Musings on the Leading Edge of Time….

In several of her novels that explore time travel, Sheri S Tepper develops the idea that the boundary between the now and recent history is unclear. Nobody really knows exactly what has happened when it has only just happened; it takes time to settle down. In The Family Tree it is this uncertainty that makes time travel possible: you can slip through time where it is still soft, before it has solidified. In Beauty, it creates ‘the present horizon’ which means that it takes a lot of energy to power your time machine through all the turbulence of what has just happened into the recent past, but much less to travel from there back through the centuries.

On Musical Decluttering

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?

On the Liberalising of the Barbershop Style

One of the things that has happened in the five years since I stopped being a barbershop Music judge is that there has been a deliberate policy to frame both the category description and the way it is used in practice in ways that will encourage more new music. And you’d have to say it has been largely successful. We are hearing a much wider variety of songs in contest than we used to.

In part this has been about loosening rules so they express what is best practice rather than a ‘do-this-or-else’ approach. So, for example, the chord vocabulary is now presented in a hierarchy of ringability, rather than with the distinctions between chords that are allowed, those allowed under certain circumstances, and those not allowed. All chords are allowed, but if you want to score well, keep using lots of major triads and barbershop (dominant-type) 7ths as they are the most barbershoppy.

To Recreate or Reimagine?

When arranging a popular song for a cappella, like any other type of cover version, you have two basic options for how to approach it. You can aim to recreate the original in the new medium, or you can use the act of transfer to reimagine the music. In the first approach, the primary pleasure for your listeners is recognition: Oh yes, I know this, here are all my favourite bits in a new context! In the second, it is rediscovery: Oh, I’ve never heard it this way before – now I hear it in an entirely new light!

As an arranger, I am often complimented for my work of the first type. People value the sense of being true to something they know and love. But sometimes I’ll choose instead to completely recast a song, either because somebody asks me to (as in my arrangement of I Will Survive), or to solve some essential problem that the song presents.

More on the Icicle 7th

Chinese 7thOr at least, on the name that chord has gone by hitherto. My previous blog post on this got quite a bit of discussion going amongst barbershop arrangers. Not over the new name – most people were as happy to recognise Karri’s suggestion as very fit for purpose as I was – but about the necessity to replace the old one.

There were two types of responses overall. There were the ‘thank goodness, this has been bugging me too,’ type – which I’m not going to dwell on except to acknowledge their existence, as I’ve already written quite a lot to meet those needs. And there were the, ‘this has never struck me as racist so I don’t see the need to change’ ones. These ones need a more detailed response.

Less is Still More with Cleeve Harmony

Obligatory warm-up picObligatory warm-up picIt feels like cheating to use basically the same title for consecutive blog posts, but contriving something different would only make it less accurate.

Tuesday evening took me down towards Cheltenham to spend the evening with my friends at Cleeve Harmony. They had changed their rehearsal night from their usual Wednesday so I could come, as that is now also my own rehearsal night. (I will skip the occasional week with the Telfordaires, but not more than once a month and I had already used up my quota for high summer with Harmony University and – gasp – a week’s holiday.)

My remit for the evening was to focus primarily on the bigger-picture stuff, particularly the director and her assistant, but also with an eye and ear on the communicative impact of the music. Fortunately these are two things you can often do at once.

The Deke Sharon Keynote: A Masterclass in 'Yes, But'

Continuing my reflections on Harmony University, Deke Sharon’s keynote address is going to take a post of its own, and probably quite a long one at that. Which is entirely how it should be – his job as keynote speaker is to get people thinking, and he succeeded in starting conversations that went on all week.

His theme was ‘Divergent paths’: reflecting on the way that organised barbershop separated off from the Black vocal harmony traditions the genre had once been part of, and using examples from continuing African American traditions to imagine how barbershop might have turned out if it had not spent so much of the past 80 years as a segregated genre. This is a fabulous thought experiment through which to consider the history of vocal harmony genres, though on reflection I am starting to suspect it was also the root of many of the ‘yes, buts…’ that emerged in response.

Ensemble Singing and the Illusion of Oneness

The Composer’s Voice by Edward Cone is a classic of music theory that, though flawed in many ways (as all startlingly innovative theories are), still fuels my thinking about music meaning and its illusions 25 years after I first read it. One of the flaws is how misleading the title is, since the book breaks out of the dominant post-Romantic cliché of music being all about the composer’s message to the listener, and gives a way to hear instead the virtual voices the composer has created.

The key concept he introduces is that of musical personae: virtual characters emerging from the music, whose story the music tells. There are all kinds of interesting questions this raises in instrumental music – how you identify personae, how you interpret the narratives – but his starting point is the simpler case of song. When you have lyrics to sing, it is clear that you are representing a character, a fictional being at a certain point in a story, and the clues as to your backstory and setting can be found in both the words and the musical setting.

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