Musical Identity

Magenta News

Magenta2017In my New Year post I mentioned that I would be seeing a significant change in 2017, though was not at that point quite ready to talk about it. And whilst it’s still too soon to reflect in any depth, now is the moment to tell you that yesterday Magenta, the choir I founded 10 years ago, gave its last concert in its current incarnation.

The reason we are stopping is a concatenation of circumstances happening in Real Life (work, family, health, relationships – the usual) that led to a significant number of established members needing to leave in a short space of time. Our plan as of the middle of the autumn had been to recruit in the New Year – a good time of year to find people on the lookout for new adventures – and start a new cohort after our concert at the end of January.

Interval Class and Vocal Style

One of the first aspects of barbershop harmony I wrote about in my early years of discovering it (and which found its way in into Chapter 2 of my book) was the genre’s idiosyncratic approach to the concepts of consonance and dissonance. Traditional music theory sees these as unfolding in alternation, with dissonance injecting energy into the sound which is released with the resolution into consonance. Much of our experience of musical tension and release comes from this harmonic process.

But the barbershop world associates the concept ‘consonant’ with its characteristic soundworld of lock and ring. So it includes the perfect intervals and triads of tonal theory, but also adds to the category a bunch of other chords – mostly notably the dominant-type (or barbershop) 7ths – that tonal theory would label dissonant for their capacity to generate a sense of forward motion.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

My current and most recently-filled Thinking BooksMy current and most recently-filled Thinking BooksIt is the time of year for surveying past and future in the manner of Janus. About whom I realise I know absolutely nothing except that he inspired the name of the first month of the year by his capacity to look forwards and backwards at once. I expect he was good at three-point turns. (Though now I think about it, he must have found the introduction of car-seat head-rests to prevent whiplash both inconvenient and uncomfortable.)

Anyway, do you realise it’s just over eight years since I started this blog? That sounds like a significant chunk of time to me. Part of me is surprised to find I’m still going with no signs of letting up, but then again, I have found it an excellent form. I look back to my early twenties and see that even then, what I needed was a genre of short-form writing that is both intelligent and informal. And for six years before I started blogging, I was journaling regularly in what I have always referred to as my ‘Thinking Book’. Many of the early posts came straight out of those early-morning jottings.

‘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 Stereotypes and Agency

A participant in the debate about race and repertoire I reflected on recently made one of those passing comments that don’t pass, but insist on staying in your head demanding to be thought about. It was about when Black singers perform music that portrays Black stereotypes: ‘but she is African American and it is her choice to make for whatever reason’.

Now, it is clear what the tension is here that people are trying to resolve. The portrayal of African Americans in blackface is quite transparently imposing a dominant culture’s representation on people who are afforded no agency in the cultural process. The reputational damage is direct and undisputed. But if African Americans themselves sing lyrics that might be thought to evoke such stereotypes, does this suggest that objecting to those stereotypes is being over-sensitive? Can we use the performances of Black singers as information about what kinds of lyrics are okay?

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.

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