Composition · Music Production · Vocals

Vocal tapestry

This blog post is a special entry devoted to the unique characteristics of vocal writing. In the tradition of western music, spanning between the late Medieval and Renaissance periods, vocalists were given separate melodic lines which the entire group would performed concurrently. This layered tapestry resulted in a musical texture called polyphony. Motets, or polyphonic hymns, guided church worshippers to listen deeply into the “threads” of sacred text sung by each section. Thus was the birth of contrapuntal music, a style which Palestrina and later on, J.S. Bach developed into modern counterpoint. Bach’s compositions solidified the approach that western composers still apply to part writing today. Over time, however, this layered texture fell out of favor with the Catholic church because lyrics were too difficult to clearly hear. Instead, composers began writing harmonic accompaniments (i.e. chords) to support a single melody of sacred text. This device, called homophony, allowed a tangible line to “stick” to someone’s ear and be easily remembered. Extra voices only functioned to complement the main melody. Beyond classical practices, the folk music tradition, where music is passed down through generations, regularly employs this approach. People who weren’t trained musicians needed to clearly understand the words and melodies so they could recall them before the advent of recording technology. Pop music is a style which particularly flourishes upon this ease of recollection.

If one pulls apart polyphonic lines consecutively, a call and response emerges. It is an extremely powerful vocal approach derived from ancient African cultures and music. In this resilient form, one vocal line will answer another vocal line, often providing a commentary to the initial lyric. Rock ’n’ roll brought call and response to a mainstream western audience (The Who’s “My Generation” is a solid example). A version of call and response is also found ubiquitously in Salsa during the montuno vamping section. The lead singer’s improvised phrases are answered by a “coro” of supporting singers and players, who respond with a recurring melody and lyric.

Vocal register (i.e., high vs. low) is another variable which composers need to keep in mind when writing for singers. Arranging for each the four main registers, SATB or Soprano/Alto/Tenor/Bass, takes a certain amount of understanding of how each voice will interact with the other. This aspect is sometimes challenging to hear in the isolation of one’s mind, which is why workshops are so important. In one example, a lower alto harmony may compete with a guitar riff written in the same register. In this case the writer may decide to revoice the harmony by swapping the vocal lines so the alto will sing a different part. This swap still keeps the overall harmony intact. As a comparison, think of the relationship between two similar colors in a painting. If they are too close spatially, a viewer will have difficulty telling them apart.

In my experience, opportunities for call and response emerge when giving phrases I’ve already written for myself to other singers. It usually works when the lyrical idea fits the change in vocal character. With little exception, my singers have their parts written out, which can allow the tapestry of vocal and instrumental lines to be very precise. The threads of each part are sewn together to create an overall aural image. Ad libbed sections are clearly marked in places where a “space” within the image is available for a listener to focus on the improviser’s color and shape.

Thanks again for reading! Looking forward to next month when I share with you my recording process for the new album.

Music Production

Changing Hats Part 2 – Copyist/Workshop Director/Musician

A writer can take multiple avenues when deciding to record his or her compositions. One tried and true method is to record live performers, which is a method found frequently in the classical, salsa and jazz genres. In this first case, one needs to create the music charts (aka sheet music) for the musicians to base their performances upon. Much rehearsal is required in order for the takes to be solid. An alternative way does not require actual musicians performing and instead can be done solely through a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). Examples of this method can be found in EDM genres and certain film and TV music. Beyond the cost of the computer, software and samples, the producer can effectively create the music with little budget. The third and most flexible way of producing requires a combination of live players and computer programming. This approach allows the natural fluidity of a live group to coalesce with overdubbing (live recordings over the existing tracks), electronic elements and arrangements that would be too expensive or difficult to produce live. Electronic elements can run the gamut from synthesizer parts, musique concrète (found sounds) and sound design to sampled recordings of real instruments.

My new album is produced using the third method. Most of the tracking has live performance as the song backbone, with sampled instruments augmenting the arrangements. Before rehearsals I spent quite some time writing up charts, providing dynamics, articulation, and tempo instructions for the players. I first met up with my drummer, as his incredible musicianship and connection to my writing helped set the stage for the rest of the band. Just considering our rhythmic flow was important, as certain ideas the drummer brought to the table accentuated aspects of my writing. With the exception of written out licks and markings, he uses the charts as a starting point for developing his approach. After a couple of rehearsals with the drummer, I listened back to the performance recordings, took notes, and then invited the bass player to join in. Early in the rehearsal process I will workshop different arrangement ideas and then go back to my charts to make revisions. As a comparison, one can think about the process a playwright goes through when bringing his or her writing to actors for a reading. Having actors speak the parts out loud often shows how the phrases will feel in context. Keeping this analogy in mind, I have always recorded rehearsals, since when wearing my performance hat, I cannot “see” our progress from a birds eye view. The POV of listening allows me to make revisions with a clear head.

