(This text is from the Foreword to Joanne's Songbooks, Rounds & Partner Songs Vol 1 and Vol 2, and is reprinted here for those who might only have the CDs but would like this information.)
Rounds and partner songs are based on the harmonies and joys of counterpoint or polyphony: that is, music made up of independent lines flowing alongside each other and continually merging in different ways — creating ever new turns, interesting perspectives and beautiful joinings.
I have been intrigued by counterpoint all my life in the smallest and broadest senses. I delight in rounds and other polyphonic musical styles, take joy in individuals singing and playing music together, and am fascinated by the ways different peoples live and work together in a family, a community, a country, a world.
In these collections of my original Rounds & Partner Songs, I’ve included several contrapuntal song forms, some of which overlap in their definitions. There is a lot of incomplete and conflicting information about these song forms, even in the many text books, writings and other sources that I’ve explored in my research. Part of this is because definitions have changed somewhat over the centuries, and part of it is due to the confusion of overlapping definitions. It is also true that many contrapuntal musical forms were created and experimented with in delightful ways throughout history, and it is only when scholars began to categorize and define them that the confines of the definitions did not always fit correctly. For those musicians or listeners like myself to whom even some of the basic differences in these forms have often seemed confusing, I offer my conclusions in the following definitions:
NOTE: Succinct, short definitions of these forms are included in the booklet of the companion CD to this Songbook. They are perhaps easier to grasp for those not interested in a lot of detail.
CANON: The word “canon” comes from the Greek kanon, meaning “rule” or “order”. In music, a canon refers to a polyphonic piece which has a specific rule by which a composer constructs the successive voices to derive from the first. There are many kinds of canons: some with voices entering at different pitches (canon at the fifth or fourth, etc.), and some that are extremely complex, involving backward or upside down imitation, or imitation with notes of greater or shorter durations. There are even those called riddle canons in which the rule of imitation is not written out and must be deciphered by the singers/players. Many canons are incorporated within instrumental pieces and others stand as independent vocal or instrumental creations.
ROUND: Rounds are a subset of canons. A “round” is generally a lighter canon for singing whose ‘rule’ is simply that the successive voices follow the first in exact imitation on the same notes at a set time interval, continuing over and over until an arbitrary end point. Each voice returns to the beginning after singing the song through, and so the piece turns around in a circle. In musical canon jargon, a round is an infinite canon (no set ending) at the unison (beginning on the same pitch).
NOTE about “round” vs “canon”:
The terms “round” and “canon” are often used interchangeably, though there are many canons that are not rounds. Songs with exact imitation of the first voice are often referred to as canons rather than rounds when one or both of the following two conditions are met:
CATCH: Often used synonymously with “round” when the lyrics are lighthearted, the “catch” grew out of the related forms chace (French) caccia (Italian) and caça (Spanish) and originally simply referred to one or more voices chasing the others and/or the way each singer catches the tune and words from the previous voice. Over time, however, the catch developed a distinct propensity for hidden meanings or other non-musical points (punning, programmatic content, etc.). Catches became more cleverly constructed, especially through the 17th century, to involve intricate interplay of the different voice parts so that new word combinations were audible only as all the parts were being sung. Historically, they also became more crude and bawdy so that the hidden words that popped out as the catch was sung were often comic or off-color.
The term “partner song”, sometimes called “quodlibet”, has 2 basic meanings:
AFRICAN-STYLE CYCLICAL SONG: This form is modeled on a kind of cyclical song found in many African cultures in which each part is independent — with its own unique melody, lyrics, rhythmic structure and even entry point within the cycles — yet all parts converge on the same few syllables at one point in each repeat. The continuous short cycles of separation into very different lines and then convergence together are what drives this vibrant form and makes it a delight to sing with a group. It is a very specific and unique kind of partner song.
When singing rounds, there are many factors to consider that affect the sound considerably. In the companion recording to this songbook, the decisions about these factors were carefully made for each round, but many other choices would also have sounded lovely, so I encourage lots of experimentation with the following variables:
1) Rounds will sound quite different depending on the octave range and therefore the order of female/male voices, as that changes the interval structures throughout the song.
2) They will sound very different depending on the number of parts used. A round can begin with two parts, for example, and then add successive parts in later cycles, or all parts can enter as soon as possible and create the fullest sound possible from the start. Some rounds, especially those with many short parts, actually might sound preferable when sung with fewer parts because that allows the sounds to follow in a changing wave throughout the song, and avoids having every short phrase sound identical and somewhat “thick”.
