A Cappella

New Technical Term: Canute Passages

There are those who attempt to make music theory into a fully-rational and systematic endeavour, but those of use working at the sharp end of music-making* know that it is messier than that. Yes, you can organise a lot of it into logical patterns that help you generalise and draw inferences, but a lot of music theory is about finding ways to identify and make sense of stuff that happens in real life.

So, from the Concrete-Experiential school of music theory that brought you the Icicle 7th (Karri Quan), the Phnert (Lori Lyford) and Swooshythroughiness (me), I bring you the concept of Canute passages.

On Milestones and Skill Level

I noticed as I entered my most recent arrangement into my master list spreadsheet that the one I’m working on next will be the 250th row. I’d not been consciously counting charts, not least because it’s always a little ambiguous which ones to count. My master list doesn’t include some of my earliest efforts, nor a handful of throw-away pieces done for specific occasions (though it does include others throw-aways, such as the ones NoteOrious sang on Radio 1). And of course it doesn’t mention all the ones I started and never got round to finishing. But it does include quite a few that I don’t make available for various reasons (copyright complications, or simply that I don’t like them any more.)

But anyway, now that I’ve noticed the milestone, it sounds like quite a big number. I guess that’s what happens when you keep doing something for a lot of years.

Getting into the Flow with Bristol A Cappella

BACnov22I spent Saturday with my friends at Bristol A Cappella. It was my first visit since the pandemic, and it’s starting to feel like life is healing over the huge cut in our life narratives made by the covid hiatus. It wasn’t simply picking up where we left off in 2019 (though looking back there are some common themes), but having a shared history with a significant number of the group helped us find our way into working together again readily.

As a group, they specialise in arrangements of pop, rock and show songs, and our task was to work on two songs from musicals, which, while quite contrasting in mood and expressive impact, had some similar challenges. Both are very lyric-led, with the verses in particular being quite wordy, and the task was to find a way to capture the actorly approach to singing the source genre entails whilst supplying the musical flow that would be provided by the band in the original context. The words were absolutely essential to the expression, but we needed them also not to get in the way of the music.

BeinG with BinG! Youth Chorus

I was disappointed to discover that this didn't mean the room for singing tags: though people sang tags in there anywayI was disappointed to discover that this didn't mean the room for singing tags: though people sang tags in there anywaySome months ago, I was contacted by the BinG! Youth Chorus about doing a workshop with them while they were over in Birmingham, since they’d be singing one of my arrangements, and their event was right on my doorstep. Over time their plans changed, but we kept the date in the diary, and in the end, instead of them all travelling to the UK, I met with them in Münster; and instead of running just workshop I spent the full four days with them. And a very happy four days they were too.

It was a nicely varied long weekend. Every day involved significant chunks of chorus rehearsal/coaching time, but there was also the chance to explore the city on the Friday, a busking session in the city centre on Saturday, a Bunter Abend (open stage evening), and a couple of workshop sessions led by me and their MD Andrew Rembecki. The schedule thus combined the intensity of working together on the music every day with opportunities to refresh the attention and process the learning between sessions.

Jubilation with LABBS

Thanks to LABBS social media team for the pic!Thanks to LABBS social media team for the pic!

Last weekend saw the Ladies Association of British Barbershop singers convene in Bournemouth for their first full in-person Convention since 2019. The theme for the event was Jubilation, and there was a lot of joy in evidence, both in the performances and in the social interactions around the venue. It was great to be back.

One of the features of the barbershop contest traditions in normal times is that the winner of the chorus contest each year does not compete in the year immediately following. This means they can spend their championship year focusing on performing as champions, and preparing something special to perform at the convention at the end of the year rather than leaping straight back into preparing for their next contest.

Arranging the Silver Lining

Yesterday saw the premiere of a version of my arrangement of ‘Look for the Silver Lining’ at the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers’ annual Convention. It is a chart that comes with a story, not least of how it turns up in two versions simultaneously, and whilst LABBS members have heard some of that story at its premiere, others who might be interested in the song might not

Besides, in addition to all the background stuff about context and relationships, there’s the story of how the backstory shaped the chart itself.

The arrangement commission was funded by the Jen Mills Award, of whom the 2021 recipients were the quartet SoundHouse. The award commemorates Jen Mills, who was a source of great musical energy and insight in LABBS, as Music Judge, coach, and arranger until her untimely death in 2019, and it provides funding for a LABBS quartet each year to commission a new arrangement.

On the Value of Stating the Obvious

The musical directors of BABS had the opportunity on Saturday to hear a presentation from vocal health expert Julian Nicholl at our periodic MDs forum. Julian has that combination of specialist knowledge and kindness that gives you confidence the voices he cares for are in good hands; I particularly liked the way he recognised that while we all have the same basic vocal mechanism, everybody’s life circumstances - and thus needs - are individual.

At this point, I realised that my original title, ‘On stating the obvious’ sounded a bit dismissive towards Julian’s presentation, so I’ve gone back and tweaked it to better capture the reflections that followed.

One of his key points was that the things you need to do to nurture vocal health are exactly the same things you need to nurture any other aspect of health: get enough sleep, exercise and hydration; eat nourishing foods in adequate but not excessive quantities; engage in activities that promote positive emotional states and reduce stress, etc. And this is, in one sense, kind of obvious: a healthy lifestyle gives you the best chance in anything you do.

On the Whitewashing of Barbershop: A Case Study

Shine on meShine on me

This probably won’t be a long one as I’m not sure I have much more to say than, ‘Uh, look at this, the record needs correcting,’ but we’ll see how we go.

We all know by now that barbershop was originally an African American genre (though there was a considerable level of interchange between white and black traditions in its heyday as a commercial genre in the early years of the recording industry). We also know that when a revivalist movement in the 1930s led to the formation of the Organisation Formerly Known As the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (or TOFKASPEBSQSA as I like to think of it), the new institution not only excluded African Americans from its membership, but also systematically removed any mention of the genre’s black origins from its standard narratives.

It’s very easy to think that was all in the past and that now the historical record has been corrected we’re all done. Whereas in fact there are all kinds of ways in which we’re still living with the legacy of those decisions, usually without realising.

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