An important part of workshopping is following one’s instinct and trusting if something is not working. No matter what is written on a page, all players need to feel connected to one another for a band to sound great. Of course, it helps a great deal for all players, even bandleaders, to leave egos at the door and respect the process of coalescing material. I consider using my management hat an especially fraught challenge, as it requires good communication skills as well as a dose of chutzpah. During my prior album production, I had to fire multiple drummers and deal with some bad vibing before discovering my core rhythm section. Because I was figuring out my footing as a bandleader, I spent too much time and money trying to work with musicians that didn’t jive with my vision. For this record, I understood rather quickly that the bass player initially hired was not syncing to the material and brought a negative attitude to the rehearsals. I consulted with my trusted drummer and ultimately decided to let the bass player go. It was a great decision, as the subsequent player had chemistry with the group and the results felt wonderful.

Looking forward to next time when I talk about vocal workshopping and the recording process.


Changing Hats Part 1 – Not multi-tasking

For my first blog entry, I’d like to delve into the challenge of changing hats. When developing an album from the first ideas into a completed work, I find it helpful to conceptualize myself as being separate workers, each having one’s own task. Managing these workers is a skill within itself and being organized makes the process quite a bit easier. Imagine a manager watching his/her workers in a window up above and what ability it takes to coordinate the whole workforce successfully. Part of managing is knowing when to give breaks. In this vein, even a quick walk around the block will helps me see the bigger picture and pull through a snag. I do not consider changing hats multi-tasking, since it is imperative to focus fully on just one task at a time. In my experience, I find multi-tasking will bring about a muddled result.

Wearing my composer hat, I begin writing the skeleton of my pieces without any worry of budget, time restriction, musicianship or placement within the marketplace. Often I  use constraints within which to write, as a rule may help facilitate the creative process. For example, film composers will frequently use the constraints of a temp score as a way to write a new piece. Jazz improvisors may use a chord progression as a race track, driving their melodies around an existing structure. The point is to find a device which permits ideas to flow naturally and without inhibition. Speaking of time, a fully fleshed out song could be written as quickly as 30 minutes yet others could take several months. A few may even need to be put down for a while in order for ideas to coalesce. There should be no judgement placed on the time needed for their completion. One note about musicianship; mistakes and flubs should be considered opportunities which can inspire new directions. I’ll have energy to master the melody or guitar part after the song is written. I may let a recorder run while I “noodle” with lyrics and melodic fragments. Listening back to those recordings, I’ll pull out the ideas I’d like to develop further and notate them. In the midst of writing, I often will repeat a mantra; go with the flow and do not question what is happening. The key is to not censor anything and let your creatively flow. Check out “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron for more ideas on how to approach writing.

Once the song is finished, I can approach the arrangements. I find it helpful to begin arranging a number of months after writing, as I find decisions are easier to make without being too close to the music. At this point, I act as a hired arranger being brought into another writer’s project. The detachment from the songwriting ensures I will not re-write the song, only arrange for it. A fresh ear is also extremely helpful in order to “hear” new sounds within the writing. I will sometimes listen to diverse genres as inspiration and write down what I think could work for certain songs. Another subset of arranging is vocal part writing, which I will either start before or after the band arrangements are finalized. At this juncture I start using the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) as an arrangement tool. First, I record a demo solo performance, which would have me singing while playing guitar or piano. Then, I will use that demo to build a metronome track corresponding to the natural rhythm of my playing, subsequently adding other instruments either by overdubbing or via a software sampler. In the DAW I use, Logic Pro X, this metronome is created by the “Beat Mapping” tool. Using it makes writing charts for rehearsal quite a bit easier because I can take the parts I write, tether the MIDI data to a sampler instrument and output the MIDI via the Logic Pro X scoring window.

Thanks for reading! My next blog entry will cover workshops, recording and the beginnings of the production process.