Aesthetics

The Balanced Voice – Part 1: Introduction

After the long hiatus, the opportunity to hear voices singing live in real time – both solo and ensemble – has found me reflecting anew on what I most value in what I’m hearing. This is partly a response to remedial needs, to hearing voices that are in varying degrees out of practice, and having to re-imagine the ideal they need to find their way back to. But it’s also simply a function of the opportunity to listen with fresh ears after a year and more’s diet of processed recorded sound.

Bringing these reflections to written form has taken longer than I thought it might – my notes on the subject started back in the Spring – and has also spread out into a series of linked posts which will appear over the next few weeks in between other items more tied to specific events. Today’s post will explore the global ideas that shape my reflections, the second and third will break it down into a range of elements that contribute to it, and the last will return to the holistic level, to consider the kind of structure and relation between those elements implied by the various metaphors in play.

On Listening in Perspective

My brother tells a story of taking a photo of a mountain on a family holiday. Knowing that his wife considered pictures of nothing but landscape rather dull, he asked his then young daughter to stand in the foreground. The camera's autofocus produced a lovely picture of her, with the mountain an indistinguishable blur behind.

The happy sequel to this was how useful the picture became when he was teaching Music Technology A Level. He would show the class the photo and ask them what it was a picture of. ‘A little girl,’ they’d all say. ‘No,’ he’d reply, ‘a mountain.’ And then he’d go on to teach them about how microphones don’t give you an objective representation of the sound they pick up, but bring out certain aspects of that sound, depending on the mic itself, the space it’s used in, and what the recording engineer does with the settings.

On the Aesthetics of Perfection/Imperfection

We strive to perfect our musical performances, yet the idea that something can be too perfect remains a perennial counter-narrative in musical aesthetics. As far back as the early 19th century, ETA Hoffmann and Carl Maria von Weber celebrated musical imperfections as signifiers of honesty and authenticity, in contrast to the artifice of high skill.

Roland Barthes’ famous essay ‘The Grain of the Voice’ similarly saw the polish of a classically-trained tone as smoothing away the individuality of the singer, in contrast to the vocal texture of vernacular styles, which he heard as vehicle for the singers’ physicality and life history.

Even more recently, Deke Sharon applied this criticism to barbershop in his keynote address at Harmony University in 2018. By prioritising continuity of ring over all other communicative elements, he suggested, the genre creates a shiny sonic carapace that can serve to keep outsiders at a distance, even while it affirms those in the know.

Executive Summary of Barbershop, Part 2: the Overtone

In my last post, about my talk on barbershop for Scunthorpe Choral Society, we got to the point where someone asked a really good question, and then it all got too long to answer in one blog post. So we are resuming here, refreshed, and having had a bit more thinking time to consider the question: can you generate the characteristic audible overtones of barbershop expanded sound/lock and ring when making a multi-track recording with yourself?

I’m always a bit slow when thinking about the physics of sound, not least because when given the choice at university, I opted to study Italian for a year instead of acoustics, thinking it would be more useful for a singer. But I’ve learned some stuff since, and my understanding of timbre, vowel perception, and the harmonic series makes me think that in theory, yes, you should be able to do this. The overtones fall well within the range of audible sound picked up by microphones, so the frequencies to be reinforced are clearly present in the sound. Moreover, you’d think that one person singing all the parts has a head start on getting the sound well-matched.

Executive Summary of the World of Barbershop

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Last Thursday an invitation from Scunthorpe Choral Society had me giving a short presentation on barbershop choruses as part of their ongoing series of visiting speakers. I was given the remit of talking about what is different in barbershop from other choirs (there’s lots in common too of course), and with a time slot of 15 minutes, it made me think quite ruthlessly about what were the essentials to share.

So, I started off with a whistlestop account of the genre’s origins and history, which for these purposes could fit into 6 moments:

On Conducting and Emotion

I had a really interesting conversation recently with a conductor I’ve been working with about the conductor’s experience of musical emotion. He was reflecting on how he feels all the music the conducts – and ‘still feels’ it in the case of very familiar repertoire – and was wondering to what extent he should allow himself to experience that while conducting. On one hand, the whole point of so much music is to shape our feelings, but on the other he didn’t want to be self-indulgent.

You won’t be surprised to know that from a standing start, I was all for allowing himself to connect emotionally with the music. The reason we started doing this and keep doing it, the reason the singers participate, the reason that listeners value what we do is this connection. Music offers a way to access rich and varied emotional landscapes that bind us together in shared experiences. Those leading the creation of those experiences both deserve and have an obligation to participate in them.

The Emotional Fallout of Plagiarism

I have been thinking about plagiarism for various reasons recently. It’s an issue in the moral order of both my worlds, the academic and the artistic, and probably is in any world in which the generation of original content is the primary output of value.

I am accustomed to thinking about this from perspective of those who have their worked appropriated, the poietic dimension if we’re being semiotic about it. Someone has put skill and time and effort and probably also heartache into producing a piece of writing or music or whatever, only to see someone else come along and use the fruits of their effort in their own work, taking not only the credit, but also often the material rewards that come with it (royalties, promotions).

The emotional response this generates has two dimensions. On one hand there’s the outrage on behalf of the original creator, who is pushed aside and eclipsed by the act of appropriation. To copy without due acknowledgement or permission is to erase the original creator from the work, and thus also to erase them as a person. The Death of the Author might be a useful concept from a critical perspective, but those who create new work continue to feel deeply invested in material that has dominated their waking and sleeping thoughts.

Lenticular Vision as an Analytical Tool

mcphersoncoverToday’s post is reflection on a concept I learned from Tara McPherson’s Reconstructing Dixie - which I highly recommend as a detailed and nuanced analysis of the meanings accrued by the American South from the mid-20th century through to the 1990s. If you’re interested in the cultural construction of nostalgia, there’s a lot of food for thought there, but today’s theme is specifically her central image of ‘lenticular vision’.

A lenticular lens is one that magnifies different images when viewed from different angles, and is used to produce pictures which change with changes in the position of the viewer. McPherson introduces this concept via the example of a picture of an old plantation house which from one angle showed the White people that owned it, from another, the Black people who serviced it.

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