Choosing Relatable Music

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It’s not hard to get people to agree that it’s good to perform music that an audience will be able to relate to. It’s not always the highest priority - some people might think first about beauty, or about spiritual depth - but a dialogue about musical values will usually find the common ground between these more abstract qualities and the importance of a meaningful experience that connects performers and listeners.

This does not necessarily make it easy, of course, to reach agreement as to what constitutes ‘relatable’ music.

I had two conversations in quick succession recently that brought this into relief for me. In both cases the issue arose through differences of opinion between a choir director and some of their singers, though in rather different genre contexts. It gradually emerged that people were using the concept of ‘relatable’ music as a code for ‘not that stuff you want to do that I don’t like’.

The thing is, most people who write music consider what they produce to be communicative or meaningful; the impulse to compose comes from a sense of having musical ideas worth sharing. Even the obscure, hard-core, ‘I write for myself’ sensibility isn’t as monumentally self-absorbed as that makes it sound (mostly, heh). The idea is that by listening to your inner voice rather than being blown every which way by others’ ideas, you produce something that is more distinctive and has greater integrity, and which is therefore a more valuable contribution to the musical world. The principle of contributing is still inherent in the process.

So, nobody writes music that they think is worthless. I imagine that even the writer of ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ honestly wanted to communicate something positive, even though it makes me want to stab somebody. (I remarked on this to the guy at the checkout when it was playing on the tannoy in Homebase last year; he replied glumly, ‘I wish I wasn’t the person standing nearest to you right now’.)

But the factors that people consider make music not relatable are many and varied, including, but not limited to:

  • Too old, too fuddy-duddy (this can mean 1970s, 1940s, or anything before 1900, depending on context)
  • Too niche (country, barbershop, bebop, expressionism)
  • Too downmarket, commercial, lowest-common-denominator, emotionally cheap
  • Too austere, high-faluting, intellectual
  • Too loud and driving
  • Lacking a decent beat

And you can go on. Any music that inspires a positive response also has the capacity to inspire a negative response. And all kinds of dimensions of social- and self-identities are tangled up in these genuinely-felt reactions, such that we experience our snobberies and inverse snobberies in directly musical (imaginative, emotional) ways. Fascinating to analyse, but still presents a real conundrum to the conductor choosing repertoire.

So, I have been thinking about practical strategies a director can use to negotiate this minefield.

  • The advice only to programme music that you genuinely love sounds at first as self-centred as the ideology of composer autonomy. But it is actually sensible advice, as the choir will hear the love in your voice as you talk about the piece and sing parts back to them. And, as they already care about you, this love will help create a way into the music for them.
  • But just because you love it, don’t assume the value is self-evident. Be explicit when you introduce the piece why you chose it, what you respond to in it, to help your singers also perceive its value from the get-go. It is much harder to persuade people to like something after an initially doubtful first impression
  • Develop a culture of musical variety and exploration. People get better at finding their way into different types of music with practice. This is one of the side-benefits Magenta gets from our solo rota. Every week somebody sings something to the group that they have chosen, and it will often be new to at least some of us. Likewise, our process for choosing new repertoire involves sharing a long playlist of possibilities, and what is an obvious choice for one person will be a new experience for someone else. Other means for developing this kind of culture include workshopping pieces to explore a wider range of repertoire than you prepare for performance, and specific repertoire projects where you take on something different from usual as a particular adventure.
  • Develop a culture of empathy. It is important that everyone in your choir can respond immediately and wholeheartedly to some of your music. But it’s also good for us to step outside of ourselves some of the time and say, ‘Well it’s not what I would have chosen, but if you care about it, I’ll live with it for your sake and see if I can develop a relationship with it’. And one of the ways in which a director can model this behaviour very powerfully is to accept some of the suggestions from their choir that they’re not initially keen on. If we as directors can’t extend the imagination and respect to understand what others value in music that feels alien to us, how will we teach those emotional skills to our ensembles?

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