Anti-racism

Thoughts on Music Theory’s White Frame: the Background

The world of music scholarship has been unusually eventful over the summer of 2020, in particular North American Music Theory, but waves felt more generally as well. Readers not in touch with academic music may have seen some if it spilling over into more mainstream media, often in rather inflammatory and misleading ways, but if you haven’t, I’ll start with a quick account of what’s happened for context.

Then I’ll get my teeth into the interesting ideas that are the actual reason I want to write about this, not all the kerfuffle surrounding them. Still, if it weren’t for the kerfuffle I don’t know that I’d have come across the good stuff, so it has served a purpose.

So, the background. At the Society for Music Theory’s annual conference in 2019, Prof Philip Ewell presented a plenary paper entitled ‘Music Theory and the White Racial Frame’, which has subsequently been published in a more developed form by Music Theory Online. He has also worked through some of the key ideas with less of a specific focus on one form of analysis in a series of blog posts, which are probably more user friendly for readers not directly familiar with Schenkerian analysis.

On the Power of Boo

In the wake of events in the US over the past week or two, I have seen friends making comments along the lines of: I hate that this is happening and I feel helpless because I don’t see what I can do to help. In the spirit of Justin Trudeau’s point that the best response is to put our own house in order, I’d like to share with my barbershop friends a point made by the inimitable Elizabeth Davies.

Those of you who have been following the #donewithdixe debates will know her landmark blog post articulating the reasons why a genre with barbershop’s history of appropriation and exclusion needs to leave a significant chunk of its C20th repertoire in the past if it is to aspire to be the kind of inclusive community it claims to be.

Semiotic Theory and the Futility of Bowdlerising Lyrics

A decade ago I was alert enough to the portrayal of race in music to be squeamish about a quartet of white women taking on the character of a mixed-race prostitute in song. Looking back, I take my past self’s points about the mitigating European context of both the version of the song the quartet were responding to and their audience’s frame of reference. But I also note it’s been a good long time since I withdrew that particular chart from circulation.

Bowdlerising the lyrics was not enough to ‘rescue’ that song, and today’s task is to articulate why that is so often the case. Much of the theoretical groundwork for this has appeared in past blog posts, but sometimes it’s useful to draw ideas together to shed light on continuing debates about how to handle songs which encode values we may no longer wish to align ourselves with.

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.

On the Icicle 7th

Chinese 7thRecently Sofia Layarda started off an interesting conversation on Facebook about the chord that barbershoppers have traditionally called the ‘Chinese 7th’. For those not familiar with it, it’s a particular voicing of the dominant-type 7th, with the root and 7th close together at the top, with 3rd dangling a tritone below and the 5th a 6th below that.

It’s a dramatic sonority when sung well, though it takes a bit of nous to balance correctly. Arrangers use it as a kind of ‘statement chord’, placing it strategically to attract attention at moments of heightened expression in a song’s narrative.

Inclusiveness at HU 2018: Next Thoughts

Halo on the Saturday Night showHalo on the Saturday Night showI told you that this theme would recur in my reflections on Harmony University. Not sure as I start to write this one whether I’ve got one or two more posts-worth of notes, but we’ll find out as we go.

One major event that you can’t write about Inclusivity at HU2018 without discussing was the Monday evening elective convened by Chris Rimple. The combined training material he has developed to help barbershop chapters become more inclusive with a panel discussion (and, ultimately, a whole-room discussion) on the kinds of behaviour people have experienced in both their barbershop careers and outside lives that have left them feeling excluded (and/or enraged – some examples were shocking).

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.

The Barbershop Harmony Society and Culture Change: Impressions from HU 2018

Harmony University 2018 facultyHarmony University 2018 faculty

I am just back from a week teaching at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s Harmony University, and I am sure nobody will be surprised to know I come home with a full notebook. Indeed, I had collected a goodly collection of notes before the event had even started, as they had me travel out early to take advantage of cheaper airfares, and so I arrived as the previous event on the campus, a leadership summit, was finishing. I thus had the chance to chat with the organisation’s staff and administrative leaders to get a picture of how life is on the ground at the moment in the Barbershop Harmony Society.

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