Aesthetics

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.

Executive Summary of the World of Barbershop

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Last Thursday an invitation from Scunthorpe Choral Society had me giving a short presentation on barbershop choruses as part of their ongoing series of visiting speakers. I was given the remit of talking about what is different in barbershop from other choirs (there’s lots in common too of course), and with a time slot of 15 minutes, it made me think quite ruthlessly about what were the essentials to share.

So, I started off with a whistlestop account of the genre’s origins and history, which for these purposes could fit into 6 moments:

On Conducting and Emotion

I had a really interesting conversation recently with a conductor I’ve been working with about the conductor’s experience of musical emotion. He was reflecting on how he feels all the music the conducts – and ‘still feels’ it in the case of very familiar repertoire – and was wondering to what extent he should allow himself to experience that while conducting. On one hand, the whole point of so much music is to shape our feelings, but on the other he didn’t want to be self-indulgent.

You won’t be surprised to know that from a standing start, I was all for allowing himself to connect emotionally with the music. The reason we started doing this and keep doing it, the reason the singers participate, the reason that listeners value what we do is this connection. Music offers a way to access rich and varied emotional landscapes that bind us together in shared experiences. Those leading the creation of those experiences both deserve and have an obligation to participate in them.

The Emotional Fallout of Plagiarism

I have been thinking about plagiarism for various reasons recently. It’s an issue in the moral order of both my worlds, the academic and the artistic, and probably is in any world in which the generation of original content is the primary output of value.

I am accustomed to thinking about this from perspective of those who have their worked appropriated, the poietic dimension if we’re being semiotic about it. Someone has put skill and time and effort and probably also heartache into producing a piece of writing or music or whatever, only to see someone else come along and use the fruits of their effort in their own work, taking not only the credit, but also often the material rewards that come with it (royalties, promotions).

The emotional response this generates has two dimensions. On one hand there’s the outrage on behalf of the original creator, who is pushed aside and eclipsed by the act of appropriation. To copy without due acknowledgement or permission is to erase the original creator from the work, and thus also to erase them as a person. The Death of the Author might be a useful concept from a critical perspective, but those who create new work continue to feel deeply invested in material that has dominated their waking and sleeping thoughts.

Lenticular Vision as an Analytical Tool

mcphersoncoverToday’s post is reflection on a concept I learned from Tara McPherson’s Reconstructing Dixie - which I highly recommend as a detailed and nuanced analysis of the meanings accrued by the American South from the mid-20th century through to the 1990s. If you’re interested in the cultural construction of nostalgia, there’s a lot of food for thought there, but today’s theme is specifically her central image of ‘lenticular vision’.

A lenticular lens is one that magnifies different images when viewed from different angles, and is used to produce pictures which change with changes in the position of the viewer. McPherson introduces this concept via the example of a picture of an old plantation house which from one angle showed the White people that owned it, from another, the Black people who serviced it.

On Schenker and Schenkerians

Sometime towards the back end of last year (I only happened across it in the last week) a group of European music theorists published an open letter in response to the events surrounding the Journal of Schenker Studies edition last summer about Phillip Ewell’s work. There are many aspects of it to raise an eyebrow, but I tripped over the first sentence of the second paragraph and got stuck there:

We were at first surprised that Prof. Ewell chose to illustrate his legitimate concern with the situation of the SMT and of American universities mainly by an attack against Schenker, who died almost a century ago.

My immediate response to this was:

We were surprised that anyone objected to the Confederate flag being waved inside the Capitol Building, as the civil war finished over 150 years ago.

Thoughts on Barbershop and Musical Comedy

The shibboleth in barbershop circles is that any attempt at comedy has, first and foremost, to be sung well if it is to work. The better it’s sung, the funnier people will find it. This post unpicks this assumption: there’s something to it for sure, but I don’t think it tells the whole story.

The reason why this generalisation seems generally plausible is, I think, because ‘well sung’ functions as an effective proxy for ‘thoroughly-rehearsed’ and ‘has high standards’. Ensembles that develop their skills in one of these dimensions typically improve in the others too. Lurking behind the truism is the memory of mediocre performances that were not very well executed as comedy, didn’t have enough jokes in them (those they did have being rather obvious), and that were also not very well sung.

But this is a case of correlation, rather than causation. It’s not necessarily the fact that they’re singing better that makes a successful group more funny. In fact, these two dimensions are at least moderately dissociable once you’re beyond the base level of ‘does the audience trust your skillset?’

LABBS Chorus Day: Reflections on Style and Emotional Experience


One of my premieres for the weekend that exemplifies cheerful diatonicism

One of the things we saw coming with the LABBS Big Weekend was how, freed from the constraints of contest rules, choruses took the opportunity to share all kinds of repertoire we’d never hear on a contest stage. At a personal level, this gave me the opportunity to hear a bunch of arrangements I’d had commissioned last year that I might not otherwise have had the chance to hear at all. There was even one chart that was commissioned several years ago but that I had never heard before.

What I hadn’t anticipated was coming to the end of the day feeling that the musical diet we’d been treated to was less varied than I had expected. For sure there were lots of songs we wouldn’t normally get to hear at Convention, but in the event that also entailed hearing a lot more primarily diatonic music than usual.

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