God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

Felicia, my awesome and talented sister, wanted to arrange God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen for Vox Singulae. “I might reharmonise it,” she said. “Go nuts,” I told her.

A while later, she sent me an arrangement-in-progress that was the twenty-first cousin of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, five times removed. The resemblance was there, but only if you knew what to look for and looked very, very hard indeed. It was in no way bad, but it wasn’t very recognisable as the tune we all know and love.

“Umm… could you dial it back a little? Actually… could you dial it back a lot?” I said, rather sheepishly.

That’s how we ended up with this Glee-inspired arrangement of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. (Maybe next year we’ll revisit the reharmonised version.)

Felicia’s comments on the arrangement

First things first: this has got to be one of my favourite Christmas songs, ever. (The fact that it’s in minor just makes it a whole lot more beautiful.) There were a few versions of lyrics when I was looking up this song. I discussed this with my sister and we decided to use the lyrics that were used in the Glee version. I’d been so, so tempted to do some strange reharmonisations but… no… not this time.

I started off in a very cliché and classic way, one voice starting alone. I couldn’t help myself, though, and threw in a short second voice soon after. This happens twice before the second voice starts singing a harmony line under it. The second verse sees the continuation of the soprano 1 carrying the melody, and the official entrance of the soprano 2 and tenors as the accompaniment. The tenors stuck to the root notes or the fifths or the passing notes, and the soprano 2s were the main time-keepers, marking every quarter note. I did start having a bit of fun with the soprano 2 line, as I sought an independent melody of sorts for it.

The third verse is when all four lines enter the verse together. The melody is handed over by the soprano 1s to the soprano 2s, and the soprano 1s went above the soprano 2s. I kept the soprano 1s relatively close to the melody till the end of the verse, where I moved them up, in anticipation of the fourth verse. Here, the altos and the tenors were the accompaniment. The previous accompaniment lines had half notes in the first verse, and quarter notes in the second verse, while the third verse was mainly filled with eighth notes.

The increasing movement in the rhythm culminates in the fourth verse, where all the SSAT parts sing together with the melody, which is still carried by the soprano 2s, snugly cradled by the other parts. Here, the tenors leave their post of singing the root tones, and the soprano 1s get stretched to sing the high G. They all end unisono on E.

The finale is started by one voice, and the melody moves down the parts. The soprano 2 and alto share one repetition together. The tenors take the last repetition, while augmenting the rhythm. It all slows to an end, a tierce de picardie on “joy”.

Grace's comments on the recording process

One thing I learnt about my own voice and singing ability in recording God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen was that I’m not equally adept at using my voice up and down its entire range. If I stand in front of a piano and sing notes in isolation, I can go down to D3 and up to G5 pretty comfortably. However, singing a G5 note as part of a passage is challenging, and you can clearly hear me reaching for the note all throughout the song. Just take a listen from 1:22 onwards, and you can hear how challenging the G5 notes are for me. That’s something I’ll have to work on.

These three songs – Stille Nacht, O Tannenbaum and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – are all I’ll be doing this Christmas season, so I hope you’ve enjoyed them. Merry Christmas!

O Tannenbaum

This song was arranged by Felicia Teng, my awesome and talented sister, and performed and recorded by me. I’ve got some of her comments on the arrangement, followed by my own comments about the recording process.

Felicia’s comments on the arrangement

I kept this piece in F major, based off a little score of a four-part thing I’d found on Wikipedia. The form for this piece, as with many Christmas or folk songs, is simple. One verse that repeats: melody stays the same, while the words change.

I don’t like keeping things the same two or more times in a song. So… I had one voice start alone for the first verse with an occasional comment from another voice. The other voices join in more frequently, though clearly at the sidelines, and by the end of the first verse, most of the voices are in. Because I’d thought of using the first verse as an introduction, a prelude if you will, I put in a one-bar rest.

From the second verse onwards, the voices sing together. Here, the soprano 2s carry the melody, with the alto and tenors providing the harmony. The soprano 1s sing over the melody, though still keeping the melodic contour of the main melody. It got to pretty high at the end of the second verse, with the sop 1s on high F, and I decided to tide it over and start the final verse on a high note. The obvious alternative would be to start on a low note and build up the third verse that way but that had already been done twice. Under that high F, I snuck in some brief reharmonisation.

At the end of the song, I had the voices sing different notes in unison, because I wanted it to be harmonically rich as possible, and to be able to create a contrast when it all ends on the F.

Grace’s comments on the recording process

After doing a few Vox Singulae recordings, I’ve settled into a rhythm while recording. I study the score and practise singing each part to a reference track. Then, I decide which track to record first. In a professional environment, drums and bass usually go first, accompaniment and harmony next, and the melody lines get recorded last, after all the other tracks have already been laid down.

