Voice Part and Character

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Towards the end of last year, Chris Rowbury wrote an interesting post about why basses can’t remember their part. He starts off thinking it’s to do with gender stereotypes: ‘it’s just a bloke thing’. This is obviously the version which, in our school days saw girls as neat and clean and obedient versus boys as messy and disorganised, but which in adulthood somehow translates for women into a lifetime of picking up their husband’s socks. (So note: whenever people voluntarily adopt an ostensibly unflattering stereotype, there’s usually also something in it for them.)

Chris moves beyond this quite soon though, and locates the difficulty basses have in the interaction between three factors: the nature of the parts in the genres he’s working in, the learning methods used, and the make-up of the group.

Static parts, he points out, are quick to teach, so don’t get as much rehearsal time spent on them, but have less to hang your hat on musically, so by the same token are harder to remember. Add to that the fact that there are often fewer men than women in the groups he’s working with, and thus fewer brains to collaborate in musical storage, then it’s that much more audible when the basses are struggling than the other parts.

So, he comes up with a number of useful correctives to these problems – including the obvious one of getting some music with more interesting bass lines! But beyond the practical solutions, I found his post a fascinating case study in the way that musical structures, musical practices and social identities work together to create a sense that a particular voice part is about character as much as it is about range.

We tend to think we know what ‘bass’ means, that’s it’s a transparent word that carries the same meaning in all the styles that use it. And there are certain things in common for sure: it’s invariably the lowest in the texture, and therefore has a key role in defining harmonic content. But beyond that, it’s more variable than you’d think. For instance, many styles would associate it exclusively with male singers – indeed, there’s a ground-breaking article by David Lewin that shows how Rameau articulated his theory that harmonies are determined by the bass notes in terms of patriarchal power. He goes on to suggest that women need to learn instruments that play the bassline if they are not to remain in a disempowered relationship with musical content.

Of course, another option for women would be to perform in an all-female a cappella ensemble that puts women on the bass line. Here the function is the same, but the gender is different, and likewise the vocal range. Having said that – female bass parts use a whole register of the voice that women who only ever sing classical music never touch. One of the lasting effects on both my music-making and my theorising of voice and identity that encountering barbershop music at age 26 had on me is an extra major 6th on the bottom of my range.

And even with the common ground of harmonic shaping, bass lines in different styles are very different. Chris’s basses find their lines unmemorable because they are static – the world musics he’s teaching are often harmonically simple, and the basses’ primary role is to pin the chords down. But the bass line in, say, a Bach chorale is likely to be the most disjunct part, which gives a completely different type of challenge. And in polyphonic genres of course, the musical behaviour of the parts is not a significant differentiator (that’s one of the points of invertible counterpoint, I seem to recall).

So, the character stereotypes that accrue to bass parts in one style – whether patriarchal control or the inability to pick up your own underwear – only transfer to other styles inasmuch as they are congruent with the musical content and performing traditions.

This is a theme I have explored in both my books – not just because it is so theoretically rich (the relationship between music and its social meanings is the single thread that ties together my rather disparate research record) – but because, as Chris points out, it has such a direct impact on our day-to-day musical experience.

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