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Inner Voices!When a violinist complained to him that his part in a late quartet was too difficult, Beethoven shouted, "Do you think I worry about your wretched fiddle when the spirit speaks to me?"
The title of this article "Those Inner Voices" may suggest some saintly, invisible helpmates who assist one on the journey to higher ground and spiritual enlightenment. This assumption is erroneous. I'm really talking about the sacrificial, noble inner voices of western harmony, namely the altos and tenors.
Some time ago, I founded a group of eight voices (SATB) called The Amazing Grace Jazz Choir for which I conducted, rehearsed, accompanied and arranged. I was also one of the sopranos, an outer voice. The outer voices have the fun, glamorous jobs. Soprano voices that screech gloriously into the celestial atmosphere and basses that plunge coolly into deep regions of sonority are easily picked up and understood by the human ear. However, it's the inner voices, usually not followed by the audience, that provide important glue to the whole harmonic structure.
Generally, alto and tenor parts are not very melodic or singable. In jazz, they become downright dangerous. This isn't Gregorian chant with serene unisons, parallel octaves, fourths and fifths. It's more like being precariously suspended out there, somewhere, unfettered but unanchored by any reference to tonality. In fact, these poor souls experience most of a jazz song with almost none of the relief of tonal resolution. They sing nasty extensions of the great, inverted cluster chords whose intervals are seemingly oblique.
Still, the altos and tenors in my choir cheerfully shouldered their heavy burden, learning their parts patiently and methodically and ultimately singing them quite musically. Their challenge was to maintain pitch and blend! I would tentatively hand them their parts and say with anxious sympathy, "Boy, you guys are phenomenal. I'm glad you're singing these parts and not me."
Well, now I'm singing them.
As I blithely write these parts with crazy abandon, I tell myself that I'll figure out how to sing them later. Later arrives. I stand in front of the microphone and mutter, "Who in the %#$@%! wrote these @%#^$! parts?&" I ask myself that quite often.
There is, of course, always a bright side. Although I do sing my share of quarter tones, my sense of pitch, both relative and absolute, has improved very quickly because there's NO ROOM to sing off-key.
So, in conclusion, I invite you to join me in giving laud to the altos and tenors - unsung heroes and soldiers of harmony. From this moment forward, whenever we hear vocal groups, we shall all listen more acutely and respectfully to those inner voices.