3) The order of the entering voices affects the sound dramatically. Singing every other part first — and then adding the intervening parts in later cycles — creates an interesting kind of “space” and harmonic relationship that is appealing in some rounds. This is quite different from the immediate fullness one hears when all the parts enter right away in their numeric order. I like to start some 4-part rounds in the part order 1-3-2-4. By the second cycle, all the parts will be in anyway, but the beginning spaciousness can be intriguing.
4) There is always an interesting decision to be made about how to end a round: parts can drop out as they complete their last cycle, or they can keep going until a designated moment when all parts end together chordally. If they drop out, they can either stay out or continue in a variety of ways: they can keep repeating their last phrase so all parts end together in unison, they can hum or “ooh” until all parts finish, they can simply rejoin the last line of the last part for a full unison ending, or they can re-enter with a harmonized coda, or some other set ending.
5) Whether to accompany a round with instrumentation or sing it acapella is an interesting decision to make. With accompaniment, one risks obscuring the rich counterpoint of the voices, but the resulting ‘grounding’ and enhancement that accompaniment can provide is often worth that risk.
1) Sing in a circle when possible, with all parts facing each other. This not only provides the best acoustics for hearing all the parts, but helps singers hear the flow of the cycling melodies and harmonies.
2) Try practicing without words, on a common vowel sound like “du” or “na” when striving to create a good harmonic blend; the harmonies might lock in more tightly than when every part is singing different words with different consonant and vowel sounds.
3) Hearing a round played instrumentally will also reveal the harmonies better for the same reason: it eliminates the distortion of the pure tones of the chords from the singers’ different consonants and vowels occurring in their different parts at the same time. Once the harmonies are heard clearly, it is sometimes easier to line up vocal sounds more exactly.
4) Try standing in many small groups (quartets for 4-part rounds, trios for 3, etc.) with all the “Part 1” people beginning first and all the “Part 2” people next, etc. It can be very exciting to hear single voices creating a round within a small group, while still being supported by the others in the room who are singing the same parts.
5) Adding movement while singing some rounds can be very exciting:
6) Try singing one cycle (the 3rd time through the round, for example) on “ooh” (no words) and then bring the words back in on the next cycle. This can add variety to any song, but in rounds singing, the staggered changes to “ooh” and back to words are particularly effective. It can also be a lovely way to end a round, rolling the words into “oohs” for each part’s final cycle.
7) Here are variations of #6 above, which add a different sound to one cycle in the middle of a round:
8) Sing very softly for practice sometimes. This helps remind everyone to avoid out-singing other parts in order to hear their own, and encourages listening more intently to the interrelationship of all the parts.
9) To hear the beauty of the whole round with balanced parts, take turns standing in the center of the rounds singers simply to listen. In rehearsals with large groups, I often just leave an empty chair in the middle and people can get up and sit there when so moved.
10) Although equal volume in all parts is generally a good goal for balancing parts, there are phrases in some songs that sound great when they are brought out strongly. Try swelling on certain lines so you hear that line emerging and cascading through the piece as each group sings it.
11) Having a leader in front of each part is very helpful when singing with a new group or a large group of people. When singing rounds with young children, use individual children as leaders of each part. They don’t need to be individuals who know the round best or even sing it in tune well! Young children simply do better with a visual focus to maintain their independent parts. In fact, the members of each part will keep their “leader” on track and on pitch as much as the other way around, but the leaders will enable the children to be clear about sticking to their part within the whole.
12) Rounds provide a perfect “take off” for vocal improvisation. Since they are made up of single melodic lines that work together harmonically, the singers are already “soloing” in a way while listening and blending with others. After singing a round through several cycles, try improvising on a phrase or a word or a whole sentence from the round while everyone keeps singing. Each singer randomly can begin to improvise, holding to the harmonic structure that was the “bed” of the round. Flights of phrases that loop around and join others in fanciful improvised counterpoint are easy to experiment with while singing rounds. Try a simple ostinato, a higher descant, or even a drone part. If everyone is “tuned in” and really listening to each other, the piece will, at some point, come to a natural and satisfying group close.
1) Numbers and Parts
2) Staff Connection
3) Partner song structure
4) Chord markings
5) Tempo markings
6) Codas and specific endings
7) Number of parts notated
8) Lyrics layout
For questions about arrangements or to clarify notated intent, contact JHO Music at www.joannehammil.com.
I’m excited to share my joy of counterpoint in this collection, as well as send my own compositions out into the blend of our combined, interweaving voices.