December 2016

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.

Happy Holidays!

One of the things I find difficult to get my head round these fractious political days is how people can take offence at being wished 'Happy Holidays'. It seems a cheerful and emotionally uncomplicated message, which has needlessly acquired uncheerful and contentious baggage. Merry Christmas is another pleasant greeting, as is Happy Hanukkah. If people are worried about not mentioning which religious festival they're celebrating, why is Season's Greetings not equally suspect? It all seems so strange and arbitrary.

Living in a culturally varied city, as I do, I enjoy opportunities for mutual goodwill at various points throughout the year: Diwali, Eid, Chinese New Year are all focus of public celebration.

Goal-Setting with Bristol A Cappella

The Dilts hierarchy as analytical tool (plus some other stuff behind it...)The Dilts hierarchy as analytical tool (plus some other stuff behind it...)Saturday took me down to Bristol to spend some time with music team members from Bristol A Cappella. Our primary focus was goal-setting: working from values and aspirations through to concrete plans. I’m not going to write much about the detail, except to say that both the adventures they are embarking on and the challenges they are grappling with would elicit empathy from anyone who has been involved in a choral ensemble.

But there are a couple of points that I can usefully reflect on without disclosing private conversations. First is how the Dilts pyramid emerged as an analytical device for considering activities within both the music team and the wider chorus. We had compiled a collection of ideas about what the ideal chorus of the imagination would be doing that the real-life currently chorus isn’t.

‘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.

Genius and Bad Faith

battersbyThe conversations about race and repertoire that I mentioned just after the Sweet Adelines International Convention continue to thrive in both public and private spaces, and continue to present all of us with much food for thought. Today's post is in the genre of 'trying to nurture a vague hunch into full thought-hood'. If you are reading this, then I managed to articulate it enough to have something to publish...

The hunch is this: that the way classify certain cultural artefacts as 'art' or the product of 'genius' serves to protect them from genuine critical scrutiny. We may analyse them and discover cultural values that encode oppressive social relations, but that analysis does not dent the work's reputation or place in its canon. If anything, it just makes it look more important to be subject to all that attention: musicology as clickbait.

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