On the Musical Canon, Cultural Capital, and Fear

When I wrote the description below I had no idea how many products it would describe...When I wrote the description below I had no idea how many products it would describe...One of the major challenges – possibly the primary one – of a feminist musicology is how to get the work of women into the musical canon. The basic content of what counts as ‘music’ - as in, what you should know if you want to count as a musician, or even just as a well-informed listener - remains resolutely male.

The institutional structures that maintain the canon have been analysed on more than one occasion, so I’m going to go easy on that here. (Bruno Nettl’s essay in Disciplining Music was a formative example in my development as a scholar.) Rather, I am coming back to the question of the internalised structures we maintain within ourselves as musicians. It is these internal landscapes my playlist of 2017 is intended to inflect.

The question I have been worrying at is the role of the canon in our self-identities as musicians. Why do we cling to it? Even those of us who are emotionally invested in righting the wrongs of unjust exclusion can find it hard to embrace female and/or non-white figures meaningfully into our internal soundscapes.

The Conductors’ Four Questions

In my post last month on developing the director I wrote about the usefulness of having a regular appointment with yourself for structured work on a specified area for development. Today I’d like to talk about a set of questions that I give to conductors I work with to structure their reflective process.

  1. What did we achieve?
  2. How does everyone feel about themselves?
  3. What does the music need?
  4. What do the singers need?

To start, a few words about the choice and phrasing of the questions.

Spring Fest 2017

4 of the 5 tutors for the day4 of the 5 tutors for the day

Last Sunday saw my third consecutive year as a tutor for the A Cappella Spring Fest at the Cornerstone Arts Centre in Didcot. The day took a similar shape to the previous years, with a plenary warm-up followed by themed classes and workshops in the morning, then afternoon rehearsals in a variety of a cappella genres, culminating in performances where we all shared our efforts.

I was leading the Contemporary A Cappella stream again this year, but with the added amenity of vocal percussion. Andy Frost from the Magnets ran two general workshops on beatboxing in the morning, and then during the afternoon coached a small group to add a vocal percussion part to Ben Bram’s arrangement of ‘Uptown Funk’.

It is a moderately challenging arrangement – though we had cut it down somewhat, given the short rehearsal time available – but participants took it well in their stride. It helps that the intricate parts that need rather more attention to get right come back at several points in the arrangement, so you feel it is worth investing the time in them, as you’ll get plenty of use out of that work. The passages aren’t expensive on a cost-per-sing basis, so to speak.

Arranging Processes

Every so often somebody will ask me how long it takes to do an arrangement, and I invariably find it a difficult question to answer. The headline answer is usually 2-4 weeks, depending on what else is going on in my life. But that’s just the time elapsed between starting work in earnest and delivering a completed chart, which isn’t the same as how long I spend working on it.

The more detailed answer is that it is impossible to say, as the distinction between working on an arrangement and not working on an arrangement isn’t very clear cut. (This is a specific instance of the observation that to talk about work/life balance assumes you can tell which is which.) Anyone who has been involved with practical music-making is familiar with the way your brain keeps processing the music you are working on between rehearsals and practice sessions. I may only spend an hour or two at a time actually sat at the piano or the computer, but the effectiveness and productivity of those sessions absolutely relies on my brain’s ruminations in between them.

And it turns out that this background processing isn’t just a continual, generalised mulling. I have gradually become aware of certain types of musical problem-solving emerging in quite specific circumstances:

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