Arranging for Small Groups 2: Consovowels and Suggestion

Ask him questions and you'll only get more in

"Wait, what?  What's a Consovowel?  What are you suggesting?"

Well, a consovowel is a syllable, quite simply.  Or perhaps it's every sound you hear at any given point.  Or perhaps it's the sum total of the arrangement.  Really, I'm trying to make the point that consonants and vowels are fundamentally different beasts (we're ignoring nasals like /n/ and /m/, or anything /r/-like, okay fancy-pants?).  For the purposes of arranging for the voice, think of consonants as anything that articulates -- they're essentially vocal percussion written into the score.  Vowels then, will refer to anything sustainable -- at least for now.

"Why is this particularly important when considering small-group four-part arrangements?"

Well, imagine you have one person saying "tah tah tah." Somebody else decides to join in and says also, "tah tah tah." If you've sung in a choir before, you know that these /t/s are not going to line up quite right; it takes a lot of practice and precision to get this done. It's a good skill to work on! But a corollary to this is that if the second person were to say only "ah ah ah," the first person's /t/s would be loud and distinct enough for the listener to essentially hear "tah tah tah." This same principle applies in arranging.

"Yeah, so?"

So articulation of a part really needs only to be done by a single voice to get the point across. With limited resources, you might be forced to assign a three-note guitar chord to only one voice part! The good part about this consovowel dualism is that it allows the listener's brain to fill in the rest, based on what it is already used to.

"I bet you have an example handy, right?"

Indeed. Here are the first seven bars of a TTBB arrangement of Everlong by the Foo Fighters. If you do not know this song, then I am old. First, the original tune's intro:

Here we have seven bars of solo electric guitar, very quiet.  This very very quiet part, although accomplished in the original by reducing the instrument number to only one, will be accomplished in the vocal arrangement by writing a "p" underneath.  At least, it should have been written underneath.  In any case, trust your group's ability to sing softly, and be aware that reducing the number of singers does a very different thing with a cappella groups than it does in a pop recording -- especially with smaller groups.

Then, the second seven bars contains some of the same thematic content, only with some swooping guitar chords and bass notes.  The chords of both guitars now are quite dense and complicated.  How on earth to do this?  Simple.  Since all we are hearing is consovowels, that means we can mix and match our consonants and vowels in any way we wish -- that means we can have parts that imitate polytonic instruments while only singing their most obvious note -- or even without singing any notes it plays at all!  All that's most important for textures like these is to have the rhythmic contentof each part in place, coupled with generalized pitch behaviors.  Let's see how this recombines.

The Arrangement's intro by Yuri Broze, sung NEVER by ANYBODY.  Really.  If you would like to, I'd love it.

Everlong Intro, Yuri Broze

The First Seven Bars

Bars one through seven use all the singers in order to produce a quiet guitar sound.  They also introduce a general rule of three for arranging: try to keep your block down to three different "things" happening at once for maximum impact.  As you add more, it becomes more difficult for the audience to comprehend what's going on.  Of course, please play around with this and break the rules whenever possible, but having three "things" in the block at once forms a very happy starting place.  Here, we have:

  1. A sustained bass note, which turns into a rhythmic bass part.
  2. A repeated "A" in the Tenor II part, which provides rhythmic interest from the original.
  3. The main guitar "melody," with its characteristic rhythm, harmonized between the Tenor Is and the Baritones.

So we start with an interesting split, and all voices are singing on the same /u/ vowel, for some pretty remarkable unity.  Also, the vowel is nice and quiet.  Fantastic!  Next, we'll have to add in two more instruments (bass and second guitar), and somehow make the arrangement seem as full.  Here's how it works:

The Second Seven Bars

A sudden scuffle and now something entirely different is going on.  Again, it's three "things":

  1. The sustained Bass and Baritone open fifths barge in on /a/, and /j/ makes it sound all gnarly (read: dorky).  The open fifths stand out hugely along side the vowel change and the dynamic change.  These open fifths are not what appear in the original, but they work particularly well with the voice, and sliding them around with good intonation is a very effective vocal game to play.  Score!
  2. The Tenor I, being the topmost part and easiest heard of the old melody, forges on without its Baritone companion and holds its own very well.  Even though the Baritone part is no longer underneath it, the rhythm is still represented, and the melody on top is in place -- the listener's ear doesn't miss it.
  3. The Tenor II stays on the same rhythmic part to continue to suggest what the other guitar might be doing on the repeated note, but now that it's not so exposed and is in the middle of the texture, it's free to switch notes and fill out the chord as needed.  Its purpose here is only rhythmic; its notes are generally very wrong.

But it doesn't matter -- the arrangement sounds powerful and full, even with four voices, because we were willing to loosen our grip on melody and harmony, and let consonants in one part imply pitches continuing to be sung in others.  In so doing, we switched the pairing of harmonization from Tenor I/Baritone to Baritone/Bass; this moved the center of attention drastically and made the highlighted part stick out with a strong timbral shift.  Here's the Original again, followed by the complete intro from the arrangement:

This entire arrangement is available for free at Broze Brothers Music.