Aesthetics

Reflections on Texture, Persona, and Sharing the Candy

When I joined the Telfordaires, the chorus repertoire included an arrangement of a popular ballad in which the leads had the melody, and, apart from a couple of short passages where the tenors duetted with them, everyone else sang ‘doo’ throughout. Members of the harmony parts had mixed feelings about the song. On the one hand, they recognised that it was very beautiful in performance and went down well with audiences (the Telfordaires really get their kicks from pleasing audiences), but on the other, having no lyrics to sing left them feeling a bit left out of the story.

I have been alert to the need to share the narrative and musical candy around ever since Sandra Lea-Riley commissioned me to arrange Moondance for Heartbeat with the memorable specification that they wanted a bassline that wasn’t just ‘all those damn dms’. So when I started to think about how I was going to approach another popular ballad I’ve recently been asked to arrange for a quartet, I went in with the thought that whilst the voice+guitar texture of the original lent itself beautifully to a melody+doo arrangement, I would find ways to move beyond this as the arrangement went on to keep all singers involved.

Three-Part Textures and Complete Chords

I have been working with a couple of composers and arrangers recently who have been working in textures with three vocal lines, accompanied by a piano (in one case with several other instruments too, but with the piano at the heart of the band). A question that has cropped up with all of them is to what extent you need the vocal parts to present a complete harmonic texture if the piano is there to fill in the chords for you.

Of course, you can’t actually get complete chords in a three-voice texture unless you only use triads, but you can still make the differences between something that sounds like it is giving you enough harmonic information and something that sounds empty. All this is in the context of the harmonic conventions of western tonality as used in 20th-century popular song traditions; other conventions are available of course, but this was the world to which these particular musicians had made their stylistic commitments.

The generalisations we came up with about how this texture works best are as follows:

On Connecting with the Real

Last autumn, shortly after I’d blogged about the research stream at the abcd Choral Leaders Festival, I received an email from a reader about the diagram I had included from Michael Bonshor’s paper about the relationship between practice and research. I like everything about it so will quote in full:

It was very affirming to see that little diagram on your blog this evening.

I've been working for seven years as supply staff for a small, private children's nursery. Lots of frustrations, wondering how things could be done better. Meanwhile reading your blog makes me feel that I still have a functional brain when there is little other evidence. Thank you!

Now I'm about to embark on a Masters in Childhood and Youth Studies. I think they need more academics who have done the 7.30am starts and 6pm finishes, coming home covered in yoghurt and playdough to fall asleep during The Archers.

Hoping I might eventually complete that circle, help some people, change something for the better. (I sing a bit too)

Reflections on FICA19

Overall winners: Cantairí Óga Átha CliathOverall winners: Cantairí Óga Átha Cliath

I know I said I wasn’t going to be blogging until I’d written and presented both the papers I’m committed to in November, but I have some processing to do after last week’s extravaganza in Aveiro, Portgual. The event combined the annual Festival Internacional de Coros, hosted by Voz Nua choir, with the inaugural choral stream at the Hands On Symposium, running in parallel with piano and guitar streams. I was presenting a keynote at the symposium as well as forming one third of the jury for the festival competitions.

It’s the first time I’ve been directly adjudicating (as opposed to overseeing examination processes) for a few years, and it turns out that my handwriting hasn’t improved any in the interim. I endeavoured to be generous in my comments; I just hope I was also legible. I am sure the competitors will get in touch about anything that’s too cryptic!

The Body in the Compositional Mind

My undergraduate education, especially as a composer, was firmly within a Modernist aesthetic, and one of its tenets was that you should learn to compose direct from your mind’s ear to paper, rather than at the piano. The reason given for this was that your pianistic habits would lead you into familiar musical gestures and thus become an obstacle to creating new, hitherto unimagined musical ideas.

(Note, by the way, the assumption that all musicians should be good keyboard players. Nobody ever warned you off composing though noodling on the guitar or oboe.)

Now, there’s something to this. Every so often I’ll see a novice arranger produce a chord for an a cappella group that tells me that they’re a pianist and we have to have a conversation about voicings that will work better for a vocal ensemble.

Mo Field on the Needs of an Audience

One of the many things that ended up in my notebook under the heading ‘To think about later’ from LABBS Harmony College back in April was something guest educator Mo Field said about what an audience is looking for in performers. It now appears to be later, and my brain is ready to think about it.

In summary, the three things she listed were:

1. Is this competent? (Can they trust your skill-set?)
2. Can they believe you? (Are you saying something that matters to you?)
3. Is it relatable? (Are you saying anything that matters to them?)

The first thing to note is that these are both sequential and hierarchical. Until the listener is reassured that they’re safe in your hands from the perspective of your capacity to operate your instrument/ensemble, they’re not going to have any attention to give to the content of what you do. Assuming you are indeed competent, they’ll move on pretty much immediately to engage with your content.

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.

The Robot/Human Dialectic

There’s an exercise I like to do with ensembles in which they toggle between singing as if they were a robot and as if they were a human being. It’s interesting because you think before you start that it’s primarily about expressiveness – turning both vocal and facial empathy for the music on and off. Which it is, but it also turns out to be about technical control. The robot mode typically displays not only a more angular rather than flowing sense of shape, but also much cleaner synchronisation of rhythm and word sounds. You lose something by turning off your humanity, but you gain something too.

I recently had a conversation with an individual singer about managing his relationship with these two states. He generally gives his primary focus to accuracy (an attitude that you have to like), but feels this can result in a robotic delivery: ‘I don’t think I know how to sing a melody like a Lead, while still doing all the stuff on placement, timing etc,’ he said.

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