Music Theory

Gesturing with the A Cappella Ladies

InnigInnigWhen we planned our trip to Germany, the plan was to start in Munich and then travel up through the country by train to eventually make our way to Brussels for the Eurostar back to England. We were just dithering about which of the many possible routes we could take to do this when the A Cappella Ladies helped us into a decision by inviting me to coach them on the Wednesday after the Barbershop Musikfestival.

Their director since November is Stefanie Schmidt, who was one of the first friends I made at my first BinG! Harmony College back in 2015. I had worked with her in quartet, and it was a delight to work with her now in her capacity as a director.

On Doubling 3rds

doubled3rdIf you were brought up in a classical harmonic world, you will have been taught that, whilst you may double a minor third, you should never double a major 3rd. Then you go out into the world of real music and meet doubled major 3rds in repertoire by composers you were led to believe knew what they were doing. The story kind of changes then: well, yes you can double major 3rds if you really have to, but we don’t really want you to.

It feels confusingly like doubling 3rds is one of those adult activities surrounded by double standards, like drinking or sex. Grown ups can do it, but the circumstances in which it’s okay are shrouded in mystery, and children are encouraged not even to think about it. It’s no wonder we all go off the rails in our teens, as we try to figure out how we can do these strange adult things in the absence of a clear understanding of the rules.

Thoughts on Phnerting

swipeYou know when you wake up before your alarm, and it’s not really worth going back to sleep again but neither can you be bothered to get up just yet? That’s when thoughts turn to the curious expressive power of the phnert.

Regular readers may remember that phnert is the term coined by Lori Lyford to mean the sonority of a major 2nd and the particular effect it has on harmonic direction. It is useful to know as a singer, as it tells you how to relate to the other note in the phnert: you need to lean into it, and collaborate to make sure it’s balanced. It’s like squirting a lemon pip out between thumb and forefinger: both digits need to be equally and actively involved if you are to get any real propulsion.

My morning musings covered the following miscellaneous areas:

Harmonic Charge, Voicing and Gesture

Right back in the early days of this blog I spent some time thinking about a set of related concepts in close-harmony arranging and performing: harmonic charge, its relationship with voicing, and – more esoterically – the latter’s relationship with vowel sounds.

I have gradually observed over the years that these concepts have specific implications for conducting gesture: harmonies with a higher inherent energy (harmonic charge and/or tighter voicing) need to be squeezed.

I notice this most clearly when in trouble-shooting mode as a coach. Directors will respond to the energy in these moments whether or not they have consciously analysed the chords, but they run into difficulties when they translate this into action by making their gestures bigger. On the face of it, that would be the standard thing to do, following the bigger=louder metaphor* that underpins traditional conducting technique.

Interval Class and Vocal Style

One of the first aspects of barbershop harmony I wrote about in my early years of discovering it (and which found its way in into Chapter 2 of my book) was the genre’s idiosyncratic approach to the concepts of consonance and dissonance. Traditional music theory sees these as unfolding in alternation, with dissonance injecting energy into the sound which is released with the resolution into consonance. Much of our experience of musical tension and release comes from this harmonic process.

But the barbershop world associates the concept ‘consonant’ with its characteristic soundworld of lock and ring. So it includes the perfect intervals and triads of tonal theory, but also adds to the category a bunch of other chords – mostly notably the dominant-type (or barbershop) 7ths – that tonal theory would label dissonant for their capacity to generate a sense of forward motion.

Miscellaneous Observations from BinG! Harmony College

Cy Wood in actionCy Wood in actionAs I reported earlier in the month, I had a stupendously enriching time with the good people of Barbershop in Germany at their Harmony College. Having done all the big-picture reflections when I first came home, I find my notebook has a pile of interesting observations, none of which is big enough to blog about in themselves, but all of which are too useful not to share.

So here is a pleasant miscellany of observations of things I found stimulating. Mostly, I see now I write them up, because they were specific instances of general principles I have been writing about over the last couple of years. Always good to see something you theorise about played out in real life.

Miscellaneous Barbershop Arranging Thoughts

swipeOn reflection, these are all specific examples of general principles I have written about elsewhere. But they are points that have come to my notice through listening to performances and working with ensembles as details with which arrangers can help singers produce better performances with less rehearsal time.

  1. Keep the lead off 7ths. Obviously, if the melody is on the 7th of the chord, the lead will sing it. But if you want to write a swipe that involves the lead coming off the melody note, you have a choice. If you have them move upwards onto the 7th of a barbershop 7th chord, especially if it is in the mid-upper part of their range, my observation is that they will almost invariably treat it melodically, and swell into it. As a result, the 7th will pop out of a completely unbalanced chord.

    This is the case even with really quite good groups. I heard several instances of this with quartets scoring in the 70s at BABS Convention this year. Indeed, it was here that I spotted it as an issue: one unbalanced chord from an otherwise good quartet is just a momentary distraction, but three in an afternoon is a pattern.

On Counterfactual Emotions

I spend quite a lot of time thinking about emotions - not just because I am a musician (though that is the context for a lot of my thinking), but also because I am a human being. Our discourses about emotion often couch it in opposition to thinking, as irrational, as something natural rather than cultural. You see this whether emotion is regarded as a Good Thing or Not To Be Trusted - whether a celebration of expressive authenticity or an unruly intrusion into a well-ordered life, emotion is attributed to the body, not the mind.

And there are, it is true, certain base emotions that appear cross-culturally, and which seem to be instinctual: joy, fear, anger, grief. But to classify our entire emotional lives in that way just seems like an excuse to avoid reflection: ‘Oh it’s just how I feel’ may sound like an assertion of freedom, but it is in some ways as closed-minded as insisting on a stiff-upper lip.

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