Music Theory

Explorations in Troubled Waters

Continuing with the theme of how returning to regular piano practice is having interesting cross-fertilisations with my vocal-harmony musical brain, today I’m going to share some discoveries made while working on Margaret Bonds’ piece ‘Troubled Water’.

The piece is based on the spiritual ‘Wade in the Water’ and was originally conceived as one of a suite, though it has developed an independent life having been published as a stand-alone piece in 1967. The suite was finally published in its entirety in 2020. I have linked to Samantha Ege's recording;'Troubled Waters' is the 3rd movement, starting at 6:58.

On Metaphors and Messing with People’s Heads

[On executing a vocable using the syllable ‘ha’ without making the tone breathy]

Don’t let the h invade the vowel. You want to keep the salt on the edge of the margharita glass, not put it into the drink.

The coaching process produces all kinds of metaphors for different aspects of musical performance, many of them emerging spontaneously from the needs of the moment. One of the things, I am told, that Amersham A Cappella appreciate about my coaching is the vividness and idiosyncrasy of some of the metaphors that pop out during the process. One of the things I appreciate about working with them is knowing that they’ll go with whatever wild imagery comes to hand: not needing to filter insights for sensibleness on the way gives an incredible sense of creative freedom.

LABBS Quartet Prelims 2022

Seeded first on the day, In House talk to LABBS social mediaSeeded first on the day, In House talk to LABBS social media

On Saturday, The Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers held the preliminary contest for quartets to qualify to compete at Convention in the autumn. With 31 quartets competing for 16 places, it felt like the quartet scene is in good shape, and there were a good many new ones who have formed since we last convened in person in 2019. Many of the quartets stayed on for the Sunday to receive extended evaluations-cum-coaching sessions, a model that encapsulates the philosophy at the heart of LABBS contest system: that competing is a means for growth, and that education is an inherent part of the cycle.

A friend I ran into during the first break remarked that he always wonders, seeing me at the events, what I’m going to write about in my blog after it. This made me laugh, because at that point I was wondering the exact same thing! As it happens, two observations rose to the top as the day went on.

Soapbox: On Rhyme Schemes

soapbox One of the things I came away from two Conventions’-worth of binge-listening with was a strong opinion about the writing of original lyrics. There is a clear right way and wrong way to do this and a lot of people seem to be unnecessarily choosing the latter.

So, you know how you write jokes? You do the set-up first, and once people have all the information they need to get the joke, you deliver the punch-line, preferably ending with the word that creates the laugh, or at most one or two words after it. This is the principle that drives the writing of non-funny material too: you land on the most important point at the cadence-point.

Harmonic Explorations with Amersham A Cappella

AACfeb22

I spent a happy Tuesday evening with my friends at Amersham A Cappella, working on the music they are preparing to compete with at the European Barbershop Convention in Helsingborg in May. It was probably the closest to a ‘normal’ experience I’d had this side of the pandemic. Aside from the open door for ventilation, and the need to wear a mic so those unable to be there in person could watch via livestream, it felt just like old times.

Familiar faces helped this feeling of course – we have a long-standing relationship that made it easy to slot straight back into the kind of work we do together. And the nature of the work – diving deep into musical detail - slotted us back into a familiar context of how the major contest of events of the barbershop world organise the experience of their participants over the course of months.

Dynamic Times with Norwich Harmony

On Monday evening I zoomed in for an hour with the Music Team of Norwich Harmony. They are in the process of learning one of my arrangements and wanted to talk through several aspects of it as a way of both verifying and deepening their understanding of the music. They chose an ideal moment to have the session – they all clearly know the song well enough to know what kinds of questions it asks of them, but are still fluid in their conception of it.

A theme that came up in a couple of contexts was dynamic shaping. One team member remarked on the way the sheet music doesn’t contain any explicit indications (‘there aren’t any Ps and Fs’ is how she put it), but the music clearly doesn’t want to just to be all at one level.

On Schenker and Schenkerians

Sometime towards the back end of last year (I only happened across it in the last week) a group of European music theorists published an open letter in response to the events surrounding the Journal of Schenker Studies edition last summer about Phillip Ewell’s work. There are many aspects of it to raise an eyebrow, but I tripped over the first sentence of the second paragraph and got stuck there:

We were at first surprised that Prof. Ewell chose to illustrate his legitimate concern with the situation of the SMT and of American universities mainly by an attack against Schenker, who died almost a century ago.

My immediate response to this was:

We were surprised that anyone objected to the Confederate flag being waved inside the Capitol Building, as the civil war finished over 150 years ago.

Music Theory’s White Racial Frame: Thoughts on Knowledge and Power

It is of course a cliché that knowledge is power. I have always thought about this in terms of why education is valuable. Knowing about stuff enables you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to; having more information allows you to make decisions that will fit the real world better and thus achieve your ends more effectively.

Philip Ewell’s blog posts on race and music theory, however, have shown me new ways to think about this truism. The generalised understanding still works, but Ewell also draws attention to ways in which the construction of knowledge within a discipline is a means to accumulate, wield, and confer power within the institutions that curate and validate knowledge.

I explored one aspect of this a few years back when reflecting on why it is so difficult to get women and composers of colour into the canon of western art music. I noted how our confidence as well-educated musicians is constructed through familiarity with its canons, and thus how it feels when we are asked to do engage with something unfamiliar: profoundly disempowering.

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