On Musical Decluttering

KondoWhen Marie Kondo’s book first came out a few years back, enough of my friends were reading and discussing it that I got a decent feel for her method without having to try to find room on my crowded bookshelves for my own copy. Actually I imagine this would be a self-correcting problem in this context, but still, I have the benefit of some friends who give very detailed synopses of things they are interested in, so they saved me the trouble.

Now that she has a TV programme, my social media newsfeed is once more full of her ideas, though now mostly parodied as memes about which key signatures do or don’t spark joy. There’s a comment in there somewhere on the difference between books and television, and the modes of discourse they promote.

But through the frivolity, I have been musing on ways we need to declutter our musical lives. The first way is the more obvious: how do we decide which repertoire to stop rehearsing and performing?

Eclectic Quartet Coaching

I'm using their pic because it's better than the one I tookI'm using their pic because it's better than the one I tookI spent Saturday afternoon working with The Eclectic Quartet, who are preparing for their first BABS Quartet semi-final together, having qualified for Convention at Prelims back in November. They bring a good deal of flexibility and musicianship to their singing, with a readiness to drop into a song at any point, which made our work pleasantly efficient.

We gave most of our attention to developing the musical shape of their two newest songs, paying attention to both local details and building the overall arc. One of the challenges of a style that uses only four voices in a predominantly homophonic texture is that the resources for developing musical architecture and contrast are inherently more limited than, say, an orchestra, or even a piano. But within that sound world, even with its restrictions of range, timbre and texture, you can achieve a satisfying range of expression if you have a canny arranger and are alert to the signals they give you. The arrangers of both their charts can be very canny in this way, so we had plenty to work with.

Expressive Modes and Musical Shape

exprmodesWhen coaching a cappella groups, I’ll often point out a basic distinction build into popular a cappella styles that encodes information about how the music is communicating. When only one part is singing the words, with the others accompanying, the intent is usually narrative, telling a story. When all parts are singing the same words (and this usually implies at the same time – homorhythmic or nearly so), the intent is usually declarative, making a statement.

Of course, there are intermediate states - accompanied duet, or trio plus neutral bass-line for instance – but they slot in quite happily on this continuum between the more discursive and the more emphatic.

On the Prosody of Twiddles

Okay, so this one is pretty niche, and delves into some nitty-gritty. But it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about just recently, so I’m going to share anyway. If you can’t be doing with the detail, you can always go back and have a bit of a laugh at the comments on my post on mansplaining instead.


If you play the piano, you will know that of the three following motifs, (a) and (b) are easier to play than (c). There’s a bit of a knack to rapid repeated notes, but once you’ve got it, you’re sorted, whilst adjacent notes are always relatively straightforward because you can use adjacent fingers and don’t need to change your hand or arm position. Mixing the two, though, requires you to switch between the two techniques mid-twiddle, incurring a disproportionately high cognitive overhead for the duration of the material.

On the Liberalising of the Barbershop Style

One of the things that has happened in the five years since I stopped being a barbershop Music judge is that there has been a deliberate policy to frame both the category description and the way it is used in practice in ways that will encourage more new music. And you’d have to say it has been largely successful. We are hearing a much wider variety of songs in contest than we used to.

In part this has been about loosening rules so they express what is best practice rather than a ‘do-this-or-else’ approach. So, for example, the chord vocabulary is now presented in a hierarchy of ringability, rather than with the distinctions between chords that are allowed, those allowed under certain circumstances, and those not allowed. All chords are allowed, but if you want to score well, keep using lots of major triads and barbershop (dominant-type) 7ths as they are the most barbershoppy.

Exploring Compensating Rubato with LaBOOM

Action screen-shotAction screen-shot

Saturday took my musical attention back to Munich, though my body stayed at home. The amenity of Skype allowed me to spend a couple of hours with LaBOOM quartet working on two new songs I arranged for them back in the autumn. They quite sensibly wanted to get this session done early in the learning process, to shape the overall concept of the songs before they’d got too settled in their habits with them.

The most challenging area we tackled during the session was getting a feel for compensating rubato. Their ballad is in a gentle ¾ time, and they had been feeling as quite strongly waltz-like. Our task was to ease this framework up into something slightly more flexible without spoiling the sense of poetic metre or the lilt that the time signature provided.

Soapbox: On Possessive Lyrics

soapboxThere’s a moment in The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when Slatribartfast asks Arthur, ‘Is that your robot?’

‘No,’ says Marvin, ‘I’m mine.’

This scene comes to mind every time I hear a barbershop tag that finishes a love song with the information that the beloved is now, ‘Mine, all mine’. However much sympathy I have had for the sentiments expressed up to that point (which is often quite a lot; I’m a soppy old soul despite my misanthropic appearance), it largely evaporates in the face of this blatant possessiveness.

You can’t own the person you love most in the world. Even once they have decided to team up with you so you can build a life together, they are still their own person with their own preferences and opinions and needs and – most importantly – the right to determine their own destiny. Asserting that they are all yours doesn’t make you sound romantic, it makes you sound like Monty Burns gloating over a pile of gold.

To Recreate or Reimagine?

When arranging a popular song for a cappella, like any other type of cover version, you have two basic options for how to approach it. You can aim to recreate the original in the new medium, or you can use the act of transfer to reimagine the music. In the first approach, the primary pleasure for your listeners is recognition: Oh yes, I know this, here are all my favourite bits in a new context! In the second, it is rediscovery: Oh, I’ve never heard it this way before – now I hear it in an entirely new light!

As an arranger, I am often complimented for my work of the first type. People value the sense of being true to something they know and love. But sometimes I’ll choose instead to completely recast a song, either because somebody asks me to (as in my arrangement of I Will Survive), or to solve some essential problem that the song presents.

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