Jimbob’s Pictures of Musical Processes

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Earlier this month, BABS and LABBS held their triennial joint re-certification school, at which judges from both organisations are required to formally qualify in order to continue their service. This undertaken with the help of visiting judges in each category from the Barbershop Harmony Society, who play a role both in leading training and overseeing the assessments.

The Music Category was delighted to welcome current Category Specialist Jim Kahlke, who as well as all the usual virtues you see in people who take on this mantle, has a happy knack for drawing pictures of ideas. So I thought I’d share a couple of them that have resonance beyond the specificities of barbershop judging. I’m pretty sure that both sets of ideas were attributed to other members of the category (Roger Payne and Kathy Greason respectively, if I recall), but I’m calling them Jimbob’s here because it’s his drawings we’re looking at.

The first is a picture of the process of musical communication. It is basically a picture of a stage as seen from above, with the performers on the left and the audience on the right, and it conceptualises the relationship as cause-effect. So, out further to the left of the performers lies the sheet music. And in between the performers and the response lies the act of singing – the medium of exchange by which the music becomes manifest and thus able to elicit a response.

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Jimbob shared this diagram as a way to articulate the relationship between the scoring categories in barbershop, but as someone who misspent her youth reading the work of Jean-Jacques Nattiez, it felt at once very familiar and interestingly different. ‘Cause’ and ‘effect’ are clearly good ways to gloss the ‘poietic’ and ‘esthesic’ levels in Nattiez’s semiology – there’s both intentionality and response, but you can’t assume how much the two will resemble each other.

But instead of the ‘neutral level’ – that theoretical moment of the perceptible stuff itself, independent of cultural meanings – we have the act of performance conceived as a medium of exchange. Instead of an objectively describable sound object, the interchange between transmission and reception is the place where the obligation for competence lies. As Jimbob put it, the Singing Category keeps the other two honest: whatever good musical intentions or believable communication seem to be apparent, the overall quality is dependent upon the adequacy of the performers’ technical control.

Clearly part of this discrepancy lies in the purpose of the models. Nattiez was describing cultural processes, and so was interested in a non-judgemental stance, whereas obviously barbershop judges are primarily focused on evaluating competence. And Nattiez started off by characterising the neutral level as the score, (although as his ideas fleshed out, he also applied his model to the performance situation); this too will tend to cast the neutral level as a more static concept. But as I have written before, the neutrality of music’ perceptible matter is problematic at best, and Jimbob’s sketch shows quite vividly why – without culturally-bound competencies, it couldn’t exist.

That turned into a longer discussion than I anticipated, so I’ll try to be briefer on the other diagram. This is about elements that contribute to the sense of a performance’s quality, specifically the inverse relationship between delivery and execution. As the delivery (shaping, flow, rhythm, phrasing) improves, the score goes up. As the distractions in execution (synchronisation, tuning, balance) decrease, the score goes up.

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The interesting thing to think about is the place where the arrows cross. There is a moment in the development of performance skills where you can stop noticing the performer’s technical control and start paying more attention to their conception of the music. A place where the content becomes louder than the medium, if you like. Exactly where that cross-over happens will vary from performer to performer, but both dimensions need to develop for it to occur. When performers hit a glass-ceiling in their growth, where they keep working but don’t seem to be improving, that can be a sign that they need to switch focus between these two dimensions.

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