Musical Identity

Thoughts on the Shapes of Events

Since the British Association of Barbershop Singers Convention the other week, I’ve been mulling about the emotional shape of events, and what happens when you make changes to them. The specific case is the addition of the Mixed Chorus contest to the last day of the BABS Convention in the last two years, the day after what has traditionally been the emotional focal point of the event, the Quartet Final on Sunday afternoon.

A friend remarked that it felt a bit like the end of Wimbledon, when the men’s final had finished but the mixed doubles were still playing. I think this is an interesting comparison, not least because it captures the sense in both that the mixed genre has lower status.

There are several things that create this sense of being secondary, many of which derive from the timetabling, which does directly disadvantage the participating ensembles. They have a much smaller audience than the other contests, for example, as many people leave on the Sunday night. It is also the only contest not to be followed by an afterglow, which means that the participants don’t get to network with each other very much, or get integrated into the wider barbershop community.

On 'Non-Singers' and Climate Change

I wrote this post some time ago, and had it on the ‘is this just too whimsical to publish?’ pile. But with last week’s alarming news about the US withdrawing from the Paris agreement, it found itself reclassified as, ‘whimsical but weirdly topical’. So here goes.

You may think that ‘non-singers’ and ‘climate change’ are two completely unconnected concepts. And in a general sense, you'd be right. I'm not about to develop a theory that that singing could halt global warming if everyone started doing it. Fun though it would be to try.

No, it's just that I've been thinking about processes of identity-formation again, and I've been intuiting some resonances between the non-singer and the climate-change denier in terms of how they construct and maintain their internal identity narrative. I'm not suggesting there is any connection between the content of those identities. I don't think I know many climate-change deniers, but I'm sure there must be some who are also happy choir-members. Conversely, I know a good many folk on the Green end of the political spectrum, some of whom love to sing, others of whom feel anxious at the very thought of it.

On the Musical Canon, Cultural Capital, and Fear

When I wrote the description below I had no idea how many products it would describe...When I wrote the description below I had no idea how many products it would describe...One of the major challenges – possibly the primary one – of a feminist musicology is how to get the work of women into the musical canon. The basic content of what counts as ‘music’ - as in, what you should know if you want to count as a musician, or even just as a well-informed listener - remains resolutely male.

The institutional structures that maintain the canon have been analysed on more than one occasion, so I’m going to go easy on that here. (Bruno Nettl’s essay in Disciplining Music was a formative example in my development as a scholar.) Rather, I am coming back to the question of the internalised structures we maintain within ourselves as musicians. It is these internal landscapes my playlist of 2017 is intended to inflect.

The question I have been worrying at is the role of the canon in our self-identities as musicians. Why do we cling to it? Even those of us who are emotionally invested in righting the wrongs of unjust exclusion can find it hard to embrace female and/or non-white figures meaningfully into our internal soundscapes.

Magenta News

Magenta2017In my New Year post I mentioned that I would be seeing a significant change in 2017, though was not at that point quite ready to talk about it. And whilst it’s still too soon to reflect in any depth, now is the moment to tell you that yesterday Magenta, the choir I founded 10 years ago, gave its last concert in its current incarnation.

The reason we are stopping is a concatenation of circumstances happening in Real Life (work, family, health, relationships – the usual) that led to a significant number of established members needing to leave in a short space of time. Our plan as of the middle of the autumn had been to recruit in the New Year – a good time of year to find people on the lookout for new adventures – and start a new cohort after our concert at the end of January.

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.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

My current and most recently-filled Thinking BooksMy current and most recently-filled Thinking BooksIt is the time of year for surveying past and future in the manner of Janus. About whom I realise I know absolutely nothing except that he inspired the name of the first month of the year by his capacity to look forwards and backwards at once. I expect he was good at three-point turns. (Though now I think about it, he must have found the introduction of car-seat head-rests to prevent whiplash both inconvenient and uncomfortable.)

Anyway, do you realise it’s just over eight years since I started this blog? That sounds like a significant chunk of time to me. Part of me is surprised to find I’m still going with no signs of letting up, but then again, I have found it an excellent form. I look back to my early twenties and see that even then, what I needed was a genre of short-form writing that is both intelligent and informal. And for six years before I started blogging, I was journaling regularly in what I have always referred to as my ‘Thinking Book’. Many of the early posts came straight out of those early-morning jottings.

‘Old Barbershop’, Part 2: A Case Study

In my previous post on ‘old barbershop’ (I am keeping the inverted commas as the term doesn’t get more self-evident with use), I talked a bit about lyrics, but mostly about specific technical features of the arrangements in core repertoire 20 years ago compared to now. The third area that came up in the conversation that sparked these posts was a framed as a general issue, but in the context of a particular song. There are threads to be untangled here.

So, the general issue was choreography, or possibly body language. There are patterns of inhabiting the body that are inherently linked to how we understand a style, indeed are part of the way we store it. This comes out both in explicitly-planned moves, but also in the general performance demeanour.

Musings on ‘Old Barbershop’

Some time in the early part of the millennium, around when I was writing my first book, my then boss asked me what were the new and happening things in the world of barbershop. The question entertained me, as I had been in the midst of documenting the ways in which the genre has been built on an aesthetic of nostalgia. The slogan ‘Keep it Barbershop’ (and the identity label derived from it: KIBBERs), which was still in some currency at that time, was about the resolute resistance to innovation.

It is hard to put your finger on exactly the moment it changed (Michigan Jake? Team OC Times + Aaron Dale? Westminster Chorus?), but the last decade and a half has seen not only a good deal of innovation, but also a cultural shift to a world in which the new is greeted with excitement. The seeds were planted in the early 1990s with changes to the judging system that allowed a greater range of repertoire and arranging techniques, but it has taken nigh on a quarter-century to change people’s felt experience in relation to the defined boundaries. Back in 2005, when I wrote my article on ‘Cool Charts or Barbertrash?’, this was still a very active area of contention.

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