Aesthetics

BABS Convention 2018

Momentum Chorus: photo credit - BABSMomentum Chorus: photo credit - BABS

The three major talking points for the final weekend in May this year were the Ireland’s repeal of the 8th amendment, Momentum’s astonishing performance in the mixed barbershop chorus contest, and the glitzy yet ill-designed refurbishment of the toilets in Harrogate International Centre. Of the three, only the second is strictly relevant for this blog, and the other two I’m sure are covered more thoroughly elsewhere anyway.

If you’ve seen the contest scores, you’ll already know that Momentum’s performance was better than anything we saw in the World Mixed Voice competition in Munich the previous month, though in my view the scores don’t show quite how much better. I’d like to hear them in a head-to-head with Heavy Medal, as I think they could give them a run for their money.

Reinventing Dixie: Book Review, Part 2

My last post gave an overview of some of the ways that John Bush Jones’s book Reinventing Dixie: Tin Pan Alley’s Songs and the Creation of the Mythic South is both useful and problematic. Today’s will consider his central thesis, that the mythic South constructed within Tin Pan Alley songs is a vision of a south contemporaneous with the songs’ own times, not nostalgia for a South of the past.

One of the strengths of this book, as I mentioned before, is that it provides plenty of specific detail with which to test the author’s analysis, and the evidence to support this thesis is mixed at best.

There are some specifically contemporary references in the war songs – those songs about Dixie boys, or indeed Alexander with his band, going over to France are clearly topical for the years of World War I. And one could make a case for the promulgation of contemporary styles of popular music such as ragtime to support the contemporary thesis, though Jones mostly confines himself to discussion of lyrics, with only passing mention of musical content.

Reinventing Dixie: Book Review

reinventingdixieIn the light of barbershop’s current debates about the role of Dixie songs in its repertoire, I was interested to hear of a book published a couple of years ago about exactly this corpus of songs. Reinventing Dixie: Tin Pan Alley’s Songs and the Creation of the Mythic South sounded exactly like the kind of thing I should be reading!

I have not yet worked out whether I would recommend it in turn, for reasons that I aim to tease out in the next blog post or two (there may be more to talk about than will fit in just one). Overall I’d say it is more informative than explanatory – it told me lots of stuff that I didn’t otherwise know, but the analysis is weak, in places embarrassingly uncritical.

Constructing the Identity of a Feminist Musicologist: Mainstream or Margins?

I won’t be posting during December, so I’ll leave you with a longer piece to be getting on with. This was my keynote address at the Musique et Genre conference in Paris in December 2015.

Wishing you all a vibrantly feminist holiday season, and see you in the New Year


Individuals construct their sense of self through autobiography. We each maintain an internal narrative, using the discourses our culture provides, to make sense of our experiences and thus understand who we are, what we have done, and what we might yet do. We also do this in groups, where shared stories bind people together into cohorts. We tell the stories to newcomers to make them ‘one of us’. We re-tell the stories amongst ourselves to re-live shared experience, and update our understanding of what that experience means. In academia, we call this process ‘literature review’. We create our identities as scholars through the search terms we choose to build our bibliographies.

Soapbox: A Short Post About Women and the Musical Canon

soapboxAs you know, one of my projects for 2017 is making sure I’m listening to a lot more music by women by compiling a youtube playlist. One of the obvious points that keeps coming out in my commentaries on the pieces is how splendid so much of them are, and how boggling it is that I didn’t previously know it.

A possibly less obvious, and certainly less polite, point is that it makes me wonder how some of the repertoire by men that I do know seems to be taken seriously. I’m not saying that, say, Schumann wasn’t a ‘genius’ (though I am putting in scare quotes to distance myself from that rather loaded label), but I am saying that the label unhelpfully keeps some of his more irritating efforts in the repertoire (Symphony No 4, I am looking at you) when there are clearly better examples of the genre that get ignored because they are by people to whom the ‘genius’ label has been withheld – i.e. women.

The Paradox of Conductors’ Leadership Styles

ICA course materialsICA course materialsThere is a fair amount written in the literature, both of conducting studies and leadership/management studies, about the leadership styles of conductors. People in business are a bit envious of the audible unanimity conductors elicit, and rather more envious of the glamour in the cultural images that surround them.

Musical studies tend instead to use concepts of leadership style taken from business to analyse conductor behaviour. The generalisation here is that once upon a time autocracy was the accepted norm, but that you are expected to be rather more polite these days. Phrases like ‘servant-leadership’ get bandied about.

Thoughts on the Colwall Requiem for Aleppo

ColwallI didn’t go to the world premiere of Liz Johnson’s glorious new choral work intending to write about it. I just went to support the endeavours of a friend I hadn’t seen so much of since she moved out of Birmingham – it would be nice to see her, I admired her fundraising and awareness-raising efforts for refugees, and I knew the music would be beautiful.

It was beautiful, and also moving. I can’t remember the last time I actually dripped tears during a concert. And then she brought us back to a place of hope by the end of the piece so we were emotionally safe to head back into the real world.

There are two particular aspects to Liz’s compositional voice I’d like to reflect on here. The first is her distinctive and assured handling of dissonance. The music moves seamlessly along a continuum from very harmonic and euphonius to uncompromisingly dissonant whilst always sounding realistically like it belongs in the same musical world. Part of this I think comes from the way she’ll season the consonant passages with strategically placed diatonic clashes that provide poignancy in the moment, but also help to mediate between the different regions of her harmonic palette.

Harmonious Yorkshire Spirits

SpiritFeb17Thursday evening took me up to the Vale of York to work with Spirit of Harmony on some arrangements I delivered to them last year. I had arranged for the chorus several times some years ago, and also worked with a couple of smaller ensembles from within the chorus, but this was my first time coaching the full body of singers. As ever, I’m not going to tell you what the songs are so as not to anticipate the moment the chorus chooses to reveal them, but I can reflect on the process.

It’s an endlessly fascinating exercise in practical aesthetics negotiating how music should go: who decides, and how you decide. As an arranger I’ll have always imagined the delivery in depth as part of the arranging process – as Neil Watkins used to say, the arranger’s task is to conjour up the full performance in their mind, then write that down. But equally, it is the performer’s job and prerogative to bring their own creative imagination to the shaping of the narrative.

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