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.

Reflecting on the Craft: an Evening with Chorus Iceni

I forgot to take a screenshot, so borrowed a nice pic from their websiteI forgot to take a screenshot, so borrowed a nice pic from their website

On Monday evening I had the pleasure of visiting Chorus Iceni as part of the series of masterclasses they are running over this autumn. It is always a delight to be invited to share my craft (you can tell from my blog title I get my kicks from increasing the world’s capacity to harmonise), but it was a particular joy to visit this chorus, as this was the group, under their previous name of Colne Harmony, in which I had started my barbershop journey back in 1996.

There were still three faces from the club back then, including Sally who was membership secretary at the time, and Maxine with whom I sang in my first quartet. I’d normally be looking forward to seeing them at LABBS Convention at the end of October, but as this has – like so much else this year – had to become a virtual event instead, it was lovely to get the chance to say hello in person, if not to hang out and gossip at such leisure.

Reflections on Texture, Persona, and Sharing the Candy

When I joined the Telfordaires, the chorus repertoire included an arrangement of a popular ballad in which the leads had the melody, and, apart from a couple of short passages where the tenors duetted with them, everyone else sang ‘doo’ throughout. Members of the harmony parts had mixed feelings about the song. On the one hand, they recognised that it was very beautiful in performance and went down well with audiences (the Telfordaires really get their kicks from pleasing audiences), but on the other, having no lyrics to sing left them feeling a bit left out of the story.

I have been alert to the need to share the narrative and musical candy around ever since Sandra Lea-Riley commissioned me to arrange Moondance for Heartbeat with the memorable specification that they wanted a bassline that wasn’t just ‘all those damn dms’. So when I started to think about how I was going to approach another popular ballad I’ve recently been asked to arrange for a quartet, I went in with the thought that whilst the voice+guitar texture of the original lent itself beautifully to a melody+doo arrangement, I would find ways to move beyond this as the arrangement went on to keep all singers involved.

Researching the Background to Your Music

Regular readers may remember how earlier this year Elizabeth Davies raised the ante for the project of relegating racist repertoire from the barbershop stage to the history books in her articulation of the Power of Boo. This prompted me into becoming more proactive into trying to ensure I never need to enact this power.

So, I’ve had an article about the problems with these old songs come out in both Harmony Express and VoiceBox over the summer, and on Monday night I taught a session on Researching the Background to Your Music for the LABBS eOnline programme as a follow-up to that article. I figured that if I’d drawn attention to a problem, it would be helpful to offer ways for people to solve it.

On the Astonishing Longevity of Minstrelsy

amosandandyI have been rearranging some of my mental furniture recently. It started off while reading Dreaming of Dixie by Karen Cox, a book which John Bush Jones critiques quite heavily in his account of Dixie nostalgia in Tin Pan Alley, but is actually in my view a rather better study. Mostly the reading experience was filling out my understanding of how mythology of the Old South was constructed through music, advertising, radio, movies, literature, and tourism between the late 19th and mid 20th centuries.

The bit that surprised me was how long blackface minstrelsy continued as a performing tradition. In my head it was a 19th-century theatrical tradition, and whilst I knew it appeared in films in the following century, I had always thought of those instances as referring back to the 19th-century practice.

Singing Outside the Box

telf12sep20

When the rules in England changed mid-August to allow group singing within certain guidelines, the Telfordaires were one of the first groups out of the blocks to restart live sessions. Our main rehearsal each week remains online, so that it is accessible for everyone (including those having to quarantine or self-isolate, both of which have occurred in recent weeks), but we have added optional ‘weekend supplement sessions’ for smaller groups to experience live harmonising.

Part of our decision back in March to start remote rehearsing some days before the UK went into lockdown was that we didn’t want those who were vulnerable – and thus already disadvantaged by circumstance – to have to miss out on the nice things. In a similar spirit, we established the principle for our return to live singing that anything we did that didn’t include everyone should have a focus on improving things for the whole chorus.

Conducting, and Teaching Conducting, Online

The new multiple highlight function is great, but only if everyone has the newest version of the appThe new multiple highlight function is great, but only if everyone has the newest version of the app

On Saturday afternoon I spent an hour teaching a session on Basic Directing Skills as part of the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers’ eOnline programme. (As an aside, it’s a fab programme – really varied classes, and there have been a couple or three a week all summer.)

This is a set of skills I have taught many times over the years, but never previously in a situation in which you can’t use sound as part of the learning process. Which is rather the point of directing, isn’t it? The process at the heart of both teaching conducting and the act of conducting itself is to listen to what you’re getting back and adjust your own posture, gesture, and facial expressions to make it sound better.

Singing and Happiness in a Virtual World

happinesshormones

Back in the early years of this blog, I used a rubric from a Mind Gym book to analyse the ways in which group singing can make us happy. I was reminded of it recently when a friend shared a different analysis of dimensions of happiness, articulated in terms of hormones, their effects, and activities to promote them.

Now part of me was a bit suspicious about this. It smelled a little like one of those pseudoscientific things that extrapolate from biology to behaviour in a way that goes beyond the evidence. All those hormones exist for sure, but the term ‘hack’ may well be code for ‘oversimplification’.

Still, even if the chain from chemical to lifestyle is factitious, the four quadrants still represent a useful anatomy of satisfying experiences: reward, love, serenity, and relief from pain remain useful categories when planning our experiential objectives.

...found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may wish to make a donation to the causes I support to say thank you.


Archive by date

Syndicate content