Aesthetics

Will it Shop?

My title is the name of an education session to be presented by the Nordic barbershop organisations in a week or two’s time, pre-recorded at the weekend. For those outside the barbershop bubble, this rather cryptic-looking question is shorthand for: ‘does this song lend itself readily to being arranged in a way that will meet the style criteria for barbershop contest?’ The fact that this quite specialised and complex question can be reduced down to three syllables tells you that it is a subject that often comes up in barbershop conversations.

I’m not going to tell you much detail about the content of the session, because you can go and sign up and get that directly, but I wanted to mull a bit about a few observations I made en route.

The Balanced Voice – Part 4: The nature of balance

Jansson's web of 'forcefields'Jansson's web of 'forcefields'My previous two posts in this series enumerated a variety of elements that need to be balanced in the singing voice, and we now have a good body of material to act as exemplars while we consider what we mean by the term ‘balanced’.

The archetypal image that comes to mind is a set of scales, with two weights suspended either side of a fulcrum, which come into equilibrium when equal in weight and distance from the centre. Or, of course, when the difference in weight is compensated for by a counter-balancing difference in distance. Even this simplest source metaphor carries within it the idea of a degree of flexibility – it’s not just equal quantities of things either side of the centre, it’s about their relationship to one another.

The Balanced Voice – Part 3: More elements of balance

So far we have explored the more concrete elements of balance in a voice – those to do directly with the use of the sound-producing body, and those to do with the acoustics of the sounds we hear. It is time to move on to balance in the more experiential dimensions. Here we are clearly working more metaphorically, counter-posing ostensible opposites within the singer’s awareness.

Experience of Self

The first cluster of opposites all relate to the singer’s executive control functions: to what extent do sing with a conscious awareness of what we’re doing, and to what extent do we lose ourselves in the music?

The Balanced Voice – Part 2: The elements of balance

In my first post in this series I talked about why I’ve been reflecting on the ideal sound of my imagination, and how the idea of a balanced voice has emerged as the primary organising metaphor to describe what I desire. Today I’m going to look at a variety of different dimension in which this metaphor plays out. It won’t be exhaustive, in the same way that imagination is never exhausted, but it will take the metaphor into a number of different modes of experience.

Physiological

The source domain for the concept of balance is physical experience, and so it makes sense to start here, where it applies literally.

The Balanced Voice – Part 1: Introduction

After the long hiatus, the opportunity to hear voices singing live in real time – both solo and ensemble – has found me reflecting anew on what I most value in what I’m hearing. This is partly a response to remedial needs, to hearing voices that are in varying degrees out of practice, and having to re-imagine the ideal they need to find their way back to. But it’s also simply a function of the opportunity to listen with fresh ears after a year and more’s diet of processed recorded sound.

Bringing these reflections to written form has taken longer than I thought it might – my notes on the subject started back in the Spring – and has also spread out into a series of linked posts which will appear over the next few weeks in between other items more tied to specific events. Today’s post will explore the global ideas that shape my reflections, the second and third will break it down into a range of elements that contribute to it, and the last will return to the holistic level, to consider the kind of structure and relation between those elements implied by the various metaphors in play.

On Listening in Perspective

My brother tells a story of taking a photo of a mountain on a family holiday. Knowing that his wife considered pictures of nothing but landscape rather dull, he asked his then young daughter to stand in the foreground. The camera's autofocus produced a lovely picture of her, with the mountain an indistinguishable blur behind.

The happy sequel to this was how useful the picture became when he was teaching Music Technology A Level. He would show the class the photo and ask them what it was a picture of. ‘A little girl,’ they’d all say. ‘No,’ he’d reply, ‘a mountain.’ And then he’d go on to teach them about how microphones don’t give you an objective representation of the sound they pick up, but bring out certain aspects of that sound, depending on the mic itself, the space it’s used in, and what the recording engineer does with the settings.

On the Aesthetics of Perfection/Imperfection

We strive to perfect our musical performances, yet the idea that something can be too perfect remains a perennial counter-narrative in musical aesthetics. As far back as the early 19th century, ETA Hoffmann and Carl Maria von Weber celebrated musical imperfections as signifiers of honesty and authenticity, in contrast to the artifice of high skill.

Roland Barthes’ famous essay ‘The Grain of the Voice’ similarly saw the polish of a classically-trained tone as smoothing away the individuality of the singer, in contrast to the vocal texture of vernacular styles, which he heard as vehicle for the singers’ physicality and life history.

Even more recently, Deke Sharon applied this criticism to barbershop in his keynote address at Harmony University in 2018. By prioritising continuity of ring over all other communicative elements, he suggested, the genre creates a shiny sonic carapace that can serve to keep outsiders at a distance, even while it affirms those in the know.

Executive Summary of Barbershop, Part 2: the Overtone

In my last post, about my talk on barbershop for Scunthorpe Choral Society, we got to the point where someone asked a really good question, and then it all got too long to answer in one blog post. So we are resuming here, refreshed, and having had a bit more thinking time to consider the question: can you generate the characteristic audible overtones of barbershop expanded sound/lock and ring when making a multi-track recording with yourself?

I’m always a bit slow when thinking about the physics of sound, not least because when given the choice at university, I opted to study Italian for a year instead of acoustics, thinking it would be more useful for a singer. But I’ve learned some stuff since, and my understanding of timbre, vowel perception, and the harmonic series makes me think that in theory, yes, you should be able to do this. The overtones fall well within the range of audible sound picked up by microphones, so the frequencies to be reinforced are clearly present in the sound. Moreover, you’d think that one person singing all the parts has a head start on getting the sound well-matched.

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