Aesthetics

Harmonious Yorkshire Spirits

SpiritFeb17Thursday evening took me up to the Vale of York to work with Spirit of Harmony on some arrangements I delivered to them last year. I had arranged for the chorus several times some years ago, and also worked with a couple of smaller ensembles from within the chorus, but this was my first time coaching the full body of singers. As ever, I’m not going to tell you what the songs are so as not to anticipate the moment the chorus chooses to reveal them, but I can reflect on the process.

It’s an endlessly fascinating exercise in practical aesthetics negotiating how music should go: who decides, and how you decide. As an arranger I’ll have always imagined the delivery in depth as part of the arranging process – as Neil Watkins used to say, the arranger’s task is to conjour up the full performance in their mind, then write that down. But equally, it is the performer’s job and prerogative to bring their own creative imagination to the shaping of the narrative.

‘Old Barbershop’, Part 2: A Case Study

In my previous post on ‘old barbershop’ (I am keeping the inverted commas as the term doesn’t get more self-evident with use), I talked a bit about lyrics, but mostly about specific technical features of the arrangements in core repertoire 20 years ago compared to now. The third area that came up in the conversation that sparked these posts was a framed as a general issue, but in the context of a particular song. There are threads to be untangled here.

So, the general issue was choreography, or possibly body language. There are patterns of inhabiting the body that are inherently linked to how we understand a style, indeed are part of the way we store it. This comes out both in explicitly-planned moves, but also in the general performance demeanour.

Musings on ‘Old Barbershop’

Some time in the early part of the millennium, around when I was writing my first book, my then boss asked me what were the new and happening things in the world of barbershop. The question entertained me, as I had been in the midst of documenting the ways in which the genre has been built on an aesthetic of nostalgia. The slogan ‘Keep it Barbershop’ (and the identity label derived from it: KIBBERs), which was still in some currency at that time, was about the resolute resistance to innovation.

It is hard to put your finger on exactly the moment it changed (Michigan Jake? Team OC Times + Aaron Dale? Westminster Chorus?), but the last decade and a half has seen not only a good deal of innovation, but also a cultural shift to a world in which the new is greeted with excitement. The seeds were planted in the early 1990s with changes to the judging system that allowed a greater range of repertoire and arranging techniques, but it has taken nigh on a quarter-century to change people’s felt experience in relation to the defined boundaries. Back in 2005, when I wrote my article on ‘Cool Charts or Barbertrash?’, this was still a very active area of contention.

Genius and Bad Faith

battersbyThe conversations about race and repertoire that I mentioned just after the Sweet Adelines International Convention continue to thrive in both public and private spaces, and continue to present all of us with much food for thought. Today's post is in the genre of 'trying to nurture a vague hunch into full thought-hood'. If you are reading this, then I managed to articulate it enough to have something to publish...

The hunch is this: that the way classify certain cultural artefacts as 'art' or the product of 'genius' serves to protect them from genuine critical scrutiny. We may analyse them and discover cultural values that encode oppressive social relations, but that analysis does not dent the work's reputation or place in its canon. If anything, it just makes it look more important to be subject to all that attention: musicology as clickbait.

On Stage-worthiness

Back in April, when Sandi Wright introduced the Barbershop Harmony Society’s new judging category of Performance to delegates at LABBS Harmony College, she used three key concepts to explain its central values:

  • Risk - vulnerability, courage
  • Skill - absence of distraction
  • Stage-worthy - content that is significant and relateable

Interestingly, whilst there is a good deal of material online explaining the change from the old Presentation category, as of the date of writing, the only documentation of the new category itself that I can locate is a draft dated September 2015. Which only contains mention of the second of these, skill. So my plan to write about how interesting and exciting the adoption of the concept of ‘Stage-worthy’ into the category is rather undermined.

On Race, Repertoire, and Ignorance

Okay, this might be a long one. The subject is huge, even within the specific focus I am going to try to maintain for this post. Better get a cup of tea before we start.

During my schooldays, I learned the word 'pikey' as a colloquial adjective for miserly, niggardly. Its meaning emerged through contextual usage, with a particular emotional flavour. At some point during my teens I saw the word used as a noun, scrawled in graffiti near a gypsy encampment, and thereby learned to my surprise that it was a racial slur.

I don't have such a clear memory of the moment of revelation when I learned that the word 'cotton-picking', heard in cartoons in my childhood, likewise carried huge cultural baggage. But I can clearly remember the days of innocence when it was just sound, a mannerism used as an intensifier to give a certain rhythm and tone to the speech.

On Counterfactual Emotions

I spend quite a lot of time thinking about emotions - not just because I am a musician (though that is the context for a lot of my thinking), but also because I am a human being. Our discourses about emotion often couch it in opposition to thinking, as irrational, as something natural rather than cultural. You see this whether emotion is regarded as a Good Thing or Not To Be Trusted - whether a celebration of expressive authenticity or an unruly intrusion into a well-ordered life, emotion is attributed to the body, not the mind.

And there are, it is true, certain base emotions that appear cross-culturally, and which seem to be instinctual: joy, fear, anger, grief. But to classify our entire emotional lives in that way just seems like an excuse to avoid reflection: ‘Oh it’s just how I feel’ may sound like an assertion of freedom, but it is in some ways as closed-minded as insisting on a stiff-upper lip.

On Sopranos, Stereotyping, Sexism and Strain

I have been mulling over an interesting blog post shared by a friend recently. The writer, Mari Valverde, has some very interesting things to say about the misogyny implicit in cultural stereotypes of the soprano voice and the practical consequences for how composers and arrangers tend to write for it. I think she is really onto something, and she has made me think about the question of voice-part stereotypes (which I explore in various ways in both my books) in some new ways. I also suspect there are some aspects of the question she is tangling up, so I wanted to spend a post teasing out how my own thoughts are developing in the light of her ideas.

So, the following are factors that feed into the phenomenon of exhaustingly high tessituras in soprano parts:

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