On Musical Decluttering

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KondoWhen Marie Kondo’s book first came out a few years back, enough of my friends were reading and discussing it that I got a decent feel for her method without having to try to find room on my crowded bookshelves for my own copy. Actually I imagine this would be a self-correcting problem in this context, but still, I have the benefit of some friends who give very detailed synopses of things they are interested in, so they saved me the trouble.

Now that she has a TV programme, my social media newsfeed is once more full of her ideas, though now mostly parodied as memes about which key signatures do or don’t spark joy. There’s a comment in there somewhere on the difference between books and television, and the modes of discourse they promote.

But through the frivolity, I have been musing on ways we need to declutter our musical lives. The first way is the more obvious: how do we decide which repertoire to stop rehearsing and performing?

Usually I am quite structured about this. I’ll periodically (every couple of years) ask all choir members to rank our current rep for their preferences, and use this to inflect decisions based on retiring older pieces while maintaining an overall balance. It’s not a voting system as such, but I do feel it’s important not to retire a song while it is still overwhelmingly popular. And I like to know the full spread of opinions; it’s easy to get a skewed impression if you only know the views of those people who make a point of telling you.

But twice in the last year I have taken unilateral decisions to retire songs on a basis that was much more Kondo-esque in approach. In both cases it was sound of the voices that triggered the choice: I couldn’t hear joy in the tone. It wasn’t that the singers weren’t making the effort to sing them well, nor that the skills they were bringing to the task were inferior to those with which they sang our other songs. But I just wasn’t feeling the love, and it was the texture of the sound that gave me that information.

Now it’s entirely possible that the problem was with me, rather than with either the songs or the singers. But if I was consistently failing to lead these pieces in a way that evoked delight in the singers, it wasn’t kind to keep going. Not kind to the singers, nor to our audiences. Our job is after all to put delight into their hearts.

The second, and rather more esoteric, mode of musical decluttering I have been musing on was while working on an arrangement, in that phase I think of as ‘combing’ it. You’ve got a full draft, with all the major structural and strategic decisions made, and you’re going through smoothing out the snags.

This is for me,as I’ve said before, the secret heart of the arranging process. The before and after impressions you’d get from your notation program’s audio output will be very alike, but the learning and performing experiences for the singers will be quite different. The goal is to make everything more intuitive, so their technical brains can get out of the way as soon as possible and let their communicative brains connect to the musical narrative.

Sometimes this is about prosody, sometimes about breathing. But it’s also sometimes about decluttering. Sometimes a texture or effect sticks out as too complex for the context; there are too many notes, and they are getting in the way of the song. These kinds of issues aren’t necessarily audibly apparent; rather the problem is the cognitive density of the passage for the singers. They’ll have to spend more time learning that bit than its role in the song demands. It affects the integrity of the emotional shape of the song if you have to put more practice into the more ordinary bits than the really intense moments.

And for all people laugh at Kondo’s persona and methods, we’re right to pay attention to her. Are we keeping that book because we feel we ought to read it again, or because we are already looking forward to when we do? Does the baritone line go like this because theory says we need a 7th in that chord or because you can see in your mind’s eye the delight with which they’ll lean on the dirty note?

In the context of decluttering our homes, the problem her methods address are the obligations we put on ourselves that weigh us down with feelings of inadequacy and guilt and get in the way of happier and more useful ways of being. It is probably not a coincidence that we use the metaphor of ‘baggage’ to articulate this aspect of our emotional lives.

In the context of decluttering our vocal lines, the problem we’re solving is music that requires Daniel Kahneman’s System 2 thinking – conscious, deliberate, cognitively tiring – to operate it. One of the key characteristics Kahneman identifies in his intuitive, fast, System 1 is pleasure. It feels good to draw on our associative web, to make effortless imaginative connections.

So it makes sense to ask: does this line spark joy? If it does, that’s a good sign that it is musically intuitive, that we’re not standing in the light between singer and song (and thus between singer and audience). To say, ‘without joy there is no music,’ isn’t simply a bit of heart-warming encouragement, it turns out, but also a statement about the cognitive processes of internalised musicianship.

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