Sunday, October 28, 2007

When is a song not a song?

I’ve just come back from a fantastic week away on a song writing for voices course. During the week I came up with several ideas for songs which never really came to fruition since I couldn’t see any way of realising them. One was for solo voice and Indian drone instruments, one a ballad in a Scottish style, and another which required a swampy backing groove from a horn section. I don’t have an outlet for any of these songs really since I’m not a solo performer, don’t have a band and am not planning to make a CD!

My outlet for songs is acappella harmony groups, both large and small. Many times a choir member will come up to me and suggest a song for us. Often the song is simply not appropriate for an acappella arrangement or just won’t work with a large group. Many recorded songs these days have really important instrumental backing and if you take those familiar riffs away, there is often not much left of the song! Personally I am not a fan of those acappella arrangements where the voice impersonates an instrument or has too many “dum dums” in the backing. I recently heard a version of a song from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. It was an amazing effort, using the voices to replicate instruments and almost sounded like the original. However, my reaction was: what’s the point? why bother? Apart from admiring the singers’ skills, I’m really not sure where the artistry and creativity is here. Why not just listen to the original? Or if there’s a trumpet needed, then simply play a trumpet. I just don’t get it. I’m really not a fan of showing off skills for skills’ sake. For me there needs to be some element of creativity or the adding of something extra to an existing song, or why bother? Particularly when the human voice is concerned – I want to hear the humanity shine through, not be convinced that actually I’m not listening to a human voice at all, but really a keyboard!

Then there are wonderful, delicate ballads with many verses telling an extraordinary story. However, if arranged for a large choir the delicacy can be destroyed and the story and words completely lost in the mix. So the question is: when is a song suitable for a purely vocal arrangement and when is it not? I guess some of that is down to taste, but I don’t think it’s true that anything can be adapted for just voices.

My point also extends to cover versions generally. If you’re going to cover an existing song, then you have to add something to the original or else there’s no point. Just reproducing the original is a waste of time!

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Chris Rowbury


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