Musical Identity

LABBS Quartet Day and the Subversion of Performativity

Elena from Sonic gives the executive summary of this postElena from Sonic gives the executive summary of this postFancy title, eh? This is what happens when a familiar event takes on an unfamiliar form: you learn all kinds of things about your ‘normal’ experience that might not have come into focus without the contrast. And sometimes the things you learn inspire the use of poncy words to articulate them.

The familiar event in this case is the quartet day at the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers convention. In a normal year, this would involve both the semi-finals and finals of the quartet contest, featuring those ensembles who had qualified to compete at a Preliminary event back in June that combines elements both of contest and of coaching. This year it was replaced by an invitation for all quartets registered with LABBS to submit a video of up to 5 minutes; and almost 40 quartets ended up contributing.

A Weekend with the LABBS Family

I have spent every last weekend in October since 1997 at the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention. In the year when everything was cancelled, through the vision and dedication of the LABBS Social Media team, that generalisation remains true. We were treated to the entire three-day event online: the opportunity for all member quartets and choruses to share what they had been working on, all-star shows, communal singing, the presentation of awards, the lot. We even had times when Fringe education events clashed with the main stream, only this time you only had to choose which to watch live and which on catch-up, not which to miss.

Music Theory’s White Racial Frame: Thoughts on Knowledge and Power

It is of course a cliché that knowledge is power. I have always thought about this in terms of why education is valuable. Knowing about stuff enables you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to; having more information allows you to make decisions that will fit the real world better and thus achieve your ends more effectively.

Philip Ewell’s blog posts on race and music theory, however, have shown me new ways to think about this truism. The generalised understanding still works, but Ewell also draws attention to ways in which the construction of knowledge within a discipline is a means to accumulate, wield, and confer power within the institutions that curate and validate knowledge.

I explored one aspect of this a few years back when reflecting on why it is so difficult to get women and composers of colour into the canon of western art music. I noted how our confidence as well-educated musicians is constructed through familiarity with its canons, and thus how it feels when we are asked to do engage with something unfamiliar: profoundly disempowering.

Reflections on Texture, Persona, and Sharing the Candy

When I joined the Telfordaires, the chorus repertoire included an arrangement of a popular ballad in which the leads had the melody, and, apart from a couple of short passages where the tenors duetted with them, everyone else sang ‘doo’ throughout. Members of the harmony parts had mixed feelings about the song. On the one hand, they recognised that it was very beautiful in performance and went down well with audiences (the Telfordaires really get their kicks from pleasing audiences), but on the other, having no lyrics to sing left them feeling a bit left out of the story.

I have been alert to the need to share the narrative and musical candy around ever since Sandra Lea-Riley commissioned me to arrange Moondance for Heartbeat with the memorable specification that they wanted a bassline that wasn’t just ‘all those damn dms’. So when I started to think about how I was going to approach another popular ballad I’ve recently been asked to arrange for a quartet, I went in with the thought that whilst the voice+guitar texture of the original lent itself beautifully to a melody+doo arrangement, I would find ways to move beyond this as the arrangement went on to keep all singers involved.

On the Astonishing Longevity of Minstrelsy

amosandandyI have been rearranging some of my mental furniture recently. It started off while reading Dreaming of Dixie by Karen Cox, a book which John Bush Jones critiques quite heavily in his account of Dixie nostalgia in Tin Pan Alley, but is actually in my view a rather better study. Mostly the reading experience was filling out my understanding of how mythology of the Old South was constructed through music, advertising, radio, movies, literature, and tourism between the late 19th and mid 20th centuries.

The bit that surprised me was how long blackface minstrelsy continued as a performing tradition. In my head it was a 19th-century theatrical tradition, and whilst I knew it appeared in films in the following century, I had always thought of those instances as referring back to the 19th-century practice.

Bibliography, Peer Group, and Framing

Back when I used to teach musicological skills to postgraduates, I used to encourage them to think about their bibliographical work in terms of defining the academic community which their work would enable them to join. The people you read to develop your ideas are also your ideal readers: your aim is to persuade those with whom you argue to adapt their views, and to offer something back in thanks to those whose work has facilitated yours.

Philip Ewell’s work on music theory’s White racial frame has got me thinking about this idea in a new light. This is how he opens his blog post on ‘New Music Theory’:

In Living a Feminist Life Sara Ahmed adopts a simple citation policy: she does not cite any white men. Further, she speaks of how “citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings”. Citations can also be antiracist bricks from which to create our dwellings. In citing an author we grant them legitimacy and authority, potentially turbocharging their worth to the field. Historically, the only authors who get so turbocharged in music theory are white males.

Accepting Music Theory’s White Frame: Now What?

In my previous blog post, I gave the background to the ideas I’m now going to start processing in detail. In this post I’m going to reflect on some of the ideas presented by respondents to Philip Ewell in the Journal of Schenkerian Studies* who took the line of: we recognise both that Schenker held racist beliefs, and that he considered his social/political ideologies to be integral to his music theory. What shall we do about it?

I’m going to start with Christopher Segall’s suggestion that we move the focus away from specifically Schenkerian analysis and instead think (and write, and teach) in terms of prolongational analysis. He posits that this opens up the field for a greater variety of theoretical voices (such as his example of Kholopov), while retaining the most central musical concept that makes Schenker’s work useful.

Thoughts on Music Theory’s White Frame: the Background

The world of music scholarship has been unusually eventful over the summer of 2020, in particular North American Music Theory, but waves felt more generally as well. Readers not in touch with academic music may have seen some if it spilling over into more mainstream media, often in rather inflammatory and misleading ways, but if you haven’t, I’ll start with a quick account of what’s happened for context.

Then I’ll get my teeth into the interesting ideas that are the actual reason I want to write about this, not all the kerfuffle surrounding them. Still, if it weren’t for the kerfuffle I don’t know that I’d have come across the good stuff, so it has served a purpose.

So, the background. At the Society for Music Theory’s annual conference in 2019, Prof Philip Ewell presented a plenary paper entitled ‘Music Theory and the White Racial Frame’, which has subsequently been published in a more developed form by Music Theory Online. He has also worked through some of the key ideas with less of a specific focus on one form of analysis in a series of blog posts, which are probably more user friendly for readers not directly familiar with Schenkerian analysis.

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