Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Counterpoint

A few weeks back, we talked about how you can pace your lyrics, varying the speed of an improvised vocal around the music. The music is going to set a particular pace, and it might suggest a pace for the melody to follow, but as the singer you can take it slow or run at double-speed. That's all good if you're a solo singer. What if you are performing a duet?

An incredibly effective technique for a multi-singer song is to have the singers overlapping each other, but singing at different speeds. Perhaps one is moving along with a stately, slow vocal, and the other is zipping around with a rapidfire line. The two will sit nicely together. The audience will probably get only a sense of the lyric from each, instead of being really tuned in, but the two will still combine to make something bigger than the whole.

In a two-singer situation, probably the best combination I've seen is to have one person hitting a medium- or quick-tempo line, and a second doing a sweeping sustained, soaring vocal line.

Wikipedia has a quite informative entry for counterpoint, from the perspective of traditional classical music. (I'm awfully impressed with Wikipedia lately. It has surprisingly detailed entries for many things. Kids wanna know something? Wikipedia.)

The really crazy thing about this technique is that it sounds so difficult, but it is actually pretty easy. A class I taught a few weeks ago had a mix of about half rookies, half pros, and they took to this technique like ducks to water. We kicked off with an exercise to really illustrate the technique, then launched in to some scenes where we had two- and three-singer counterpoint going. There's something about a well executed counterpoint that really pushes my buttons, in a good way - if you do it right, it is impressive enough that it could have been something that was composed and planned.

I assume (given I'm not on stage trying to pull the singing part off myself) that the hardest part is to shut out the other singers and avoid synchronising with their melody or tempo.

In lieu of a wonderful improvised example, this week I've got a song by Jason Mraz. His stripped-down original demo for I'm Yours is lovely and clean, and really focuses on the vocal. Have a listen to how the verse in the song is fairly rapid, and the chorus is sung much slower - another good illustration of pacing lyrics. Around 3:10 (on this version of the song) he layers the verse and chorus over each other, creating a lovely counterpoint.

Michael Pollock goes in to more detail on contrapuntal techniques in his book, Musical Improv Comedy. I've pushed his book before. You should buy it.

In a few weeks I'll go in to more detail on a great teaching exercise to help people get the hang of counterpoint. Stay tuned!

Photo by Wally Gobetz. Written by .

1 comment:

Dan Beeston said...

I was involved in this exercise and I found that it was no harder than following along with the pacing of a musician which we're all used to. As long as you've got that little 'tick tick tick' going in your own head it's a walk in the park.

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