On the Musical Canon, Cultural Capital, and Fear

When I wrote the description below I had no idea how many products it would describe...When I wrote the description below I had no idea how many products it would describe...One of the major challenges – possibly the primary one – of a feminist musicology is how to get the work of women into the musical canon. The basic content of what counts as ‘music’ - as in, what you should know if you want to count as a musician, or even just as a well-informed listener - remains resolutely male.

The institutional structures that maintain the canon have been analysed on more than one occasion, so I’m going to go easy on that here. (Bruno Nettl’s essay in Disciplining Music was a formative example in my development as a scholar.) Rather, I am coming back to the question of the internalised structures we maintain within ourselves as musicians. It is these internal landscapes my playlist of 2017 is intended to inflect.

The question I have been worrying at is the role of the canon in our self-identities as musicians. Why do we cling to it? Even those of us who are emotionally invested in righting the wrongs of unjust exclusion can find it hard to embrace female and/or non-white figures meaningfully into our internal soundscapes.

The Conductors’ Four Questions

In my post last month on developing the director I wrote about the usefulness of having a regular appointment with yourself for structured work on a specified area for development. Today I’d like to talk about a set of questions that I give to conductors I work with to structure their reflective process.

  1. What did we achieve?
  2. How does everyone feel about themselves?
  3. What does the music need?
  4. What do the singers need?

To start, a few words about the choice and phrasing of the questions.

Spring Fest 2017

4 of the 5 tutors for the day4 of the 5 tutors for the day

Last Sunday saw my third consecutive year as a tutor for the A Cappella Spring Fest at the Cornerstone Arts Centre in Didcot. The day took a similar shape to the previous years, with a plenary warm-up followed by themed classes and workshops in the morning, then afternoon rehearsals in a variety of a cappella genres, culminating in performances where we all shared our efforts.

I was leading the Contemporary A Cappella stream again this year, but with the added amenity of vocal percussion. Andy Frost from the Magnets ran two general workshops on beatboxing in the morning, and then during the afternoon coached a small group to add a vocal percussion part to Ben Bram’s arrangement of ‘Uptown Funk’.

It is a moderately challenging arrangement – though we had cut it down somewhat, given the short rehearsal time available – but participants took it well in their stride. It helps that the intricate parts that need rather more attention to get right come back at several points in the arrangement, so you feel it is worth investing the time in them, as you’ll get plenty of use out of that work. The passages aren’t expensive on a cost-per-sing basis, so to speak.

Arranging Processes

Every so often somebody will ask me how long it takes to do an arrangement, and I invariably find it a difficult question to answer. The headline answer is usually 2-4 weeks, depending on what else is going on in my life. But that’s just the time elapsed between starting work in earnest and delivering a completed chart, which isn’t the same as how long I spend working on it.

The more detailed answer is that it is impossible to say, as the distinction between working on an arrangement and not working on an arrangement isn’t very clear cut. (This is a specific instance of the observation that to talk about work/life balance assumes you can tell which is which.) Anyone who has been involved with practical music-making is familiar with the way your brain keeps processing the music you are working on between rehearsals and practice sessions. I may only spend an hour or two at a time actually sat at the piano or the computer, but the effectiveness and productivity of those sessions absolutely relies on my brain’s ruminations in between them.

And it turns out that this background processing isn’t just a continual, generalised mulling. I have gradually become aware of certain types of musical problem-solving emerging in quite specific circumstances:

Playlist 2017: Second Commentary

It's been a good week for listening to music by women. Both Radio 3 and Classic FM made an effort for International Women's Day, and to do them justice, it wasn't just on Wednesday, the whole week saw rather more music by women than you'd normally hear. Of course, I am grumpy as all get-out that this week's programming isn't the norm, but not as grumpy as I would have been had they made less of an effort! It will seem more like a 'celebration' of women's music (as the programming has been generally been billed) if it turns out that making an effort has made a difference.

Meanwhile, my collection of music by women is growing nicely. As with the pieces covered in my first commentary, I am delighted to find so many good performances available. It is all proving a very rich and satisfying musical experience. Keeping the general comments to a minimum today, as there are plenty of pieces of music to talk about since last time.

  • Lili Boulanger, Du fond de l'abîme (Psalm 130) (1917). Given my own musical activities, I find myself somewhat surprised to have got this far down the list before the first choral piece. I dithered between this performance, and one conducted by Lili’s sister Nadia from 1968. I think I prefer the orchestral textures in the other one, but the choral sound in this one.
  • More Musicking in Yorkshire

    WRmar2017

    Wednesday night took me back to Yorkshire for my second evening of music-making with Sally McLean in a month, this time with the chorus she is featured working with in my choral conducting book, The White Rosettes. And, like my last visit, the task was to work on a new arrangement in its early stages of development.

    So, once again it’s all going to be a bit cryptic, as I’m not going to tell you what the song is before they are ready for the big reveal. I realise that this makes the reading experience a bit abstract, but it will all be worth it when you hear the contest premiere in October as they sing to defend their LABBS and European Championship titles.

    A theme throughout the evening was the different ways a piece of music can be challenging. There are several dimensions in which I had deliberately chosen not to stretch the chorus in this arrangement. Apart from a somewhat rangy melody (the composer’s choice, that one), the vocal parts stay well within the compass the chorus are used to. The texture isn’t unduly complex. The chord choices are in the main the obvious ones suggested by the melody – indeed, quite often the harmony is less complex than the original. And the lines have had received a lot of work on making them intuitively singable.

    Minor Changes in Availability of Arrangements

    There have been some alternating rumbles of excitement and disappointment in the arranging community over the last year or two over a programme developed by Sheet Music Plus in collaboration with Hal Leonard. They have produced a list of about 1000 songs pre-approved for arranging, so long as you publish the arrangements through SMP. Anyone who has to grapple with the bureaucracy of copyright permissions for new arrangements finds their ears perking up when they hear of it.

    The disappointment arrives when you realise that one of the excluded ensembles is choral. I’d been round that loop a couple of times when my friend Debi Cox had the bright idea of actually contacting them with a query, and established that while they don’t know when they’ll be able to add choral arrangements to the list, they are able to accept arrangements for chamber-sized, one-a-part a cappella groups such as barbershop quartets and contemporary a cappella ensembles, up to 8 parts.

    Hurrah!...However…

    Developing the Director

    I don’t write very much about my one-to-one work with choral directors, as it’s mostly too personal. The coaching process with an ensemble is inherently a social process (though I am mindful about which aspects to share with people who weren’t there), but work with an individual is much more private.

    But there are general themes that emerge repeatedly with different directors that I’d find it useful to reflect on, and other directors may find useful too.

    A common dilemma is, given how much time and attention it takes to run a choir, how do you get time to develop your own skills too? We all have areas in which we can feel our weaknesses, but we don’t necessarily have space in our lives to take a course in music theory or conducing technique, or go for singing lessons, or whatever.

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