I’m far from being a professional, though. For the sake of my sanity, I often record the melody line first, the baseline next, and the harmony lines last. I try to record four tracks per line to create a fuller sound. In this case, the arrangement is for SSAT voices, so that makes for a total of four tracks per part x four parts = 16 tracks total.

Let’s say I’m recording the alto part. I’ll record onto Alto Track 1, and sing until I make a mistake. Then I stop, trim the mistake out, and move on to Alto Track 2. I’ll record until I make a mistake on Alto Track 2, and again I’ll stop, trim the mistake, and move on. After laying down the beginning of Alto Track 4, I’ll go back up to Alto Track 1, and pick up where I left off, singing until I make a mistake… and so on, until all four alto tracks are filled out. That’s how a 16-track recording can require 75 takes – and imagine, not a single one of those 75 takes is a “good” take all the way through!

This is an unconventional way to record, and it reflects the fact that Vox Singulae is about practice and process, not about product and perfection. Hopefully, over time, I’ll get better at singing a track all the way through without mistakes – but right now, I’m working with what I have and building on it.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this little song we’ve put together. Merry Christmas.

Stille Nacht

Christmas season is one again upon us, so naturally, I wanted to try singing some vocal-only arrangements of Christmas songs. Time constraints whittled down my long list of candidate songs to just three, but Stille Nacht was always going to be first on that list.

This arrangement is pretty straightforward. One soprano part, tracked four times, provides the main melody line. One alto part, tracked four times, provides the harmonisation. One tenor part, improvised one and then tracked three more times and hummed without words, provides the bass line. A single vocal percussion track undergirds the rest of the music, and one improvised solo soprano voice provides the variation on the theme from the second verse onwards.

Enjoy, and merry Christmas!

Baba Yetu

To get Vox Singulae off on the right foot, I wanted to cover a song that was both classic and challenging, that would help to define expectations for the channel moving forward. It needed to be ambitious enough that I could learn something, but not so difficult that it was out of reach for my amateur vocal instrument. I wanted something that would lend itself to a purely vocal treatment, without necessarily being a choral piece. And I wanted to sing something fun.

All the signs pointed to Baba Yetu, Christopher Tin’s Grammy-winning theme song for Civilization IV.

Process

Because Baba Yetu is such an iconic song (can songs be iconic? doesn’t “icon” imply a visual element?), there are a large number of scores readily available. I used ember4242’s score from Musescore, which appears to be a direct copy of the official licensed score at JW Pepper’s site. JW Pepper also has a “listen” feature that lets you listen to the arrangement you are about to buy, which I relied on very, very heavily.

I’m very much an alto, though my comfortable range extends down to D3 and up to A5. Naturally, singing at the edges doesn’t sound or feel very good, so I don’t like to spend a lot of time there. The score calls for SSAATTBB voices. (For non-musicians, that means two groups each of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses.) Range limitations immediately wiped out the three lower parts. The version you hear here is an SSAAT arrangement, with one solo alto line and one solo tenor line, for a total of seven distinct parts. Two vocal percussion lines bring us up to nine parts. DOUBLE CHECK.

I set up my little singing station in my room.

001a Singing Station.png

I hit record, and then I play the demo on the JW Pepper site, and I sing each line into Pro Tools.

The Alto Line

Senior year of college, I joined a choir where I sang alto 2. It was my first choral experience, and everything I know about choirs, I learnt that senior year. We were a very, very small choir, and there were only two alto 2s. There was no place to hide — you had to nail every note, and loud. You’d think this would make me very good at holding an alto line, but no: I am still absolutely terrible at it.

I could not, for the life of me, hold the alto lines of Baba Yetu while listening to the other lines. I found myself veering into the soprano or tenor lines, wanting to do anything except sing the harmonising note.

For some reason, I had it in my head that the song was sung at 88 beats per minute, so I created a click track at 88 bpm and sang the alto lines to it, without the interfering influence of the other parts. Then, when I tried to line up the alto tracks with the existing soprano and tenor lines, I discovered that the tempo indication is in fact 92 bpm.

So… Time Shift to the rescue. I painstakingly time-shifted all the alto tracks to line up with the soprano and tenor tracks. It’s not as simple as just time-shifting the entire Pro Tools region to be in line with the soprano and tenor tracks. The key is that you want the downbeat of each bar and each phrase to line up with all the others, which means that you want to split the region into multiple smaller regions, each one consisting of one phrase. Then, you time-shift each of those smaller regions to match their soprano and tenor counterparts.

