Aesthetics

On Breath and Tempo

For the last year or so I have been attending tai chi classes in local parks. I tried it on a whim when I was looking for things to take me away from my screen, and have kept doing it both because it is enjoyable during the session and I always feel good afterwards. It’s good for a sense of balance, both physical and mental.

Recently our teacher, Perry, was making some interesting observations about breath and tempo in the context of the Form (the extended sequence of moves that always features in the last 15 minutes so of the class), and I found myself wanting to reflect on parallels with musicking. Breathing and tempo are, after all, pretty central to our craft too.

On the Wisdom of Undine Smith Moore

walkerhillI have been reading Helen Walker-Hill’s splendid book From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and their Music, and learning many enlightening things. Today I’m going to share with you some of the thoughts of Undine Smith Moore. I already knew I liked her music, but it turns out that she was also a percipient cultural critic with many insights to share.

Two particular thoughts leapt out from Walker-Hill’s account, both to do with the way those who are excluded from a dominant culture can have a clearer view of that culture than those who are inside it. I’ll quote at length because the clarity of expression is part of what makes her clarity of thought so palpable:

The Lime Pickle Principle

My original plan was to use the actual label for today’s concept as my title, and use lime pickle as my primary metaphor to illustrate it. But after staring at a blank screen for a while I realised I don’t actually have a clear, precise label for this idea, so I’m going with Lime Pickle Principle as my title until I get this figured out. A label may emerge during the act of writing of course, but I won’t be bothered by then to go back and change the title and first paragraph so you’re stuck with the metaphorical title for now.

This concept emerged whilst coaching Amersham A Cappella the other week. The song we were working on is a really interesting one, in which the persona is incredibly vivid and engaging, but there are occasional whiffs that they might actually have a bit of a nasty streak to them. And this bit of friction in the sympathy is part of what makes it so engaging: you really want to identify with them, but also you’re a bit uncomfortable when you do.

On Metaphors and Messing with People’s Heads

[On executing a vocable using the syllable ‘ha’ without making the tone breathy]

Don’t let the h invade the vowel. You want to keep the salt on the edge of the margharita glass, not put it into the drink.

The coaching process produces all kinds of metaphors for different aspects of musical performance, many of them emerging spontaneously from the needs of the moment. One of the things, I am told, that Amersham A Cappella appreciate about my coaching is the vividness and idiosyncrasy of some of the metaphors that pop out during the process. One of the things I appreciate about working with them is knowing that they’ll go with whatever wild imagery comes to hand: not needing to filter insights for sensibleness on the way gives an incredible sense of creative freedom.

The Cultural Politics of Authenticity

Social media is often a colossal waste of time, but you get an interesting and nuanced discussion on a subject that is both practical and principled just often enough to make it worth keeping looking at it. I’d like to reflect on one such discussion I saw amongst a group of choral directors recently, as the various contributions teased out a range of perspectives on a thorny question.

The question was whether a British choir should assume Puerto Rican accents to sing songs from West Side Story. A director had asked their choir to do so, but some of the choir’s younger members were ‘appalled’ at what they considered a racist request.

Some of the participants in the discussion supported the conductor on the grounds of musical authenticity. It would sound silly in choral British accents, they contended, and recommended reference to the original film as a guide. (Though I’d think reference to the recent remake would be a better guide from this point of view, since it uses actual Latinx actors for those roles, not white actors in brown-face as many are in the 1961 version.)

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.

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