Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Pacing lyrics

(Boy, the blog entry titles just get worse and worse, don't they.)

Sometimes a musician performing an improvised song might strike up something very up-tempo and expect an improviser to jump in and start singing. Does the improviser have to keep up with something just as fast? No! Same goes if the musician plays something slow - are the improvisers required to sing something slow? No! The pace of the accompaniment and the pace of the vocal don't have to match.

You'll find that a nice medium-tempo accompaniment can often support not just vocals that match the tempo of the song, but rapid staccato vocals or slow soaring vocals as well. Now, I suspect rapid staccato vocals are more difficult, regardless of the speed of the music; the improviser has to think through and articulate many more words in a short space of time, which seems like a big challenge to me.

Michael Pollock discusses this in his book Musical Improv Comedy. (If this blog is interesting to you at all, and you haven't bought his books, you should definitely check them out.) He provides a few worked examples as well.

Being aware of this choice of speed can be quite useful as you're constructing a song. For example, you might choose to sing a song such where the vocal during the verse is fast- or medium-paced, changing to slow and soaring for the chorus. That light and shade can really help to develop a song and give it character.

Even more impressive is varying the vocal speed while having several singers singing simultaneously. (Seriously!) If you have an opportunity to have one person sing a fast-paced line, and another sing a medium-paced line, they can weave around each other to create a very complex-sounding piece. It's not difficult, but it sounds difficult.

This sort of concept is pretty hard to discuss without an example. Predictably, I have an example handy.

We Don't Need Them

The example this week comes from Worst Side Story. The song We Don't Need Them opened the second half of the musical. The first half ended on a very dark note, with a death, a relationship breakup, and the banishing of our two lead characters from their gangs. We knew we needed something upbeat to start the second half, something to bring up the audience's energy levels, and re-acquaint them with the story so far. The song is akin to a separated duet, but with two gangs instead of two lovers. Story-wise, this song takes place between the two songs featured a few weeks ago in Something's Gonna Change/Extraordinary Day.

Now, to illustrate changing pace in a lyric, we're going to focus on just one verse from the song: the second verse, performed by the always-excellent Amy Currie. Amy varies her delivery speed as she performs her verse. The first stanza is very quick (with fantastic rhyming):
In this fast food restaurant, everyone was damned
Until we came in here, now their napkins are monogrammed
Her second stanza is slower; she takes the same sort of content and stretches it across twice the duration:
Without my brother
Things are looking finer
Lets grab a tablecloth
And take it to the diner
Then she effectively does it again to tag her verse. The "We just don't need him, we just don't need him" line is double the speed of "We just don't need him anymore."

As always, I have some favourite bits of the song:
  • Tom's gruff speaking voice carries right in to the song.
  • Amy's opening statement about being on the other side of town, having a similar conversation. It sets up the separation nicely, with a nod to the audience.
  • I always really like when the improvisers can interleave talking and singing, and I think they do a great job in this song. Actually, I'm really impressed that the cast managed to put on credible American accents for the whole show without dropping them. Mostly.
  • Once again I abused Joel with an instant key change. He'd already started his verse, and with zero notice switched effortlessly in to the new key. (I tried to freshen each verse with a key change and sometimes a slight change in the feel of the song... just left it to the last minute for Joel!)
  • The counterpoint in the final chorus is excellent. It was a pretty simple lyric, which freed the singers up to experiment with the timing and sing over each other.
  • Right as the music started to hint at an ending, just as the characters were speaking their realisation that maybe they did in fact need the two outcasts, Joel nails the tag to finish the song, and everyone else jumps right on his bandwagon.

Fast/Slow photo by Ken Mayer. Worst Side Story pictures by Al Caeiro. Written by .

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