On Sopranos, Stereotyping, Sexism and Strain

I have been mulling over an interesting blog post shared by a friend recently. The writer, Mari Valverde, has some very interesting things to say about the misogyny implicit in cultural stereotypes of the soprano voice and the practical consequences for how composers and arrangers tend to write for it. I think she is really onto something, and she has made me think about the question of voice-part stereotypes (which I explore in various ways in both my books) in some new ways. I also suspect there are some aspects of the question she is tangling up, so I wanted to spend a post teasing out how my own thoughts are developing in the light of her ideas.

So, the following are factors that feed into the phenomenon of exhaustingly high tessituras in soprano parts:

Soapbox: On Background Music

soapboxThis is quite a specific rant. It’s not the general principle of piping music into shared public spaces that I am going to inveigh against, though I know of many professional musicians who do get a bit grumpy about it. I have seen a well-respected choral conductor in a provincial hotel ask for a full English, brown toast, and for the radio to be turned off.

I am not unsympathetic to the view that treating music as aural wallpaper cheapens the art form and desensitizes our ears to music played with intention. But, you know me, I try to be quite live-and-let-live, and I note that a lot of people seem to like it. Sometimes I even like it myself, as a change from the music in my head, which I can’t seem to get anyone to turn off. Unless it’s Jingle Bell Rock, of course, then I want to stab somebody.

Choosing Relatable Music

It’s not hard to get people to agree that it’s good to perform music that an audience will be able to relate to. It’s not always the highest priority - some people might think first about beauty, or about spiritual depth - but a dialogue about musical values will usually find the common ground between these more abstract qualities and the importance of a meaningful experience that connects performers and listeners.

This does not necessarily make it easy, of course, to reach agreement as to what constitutes ‘relatable’ music.

I had two conversations in quick succession recently that brought this into relief for me. In both cases the issue arose through differences of opinion between a choir director and some of their singers, though in rather different genre contexts. It gradually emerged that people were using the concept of ‘relatable’ music as a code for ‘not that stuff you want to do that I don’t like’.

Plus de Musicologie en Paris

Quick plug for this publication from members of CReIMQuick plug for this publication from members of CReIMHaving unloaded my initial impressions of the experience of attending a conference in my second language for the first time, I also wanted to have a brief mull over some of the things I found myself taking notes about from other people’s papers. Feminist musicology is a relatively recent addition to the landscape of francophone musicology, I gather, and is still getting itself established.

(Whereas in anglophone musicology, it was fully respectable by the mid-1990s. This means that when you say anything particularly feminist these days, some helpful soul can breezily dismiss your point with the assertion that we did all this 20 years ago so there can really be nothing left to complain about. I am thinking of a particular exchange from a couple of months ago when I write that, but in a fit of discretion I am not going to say who it was between. Just because I am angry with someone doesn’t mean I have to be gratuitously rude about them online.)

Soapbox: On Bad Faith

soapboxI have been thinking about Joanna Russ’s classic of literary criticism How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983) a fair bit recently, mostly in response to a clickbaity piece in The Spectator back in September that claimed that the reason that the work of female composers is not featured more extensively in educational syllabuses is because the various examples the author could think of are all crap. I paraphrase here, of course, but not by much. I’m not going to link to the article, because frankly I don’t want it to get any more traffic than it has already got, but I will point you to a nice response to it, and to my letter to The Spectator. Between them you should get the picture.

(I did dither about whether to write a response to them at all; part of me felt it was in the category of ‘don’t feed the trolls’. But I also figured that if nobody called bullshit on it, then future historical musicologists might conclude that such views went unchallenged in 2015. And if it needed doing, I was as good a person as any to do it.)

Soapbox: ‘Creativity’ is Not an Excuse for Unprofessionalism

I’ve been wondering for a while if I’m going to have a rant about this, and it seems the thought won’t go away so here goes. The following graphic has been doing the rounds on social media and it has been irritating me quite disproportionately for what is intended to be a friendly and empathy-inducing little picture.
To start with, let’s acknowledge the psychological truths that it does capture with some success. The red phase says something valid about how resistance to a task is proportionate to its demands on your brain’s background-processing functions. The things that are the hardest to start are the ones that, once embarked upon, will invade your dreams. And the flurry of work up to the deadline reminds us about the end-effect, and the way it so helpfully refreshes attention as we head into the finish line.

Music History, and the Status of Knowledge

There have been two incidents recently where the mass media portrayal of classical music has had scholars in those specific fields in a state that oscillates between outrage and despair. The first was the showing on BBC4 of Martin Jarvis’s film purporting that some of JS Bach’s works may have been written by his second wife, Anna Magdelena. The second was BBC2’s programme about the Monteverdi Vespers broadcast on Easter Saturday.

Musings On Key Lifts

If my mother were writing this post, it would be tagged under my Soapbox category, and it would be a vehement denouncement of the use of the semitone key lift as a device for adding interest to repeated material. There would be particular attention to the work of John Rutter, in which she contends that it is a formulaic trick, so over-used that instead of perking up her attention it makes her heart sink with a feeling of ‘Oh no, not again’.

However, I have not yet entirely turned into my mother, so I am not going to be quite so doctrinaire. But neither am I resisting the inevitable process of family resemblance, so I’ll say she does have something of a point.

I spend rather more of my time in a cappella, as opposed to accompanied, choral worlds than she does, and so my reservations about semitone key lifts are more based around how badly they are often sung. The standard quip is that their main function is to allow a flatting ensemble to end in the same key that they started in.

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