New Technical Term: Canute Passages

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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.

Canute was an Anglo-Saxon monarch, famous for sitting on the beach and commanding the tide not to come in. The tide came in anyway, obvs, and the incident has become a metaphor not only for the limits of kingly power (the point he was trying to make) but for the broader principle of the futility of trying to prevent the inevitable.

He has also, now, given his name to passages of music in which there is an obvious and intuitively-natural mistake available to be made. You discover it when a section makes this mistake cleanly and beautifully together, and then also find it very very hard to change to the correct version. You work on it, starting with demonstration, then increasingly imaginative ways of breaking it down to help people grasp what is different about the correct way, and they may get the hang of it briefly, but immediately rubber-band back to the incorrect way once you put it back into context.

Sometimes, well most of the time, persisting in getting things right is a Good Thing to Do. Quite apart from our shared convention of respecting the composer’s text, we’ll only get better at accuracy and attention to detail by practising accuracy and attention to detail; singing the line of least resistance as a matter of course limits our musical growth. And of course a lot of the time, what one part wants to sing just doesn’t go with what other people are singing. I spend a lot of my life saying things like, ‘Yes I know that feels like a great line for you, but it’s going to sound terrible when you put it with the basses.’

But just occasionally, the intuitive pull of the incorrect version is so powerful that you just need to relinquish the struggle and let them sing it the way they feel it. If you’ve worked on it in some detail twice, and it comes back as wrong as ever on the third rehearsal, you may be getting to that stage. There’s a tipping point where the value of the correct version (both in the specific musical context, and the principle of developing skills of precision) is outweighed by the dispiriting effects of working on the same bit for too long. The people who are getting it persistently wrong start to lose confidence, the others start to get bored.

The decision to label a passage a Canute passage is easiest when it doesn’t impinge on what other parts are doing. There is a kind of ‘no harm, no foul’ principle going on here. Also, you don’t have the same opportunity to use what the other parts are doing to help make sense of the unintuitive passage. (Though I have occasionally found that it’s easier to teach a different part a couple of new notes to fit with the Canute passage than to correct the original mistake.)

There’s also the question of the artistic impact of the two versions. When a passage is somewhat unintuitive in a way that contributes to making a particular expressive effect, it’s worth investing in, as you get more music out of it. Another phrase I use a lot is, ‘the bits that surprise you when you’re learning the music are the bits that will make the audience go “Ooh!” when you perform it.’ And the expressive impact of these kinds of moments usually provide a means for people to get their heads round how it should go.

The discovery of Canute passages is something I experience as a director and a coach. As an arranger, I dedicate my life to trying not to write them, as I know how much rehearsal time they eat up. The things that pull people into incorrect-but-intuitively-appealing musical gestures are often to do with prosody – the combination of the accent patterns of language with a line’s rhythm and/or contour. I’ve written about the creation of lines that are intuitive to sing a bunch of times over the years (example links at the bottom of the post), and I’m sure I write fewer Canute passages now than I did 20 years ago. But I feel this one is going to be a work-in-progress for as long as I continue working with human beings.

Anyway, the key take-away for me, having shared my reflections on our new technical term, is to refine my judgements on when something is genuinely a Canute passage, and when it is merely tricky and the application of patience and persistence will deliver accurate music and an upgrade in skills.

Making Parts into Lines
On the Prosody of Twiddles
Arranging: The Hidden Best Bits
On the Melody of Harmony Parts in the Time of Covid

*As in, the business-end, no comment on tuning here…

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