Princeton, Princeton, Shining Jewel

If for nothing else, you can credit The Incomparable Radio Theater with presenting me at least one new challenge each week. This time, it was forcing me to dredge up what little I could recall from my college choral scoring class.

Episode 4 (Schrödinger’s Dot) features the return of Nikola Tesla and his two-fisted tales. This particular tale takes place (in part) at Princeton University. To help set the scene, radioright David J. Loehr asked that I put together a campus hymn, sung a capella by a male chorus. He provided the words and recorded a melody line.

The show’s producer, Jason Snell, suggested that we do this in a pass-around fashion—I arrange the piece, sing one of the parts, and pass it along as a GarageBand file to others who would make up the chorus. I set out with that plan in mind, but, as I began work on the arrangement, soon abandoned it.

I knew this had to feature three or four part harmony and wasn’t the kind of thing that someone could just riff over. I needed to write out a score. Because I wasn’t certain that the people I’d pass the track to could read music, I knew I had to record each track. 

This forced me to consider my not-terribly-broad vocal range. If I couldn’t sing each part, my guide tracks wouldn’t be terribly helpful. And that meant my plans for four-part harmony were out the window—my range couldn’t accommodate it.  

So it was settled. Three parts.

The middle melody part wasn’t difficult, as David had provided me the notes. But damn all low harmonies to hell. Should you need another reason to admire John Lennon, it’s that the guy naturally gravitated to singing under (rather than over) the melody and did so beautifully. Unlike the Acerbic Beatle, I can’t “hear” those harmonies and they’re a bear for me to sing. Given that, the low part was recorded one phrase at a time.

The trick to the high harmony was to not make it too flowing, lest it be mistaken for the melody. To do that I had to jump it around quite a bit, which would have earned a stern look from my choral scoring professor. (Plus, my god, the parallel thirds!)

With the three parts recorded (and pitch corrected—oh my yes) it dawned on me that the thing might stand on its own with some additional work. That work required doubling each part to fatten things up and adding a church organ. The organ meant that the piece was no longer purely a capella, but it lent some gravity to the piece and, more importantly, added the lowest notes that I was unable to muster with my now-strained vocal cords.

After mixing in some reverb to mask even more of what pitch correction couldn’t, I passed the finished product off to Jason, who pronounced it good, “except the script calls for a hummed reprise.”

Which I attempted. And attempted. And attempted some more. And failed each time. And I failed because humming at just-out-of-range-of-the-lowest-note-you-can-normally-sing wasn’t going to cut it. I just couldn’t direct the right vibration to the right place to make it happen without straying wildly off pitch. 

I returned to Jason and David and asked if “Ooohs” would do. David, by way of tribute to A Charlie Brown Christmas, suggested “Loos,” which I agreed was a lovely choice. You can hear the results on the Music page.