Excellence

On Privilege and Mediocrity

A chance encounter led me to reflect on a correlation I have noticed periodically over the years between self-satisfaction and mediocrity. There are people who present as plausible and urbane, charming and confident, yet whose actual achievements are rather ordinary.

Their written prose has the rhythm and cadence of authority, but the ideas remain shallow, smoothing over the surface of received opinion rather than offering any penetration of insight. Their musical performances likewise offer the general shape of what a good performance would sound like, but lack depth and nuance, and indeed are often also somewhat inaccurate – lack of attention to detail manifesting in multiple dimensions at once.

It occurs to me that most of the people I have encountered who fit this profile are male, all of them white, and they all speak with accents associated with levels of affluence that afford private education. They all, that is, enjoy multiple levels of social privilege. For the record, I’m generalising from a list of 7 or 8 specific examples here – a small sample in some senses, but enough to allow a pattern to emerge.

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 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.

Soapbox: Technical Difficulty is not the Same as High Standards

soapboxToday’s opinion piece arises from a conversation about an arrangement I was helping an ensemble with recently. They liked the song but were concerned that the chart might be too hard for them. My view was that the arranger had placed quite a lot of unnecessary obstacles in their path.

Ah yes, came the reply, but that arranger is working with [an ambitious up-and-coming group] and sets the bar high.

I’m not saying what the chart was, or who the people involved are, as it’s really not about them personally, it’s about the ideas that emerged in this exchange. There are any number of other examples that I could be equally opinionated about, it’s just this one sparked me to return to writing on a theme long-time readers will have seen before.

Thought Experiment: Can’t Get No Dissatisfaction

A recent conversation in a barbershop arrangers facebook group has got me thinking about the role of dissatisfaction in creativity. Participants were sympathising with each other over the experience of working on a chart, and knowing it isn’t yet right, but struggling to figure out how to make it work. Anybody in any creative endeavour (and I mean that in the widest possible sense) will be having a sympathetic sigh at that thought.

I initially thought my reflections would be leading to revisit the idea of decision fatigue. There are only so many decisions we can make in any one day, and one of the points of routine is to automate as many as possible to free up cognitive capacity for the projects where you want to make some new happen. The pandemic has blown all our previous-established routines out of the water, so anyone who finds themselves too tired after work to make much progress in their arranging is not failing. They’re just having their creative capacities consumed by things other than music.

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