Soapbox: A Cappella Arranging and Narrative Shape

soapbox My brain persists in thinking that many years ago I wrote about today’s primary point, but repeated searching fails to find any evidence of it. So maybe I only thought about blogging about it. It is certainly an opinion I have held since before I started this blog – there are arrangements I did back in 2006-7 where I can remember thinking about it. And my recent listening experience has me wanting my fellow arrangers to think about it too.

So the point is this: a cappella arrangements usually need to be shorter than versions of a song that include instrumental (and/or electronica) accompaniment. This is partly because when working with a limited timbral palette you haven’t got the resources to build such a large structure (in much the same way that orchestral pieces are often longer than chamber or solo pieces). With less opportunity to generate variety, longer structures can feel as if they are sagging under their own weight. This is particularly evident if you are also constrained texturally (as in contest-grade barbershop) but is true even if you have a free hand with your textural options.

On Assessment Systems for the Arts

Whilst I’m no longer directly involved in assessing music in either competitive or educational settings, I still regularly interact with a variety of institutions that use them, and so still find myself thinking about how they work. The users of these systems – competitors, examination candidates, and the teachers and coaches who support them – often have a slightly conflicted relationship with them. On the one hand, they value the external validation that the systems offer, while on the other, they don’t quite trust them to recognise the value of the artists they judge.

I recently saw a disgruntled teacher complain about the feedback a student had been given on the grounds that art is ‘subjective’ – and thus by implication that what the examiner had criticised could have been a legitimate choice rather than a flaw. This is one of those comments that is both totally right and maddeningly wrong; it captures an important truth but also misses a whole lot of simultaneously true things. And as it’s quite a common discourse for grumbling about assessment in the arts, I felt it was worth unpacking a bit.

BABS & EBC Conventions – Reflections on New Music

It is time to start marshalling some of the thoughts I’ve been having about the music I’ve heard at my first two in-person barbershop conventions since 2019. One of the interesting bits of context for this is of course that at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s Category School in 2019, the Music Category came away with a slightly less ‘anything goes’ approach to style, but then coronavirus came in before that decision could be enacted in live contests.

So we were coming into these conventions with an extra 2-3 years' arranging time, but no real case law to see how that policy tweak would play out. As it happens, I heard tell of only one case of an explicit score reduction for style in the contests in Sweden, but it did not discernibly disrupt the overall scoring profile – you wouldn’t have guessed it from just looking at the numbers. So for the various other charts that I thought might have been on the windy side of the style, there may also have been some score reductions, but likewise of a magnitude that inflects rather than devastates the Music score, and thus not immediately sending out a ‘don’t go there’ message to other competitors.

On Creative Choices, Creative Intentions

Some of the voicings I have been puzzling overSome of the voicings I have been puzzling overOne of the orthodoxies of my musical upbringing and subsequent teaching life is that the performer should respect the composer’s intentions. In practical terms this entails, at the basic level, playing the music presented in the score accurately – i.e. all the pitches written, in the durational relationships represented by the notation.

This basic level is never really challenged, though it is inflected as you move educationally beyond a literalist approach to the score to understanding it as a document emerging from a historical and cultural context. ‘Style’ is the shorthand term used to embrace the range of types of information used as filters through which to interpret the written score: changing notational conventions, changes in the construction and thus sound of instruments, changing aesthetic ideals and their impact on tone production, articulation, timing, and embellishment.

Check out the Daffodils


You probably think it’s a bit too early for daffodils, even in an era of global warming, unless you live in one of the more sheltered bits of southern England, but the Daffodil Perspective I am referring to today is a year-round phenomenon. Elizabeth de Brito’s fortnightly podcast is a cornucopia of classical music by those female and global musicians who were omitted from our education.

If you have ever said, ‘I’d like to programme more music by people who aren’t dead white dudes, but don’t know where to find it,’ Elizabeth is systematically providing the solution to your problem. She also offers consultancy services, so if you find listening back to several years of podcasts a bit much all at once, you may find paying for an hour or two of her time a more efficient way to bring yourself up to speed.

On the Training of Perception

I recently eavesdropped on an interesting conversation. It was between the tutor and another participant on a wood-carving course I’d gone on, and it was about the teaching of visual art. They were discussing how the focus on a conceptual approach means people don’t necessarily learn specific technical skills. A particular anecdote was of a drawing class in which the instructor demonstrated how to draw a foot, using a method that produced a generic foot, rather than a specific representation of the actual foot of the person modelling for the class. People aren’t taught, they agreed, how to look.

The conversation moved on from there to a variety of techniques and exercises each of them had experienced that trained you to see what was in front of you in terms of the relationship between its constituent parts – the angles, the planes, the proportions – rather than in terms of your knowledge of what it actually is. You see most accurately, they suggested, when you dissociate vision from content.

A Snapshot of Barbershop’s Culture Change, Part 2: Arranging Styles

My previous post about the experience of sorting through a packet of music from a barbershop chorus of the 1980s got a bit long, so I decided to save the rest of my observations for a second post.

The third main impression was that, as well as the pervasiveness of nostalgia in the songs’ subject matter, it was striking how nearly everything fit very safely into the core barbershop style. Primarily homophonic, melody in the second voice down, harmonic progressions, chord choices and voicings all very orthodox. It would pretty much all pass muster as ‘contest-suitable’ these days in terms the arrangement choices – though of course a lot of it probably wouldn’t have worked so well back in the 1980s when the scoring of contest arrangements still took a weirdly tick-box approach.

On Painting with a Limited Palate

Culinary metaphors appear frequently in both my coaching and my writing about music. It’s a relatable sphere of experience – everyone has experience of eating – and I enjoy cooking as a creative endeavour in its own right.

A recent bout of covid has got me thinking about cooking as a compositional metaphor in a new way. A week after my symptoms first started that my sense of smell went on the wonk. It didn’t stop me cooking – we still needed to eat, after all, and when you’re stuck at home self-isolating, cooking is a good way to pass the time, as everyone discovered last year in lockdown.

But creating and consuming meals without the olfactory dimension is a very different experience from usual. For one thing, it made me notice anew how much I navigate my way round the kitchen by smell: judging spicing levels, gauging doneness. Now I have to work by theory rather than by feel: how much ginger would you expect a recipe to specify for this quantity?; how long should this take to cook?

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