Soapbox: A Cappella Arranging and Narrative Shape

soapbox My brain persists in thinking that many years ago I wrote about today’s primary point, but repeated searching fails to find any evidence of it. So maybe I only thought about blogging about it. It is certainly an opinion I have held since before I started this blog – there are arrangements I did back in 2006-7 where I can remember thinking about it. And my recent listening experience has me wanting my fellow arrangers to think about it too.

So the point is this: a cappella arrangements usually need to be shorter than versions of a song that include instrumental (and/or electronica) accompaniment. This is partly because when working with a limited timbral palette you haven’t got the resources to build such a large structure (in much the same way that orchestral pieces are often longer than chamber or solo pieces). With less opportunity to generate variety, longer structures can feel as if they are sagging under their own weight. This is particularly evident if you are also constrained texturally (as in contest-grade barbershop) but is true even if you have a free hand with your textural options.

Getting Connected with Main Street Sound

MainStSoundJun22

I spent Saturday up in York coaching Main Street Sound. We set the date almost 6 months ago, in the early stages of the UK's first Omicron wave, and looking back at the email thread, it was full of finger-crossing and hope. The capacity to make plans and feel confident you’ll be able to carry them out is something I never fully appreciated prior to Covid!

On Assessment Systems for the Arts

Whilst I’m no longer directly involved in assessing music in either competitive or educational settings, I still regularly interact with a variety of institutions that use them, and so still find myself thinking about how they work. The users of these systems – competitors, examination candidates, and the teachers and coaches who support them – often have a slightly conflicted relationship with them. On the one hand, they value the external validation that the systems offer, while on the other, they don’t quite trust them to recognise the value of the artists they judge.

I recently saw a disgruntled teacher complain about the feedback a student had been given on the grounds that art is ‘subjective’ – and thus by implication that what the examiner had criticised could have been a legitimate choice rather than a flaw. This is one of those comments that is both totally right and maddeningly wrong; it captures an important truth but also misses a whole lot of simultaneously true things. And as it’s quite a common discourse for grumbling about assessment in the arts, I felt it was worth unpacking a bit.

Reflections on Gender in Songs and Performers

Back in the early days of this blog I wrote about how some songs are gendered, either implicitly or implicitly. Sometimes it’s just a surface effect of pronouns, and you can readily adapt the song to an ensemble of the other gender either my changing a few words or by abandoning the assumption of heteronormativity. Other times, the persona’s gender is built more deeply into the song’s lyric and/or musical material and is less susceptible to switching.

At the European Barbershop Convention I found myself articulating a couple of thumbprints of implicit gender more consciously than I had before. One was the way some songs lie on the patriarchy-compensated slope: they build giving away power as a token of commitment, the lyric goes down on one knee, so to speak. When sung by a male persona, this mitigates a cultural context of inequality; when sung by a female persona, it exacerbates it. ‘All I possess I surrender,’ is an expression of superlative sacrifice from a man, but for a woman it merely indicates a willingness to return to the oppressive norms of yesteryear when that’s what happened by law when you got married.

Soapbox: On Rhyme Schemes

soapbox One of the things I came away from two Conventions’-worth of binge-listening with was a strong opinion about the writing of original lyrics. There is a clear right way and wrong way to do this and a lot of people seem to be unnecessarily choosing the latter.

So, you know how you write jokes? You do the set-up first, and once people have all the information they need to get the joke, you deliver the punch-line, preferably ending with the word that creates the laugh, or at most one or two words after it. This is the principle that drives the writing of non-funny material too: you land on the most important point at the cadence-point.

Next Step of the Journey with Welwyn Harmony

Same warm-up location, now with more peopleSame warm-up location, now with more people

There are many nice things about repeat visits to a group over a relatively short time frame. You get to build relationships, developing trust and mutual understanding, both of which facilitate productive work together. And you also get to see progress.

Three months on from my last visit,Welwyn Harmony feels perceptibly stronger. They’ve not had an entirely easy ride of things in the interim – the back end of the Omicron wave was quite disruptive for them – but there were noticeably more people in the room than earlier in the year. Some are returning members, some are new, and both bring a sense of energy to the whole chorus that is audible in the voices.

Helping People Back to Choir

VFPlogoI don’t know if there has been any attempt to gather data about the overall state of choral singing since covid, but all the anecdotal information I’m coming across suggests that choirs are mostly back up and going, but depleted. A few groups didn’t make it through and disbanded – not necessarily directly because of the pandemic, but the stresses of the situation brought underlying problems to breaking point. A few groups, meanwhile, have come back with increased numbers and are facing the enviable challenge of integrating a high proportion of new singers all at once.

Most, however, seem to be reporting a drop in numbers of about 30% from pre-covid levels. The first ones lost were those who opted out during the zoom era, either finding the whole online rehearsing thing presented too many obstacles for them, or dropping out after a while because they found the experience unsatisfactory. Some of these singers have come back on return to live singing, but not all.

BABS & EBC Conventions – Reflections on New Music

It is time to start marshalling some of the thoughts I’ve been having about the music I’ve heard at my first two in-person barbershop conventions since 2019. One of the interesting bits of context for this is of course that at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s Category School in 2019, the Music Category came away with a slightly less ‘anything goes’ approach to style, but then coronavirus came in before that decision could be enacted in live contests.

So we were coming into these conventions with an extra 2-3 years' arranging time, but no real case law to see how that policy tweak would play out. As it happens, I heard tell of only one case of an explicit score reduction for style in the contests in Sweden, but it did not discernibly disrupt the overall scoring profile – you wouldn’t have guessed it from just looking at the numbers. So for the various other charts that I thought might have been on the windy side of the style, there may also have been some score reductions, but likewise of a magnitude that inflects rather than devastates the Music score, and thus not immediately sending out a ‘don’t go there’ message to other competitors.

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