choir, a group of diverse individuals united for a common purpose, working together toward a common goal. Gosh, this is all starting to sound a bit socialist isn’t it? Perhaps it is a little, but in reality it’s actually more like an autocracy headed by a benevolent leader in the shape of a conductor who allows their people one collective expression. Ok, I’m going to stop right now with the political analogies (that’s what being at uni all day does to you. Ha.) Anyway, the choristers have particular strengths; paying attention to details in the scores and blending their voices homogeneously like no other kinds of singers can do. It’s very satisfying to work with such a marvellous precision instrument, but I do wish that they would be better actors more of the time. They can certainly do it, but they require enormous amounts of encouragement to find the courage to do it. I think they’re enjoying the challenge though, because they are getting better at it all the time!
At the other end of the scale are our two fabtastic soloists Rob Mills and Bobby Fox. Wow, talk about a polar opposite approach. Their primary concern, even from the very first note-bashing rehearsal, is communicating the meaning of the text in a song. No surprises there, I mean, they’re singing actors. I do feel the need to say, however, that I experienced a sudden wave of relief wash over me because their approach is something that I’m always trying to get my choirs to do. It was so interesting talking with Bobby about which part of his voice would best suit a line in Norwegian Wood, every suggestion he made was clearly in service to the dramatic context of the line i.e. even the smallest change in placement of the voice makes an enormous difference to the colour of the sound and therefore has greatly different dramatic implications, we’re talking here specifically about the humour and irony of that final line “So I lit a fire. Isn’t it good Norwegian Wood”. Similarly, when Rob was describing all the varying layers of meaning in Across the Universe it became clear to us that a variety of colours would be needed to produce sometimes a real strength, like a kind of wise old guru, and at other times a delicate and magical otherworldliness, that will make our experience of the song genuinely transcendent of time and space. No easy task. I admit that I do find it a little frustrating that they don’t read music faster but hey that’s not their problem, it’s mine! (There’s a whole other blog post in that, yes, there is.)
The challenge for me as a director is to bring these two worlds together. It must be the teacher in me, but I really want the choir to see the value in an actor’s approach to communication which is, after all, the reason why humans learnt to sing in the first place! On the other hand, I also want the soloists to see the value of attention to teeny tiny fussy details and how those details work for an ensemble the same way that choices of vocal colour work for a soloist. Just imagine if we could all do both approaches simultaneously? I guess that would make the world a boring place full of people with identical skill sets. No, it’s the tension between these approaches, the pull between them, that’s going to make this show really unique. No one is going to be on as steep a learning curve as I, let me tell you! When Brett Weymark said that he wanted a project that would be a challenge, I didn’t think for a minute that he meant a challenge for everyone involved, including me. How wrong I was. I gotta tell you though, it’s great to feel like I’m learning new things.
Bring it on!
Arrangement. Reinterpretation. Quodlibet.
Cover. Remix. Mashup.
(And the one I really hate “Putting my own spin on it.” Ffs.)
There are so many ways to describe what is essentially the same thing, probably more than I’ve mentioned above. Musicians will get hung up on semantics, but for all these labels the intent is the same, to communicate a personal interpretation of somebody else’s work.
I love arranging other people’s music, particularly creating choral arrangements. There’s just something about the focussed unanimity of a chorus, that singularity of purpose expressed simultaneously by a large number of individuals, it has a unique power. Although it requires something of a suspension of belief when choirs start singing in the first person singular, somehow it still manages to work. Crazy but true.
Arranging pop songs for choirs is a particular passion of mine. The choral music market is absolutely awash with pop song arrangements so many of my musician colleagues ask me, why I would bother with such a thing? The answer is this; because I want people to actually hear the words of the songs and realise that many pop songs have genuine and often heartfelt meaning. The only way I can achieve this is by doing some extra interpretation on the audience’s behalf and kinda meeting them halfway.
Let’s take as an example the ABBA song Fernando. For most of us, myself included, the first image that springs to mind are the smiling and squeaky clean ABBA foursome, their faces glowing in the golden light of the campfire, strumming their guitars and swaying, singing a cheesy tune. But ask yourself these questions now - Who was/is Fernando? What did he do? Who did he do it with? How does he feel about the consequences of his actions? I doubt that very many people could answer these questions, and they probably don’t think they care to. I think they should care, because it’s actually much better than a silly cheesy tune!
The text of the song was written by Björn Ulvaeus and tells the story of two old men remembering fighting alongside each other in a battle during the 1910 Mexican revolution. Oh em gee, who knew?? I decided to try to communicate through my arrangement both the military might of the battle and the personal nostalgia for the friendship, plus also a teensy bit of humour because, let’s face it, there’s just something inherently silly about ABBA (blame Muriel’s Wedding for that, ABBA fans!).
The military might came in the shape of bugle/horncalls and a drum-like pattern that appears in the piano introduction and coda. The choir joins in the drum pattern with the words “Ra pa pum pum” a la The Little Drummer Boy thereby supplying the humour. The nostalgia is represented by a slow tango accompaniment for the chorus “If I had to do the same again, I would my friend, Fernando”.
At it’s first performance, there was immediate laughter for the first few “Ra pa pum pum”s but then a change happened. Rapt silence. I could hear people were listening, with an attentiveness they had probably never given to the song before. Afterwards a friend came up to me and said “Wow Sally, I just realised I’d never really heard that song until tonight”. I couldn’t have asked for a greater compliment.
If you come to my next show The Beatles Unplugged don’t forget to clean your ears out first and I promise to provide you with some fresh, new things to really listen to!