Miscellaneous Thoughts on Tonality and Musical Architecture

Sometimes you get weeks when different areas of your life keep bringing you back to the same set of thoughts from different angles. Back in the summer I was thinking a lot about Schenker, in the context of a keynote paper I was writing on tonal integrity for the conference in Portugal at the start of November. In choral music we often think about tonal integrity in the simple, functional sense of not going flat, but Schenker is useful for standing back and considering tonality as both an organising principle for long spans of musical time and as a human quality: centredness, in touch with the true.

(I am aware that one of the reasons why most musicians avoid thinking too much about Schenker’s theories as metaphors for life is that he came out with some obnoxiously snobbish views in this mode. But you don’t have to agree with someone to learn from them, and I don’t mind too much if he ends up turning in his grave at the conclusions I end up drawing from his work.)

On Researching Gesture

Now all the events I had big writing projects for in autumn 2019 are over, it’s time to start processing the mountains of notes I took at them. Expect to see me referring back to theHands-On Choral Symposium in Aveiro and the Choral Research Day at Dublin City University every so often for the next few months. Both were both very friendly and very stimulating events, at which I was made to feel most welcome. It feels like I met more people who have read my choral conducting book during November 2019 than I had in the previous ten years!

Anyway, the first thing I wanted to blog about was to revisit a question I was asked during the round-table discussion in Dublin, and which I felt I didn’t handle terribly well. By the time my flight home was halfway across the Irish Sea I had mustered my thoughts into much better shape.

On Musical and Didactic Gestures

This is one of those posts that I was going to send someone a link to in order to explain an idea, then discovered I’d not written yet. It’s a concept I’ve referred to in passing over the years, but I guess the reason I’ve not blogged about it is because I developed the idea in some detail in my choral conducting book, which I finished writing a few months before starting this blog.

So, you could always buy my book and turn to page 130. I’ve just re-read that bit and it’s quite good, and includes some references to specific examples in the video footage that accompanies the book. But for those who need to know right now and can’t wait for the book to arrive…

The distinction between musical and didactic gestures derives from observations of conductors in action; it is one that appears in the gestural language across choral genres. The musical gesture is the expressive holistic embodiment of musical flow, the mode where the conductor ‘looks like the music itself’. Musical gestures are the source of nuance and characterisation in the choral performance.

Basses on the 3rd

Or first-inversion chords as my classical friends will be accustomed to thinking of this. This is a sonority that is very normal in classical harmony, used frequently to help make the bass line melodic, and very unusual in barbershop harmony, where you can go entire songs without encountering it. (Conversely, the 2nd inversion – basses on the 5th – is entirely normal in barbershop, but hedged about with all kinds of voice-leading rules in the classical world.) One of the things this post will explore is the reason for this difference in frequency in the two worlds, as well as reflecting on the character of the sonority in itself.

In both worlds, the first inversion has a distinctive character, more poised to move on, than the settled quality of root-position chords. In part this is due to its melodic function – it often appears mid-way in a line’s route from starting-point to cadence. But it’s also about the sonority itself, and the acoustic needs for balance. This in turn will reveal why it is used so much less in barbershop music than classical, and why it therefore has a disproportionately significant impact when it is used.

On Challenge Level, Teamwork and Locus of Control

Hello, I'm back! I've not yet delivered the second paper I needed to prepare this autumn (coming up this weekend), but I've finished writing it, and so I have space to start blogging again. It has been interesting to focus on some longer-form writing again for a change, but I'm looking forward to getting back to processing learning experiences as they happen. My notebooks all feel like they have indigestion!

I have been having a lot of interesting conversations in recent weeks about locus of control, and specifically how to help choral singers experience a sense of autonomy, rather than just being acted upon by the conductor’s authority. Some of these conversations were ones I started as part of my keynote presentation at the Hands-On Choral Symposium in Aveiro at the start of November, but others have just popped up in the course of making music with others.

Reflections on FICA19

Overall winners: Cantairí Óga Átha CliathOverall winners: Cantairí Óga Átha Cliath

I know I said I wasn’t going to be blogging until I’d written and presented both the papers I’m committed to in November, but I have some processing to do after last week’s extravaganza in Aveiro, Portgual. The event combined the annual Festival Internacional de Coros, hosted by Voz Nua choir, with the inaugural choral stream at the Hands On Symposium, running in parallel with piano and guitar streams. I was presenting a keynote at the symposium as well as forming one third of the jury for the festival competitions.

It’s the first time I’ve been directly adjudicating (as opposed to overseeing examination processes) for a few years, and it turns out that my handwriting hasn’t improved any in the interim. I endeavoured to be generous in my comments; I just hope I was also legible. I am sure the competitors will get in touch about anything that’s too cryptic!

Time to Pause…

One measure of a successful blog post is how many book recommendations I receive in response to it. On this basis, I consider my recent reflections on the value of downtime in rehearsal to have been particularly effective, in eliciting suggestions for two books with distinctive takes on the value of downtime in life.

Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less makes its case through an argument that mixes reports of research in psychology and health with anecdotal accounts of the working and resting practices of various famous figures with productive track records. There were some things that made me want to shout back at the author - not least the essentialising way he wrote about ‘creative types’ as if they special, different people, at the very same time that he was documenting behaviours that facilitate creative work. But I got over myself enough to find his analysis interesting and useful.

The Body in the Compositional Mind

My undergraduate education, especially as a composer, was firmly within a Modernist aesthetic, and one of its tenets was that you should learn to compose direct from your mind’s ear to paper, rather than at the piano. The reason given for this was that your pianistic habits would lead you into familiar musical gestures and thus become an obstacle to creating new, hitherto unimagined musical ideas.

(Note, by the way, the assumption that all musicians should be good keyboard players. Nobody ever warned you off composing though noodling on the guitar or oboe.)

Now, there’s something to this. Every so often I’ll see a novice arranger produce a chord for an a cappella group that tells me that they’re a pianist and we have to have a conversation about voicings that will work better for a vocal ensemble.

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