Improvisation and covering a classic

So you put some music on, and you sing along to it, and somewhere along the way you start riffing over it, and you think, dang, that sounds so good — I should do a cover of it or something. (I don’t know, does anyone else think like that, or is it just me? Maybe it’s just me…)

Baba Yetu is a song I’ve listened to so many times, and sung along to so many times, that I thought improvising over it would be easy.

When it came time to record Baba Yetu, though, I found myself too scared, too in awe of the song, to try anything funny or interesting with it. It’s such a classic song, I just didn’t want to do anything to it. I felt like I had to prove that I could do a straight cover of it first, and then maybe at a later date, at a later time, I could do a cover involving more improvisation, incorporating more of my own musical ideas into it. ‘

I think that when a song is this famous, listeners expect to hear something familiar. I didn’t want to mess around with that.

That said, there’s one place I improvised a little something that isn’t in the score, and that’s the solo alto line at 2:01. The line isn’t in the symphonic version of the recording that won the Grammy, but the score I followed indicated an improvised alto solo, so I figured that was as good a place as any to play around a little.

Just a teeny weeny little bit, though. I’m still too in awe of the song to do anything too out there.

The Video

I was never a very good Civ IV player. Even on Civ V and VI, which are considered easier, I stay around Prince difficulty. I didn’t trust myself to play and win a Noble-level game on Civ IV to use as part of the visuals for a music video. I had to figure out something completely different. I had to create a video that both novice players and seasoned Civ IV experts could relate to and appreciate.

I decided to go completely in the opposite direction, by playing a total cheese game.

I picked a classic Civ, Egypt, and started a game on Settler difficulty. Then, instead of settling in and playing, I went into the Worldbuilder and built a map I’m sure we’ve all tried at some point: I created a world in which Egypt was completely protected by mountains, with a single chokepoint from which Hatshepsut could fend off the outside world.

Then I turned Egyptian territory into a Promised Land, with a plenitude of every possible resource in the game (Ha ha, I know, that’s so funny.)

001b Egypt Worldbuilder.png

That’s the game I played.

Naturally, I had the opportunity to spam wonders and found multiple religions, so Egypt easily won a cultural victory. But that’s no fun, right — when you have such a total dominance over all your opponents, what you really want to do is nuke the hell out of them, and then leave the planet. So that’s what I decided to do.

001c Nuke.png

Hopefully that’s a Civ video that will speak to every player’s heart. And of course, I hope you’ve all enjoyed the video I created here.

What's Next?

I'm happy to take any requests and to hear from anyone who has comments or feedback on this video. Just leave me a comment here or on YouTube.

It's December, so naturally I've got some Christmas songs coming up. If you'd like to see them when those videos go live, be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel!

What is Vox Singulae?

Vox Singulae is a project inspired by an assignment I had in college. The class was called Sound Image, and it was a class about storytelling through the use of sound. The assignment was called Vocalization, and the task was to record something – a song, a story, a dialogue – through the use of only our voice.

I decided to use this opportunity to sing Ode to Joy in four parts, meaning I recorded the melody line and then improvised a bunch of harmony parts under it. It was the first time I'd sung for an audience (childhood Christmas concerts don't count), and it was the first time that I felt singing was something I was capable of doing.


In the years since, I've often reflected on that assignment with a certain fondness. I'm not sure what it is: it was the first time I recorded myself singing and played it back for an audience, so it represents the start of my journey as someone who sings. I love the bare minimalism of the assignment's parameters. The voice has a strong claim to be the first musical instrument (the only other realistic contender is the drum), and yet with this most primal of instruments there is an infinity of possibilities. That's only if you regard the voice in purely musical terms and ignore its potential as a verbal medium. The voice is how we tell one another stories, and how we have been doing so since the dawn of Homo Sapiens. The voice is such a simple instrument, and at the same time so versatile and expansive.


Depression is a savage beast. When its grip is strongest, it strips you of the ability to do anything. Sleeping works well as a temporary salve, when you are able to fall asleep. Otherwise, you find yourself empty and incapable of doing even the most passive things: reading, listening to podcasts, watching inane YouTube videos. That, at least, was the course of my depression.

During the worst of this time, I found that one of the very few things I could still do was sing. Somehow, when the pleasure had drained out of every other thing in my life, the comfort of singing remained.

So I sang.


Vox Singulae, then, represents three things:

  1. A creative exploration of what the voice can do,
  2. A training ground for practising and testing my vocal ability, and
  3. A way to connect with an activity that's emotionally important to me.

Vox Singulae is best thought of as an ongoing experiment, rather than as a series of finished products. For the time being, I'm working on song covers, but at some point I'll dip my toes into audio dramas as well, all made with just my voice.

You can join me on this experimental journey by subscribing to my YouTube channel, where I host Vox Singulae, here: Grace Teng's YouTube channel.

I’ll see you around, then.