April 2009

Musings on Authenticity

Well, we don’t call it authentic performance any more; now it’s merely historically-informed. But still, classical music still works under a strong ethic to perform music in a way consistent with its original conception. We use concepts such as style and composer’s intentions as means to constrain the expressive and interpretative possibilities a piece can yield.

Paul Davies on the Arrangement Process

Yesterday saw just over 30 barbershop arrangers gathered together in Birmingham to exchange ideas and learn from each other. The day was designed for those who were beyond the beginner stage, but not yet entirely confident or established – and thus to provide a community for people who may be working with some sense of isolation. There were delegates from all three British barbershop organisations, plus one from Holland Harmony, and we were joined by about half of my Conservatoire class who are studying close-harmony arranging this semester.

Our keynote presentation came from Paul Davies, the UK’s most successful barbershop arranger. Paul took the chorus he founded, Cambridge Chord Company, to several gold medals in British and European contests, and picked up the Pavarotti Choir of the World trophy at Llangollen with a medley of parodies that mocked the Welsh (he’s brave as well as talented). CCC have also been more successful in International barbershop contests than any other British chorus by some considerable margin. They’ve done all this on Paul’s arrangements, so he is clearly someone worth inviting along to share his insights.

Am I Arranging in Tune?

question markOkay, so it’s ultimately in the hands of singers whether they produce in-tune performances, but arrangers can have more of an influence on how well they achieve this than you might think. Here are three factors that can affect how well singers tune:

Perfection vs Growth

One of the dilemmas that both performers and music educators face is how to manage the balance between practice/rehearsal that facilitates artistic or technical growth and practice/rehearsal that makes a performance more suitable for public consumption. They are both essential for the development of the musician, but they are actively in conflict – you can’t do both at the same time.

Arranging Music History

What is the fascination with producing medleys or theme & variations pieces that trace a tune through a series of historical styles? I’ve seen a couple of barbershop quartets do this, construing ‘music history’ as either popular song styles since the emergence of barbershop in the late 19th century or as the standard grand narrative of classical music periods. Ward Swingle also did a chart called ‘Music History 101’ that starts with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, then launches into a series of pastiches. (Never mind that this tune actually post-dates the first style he arranges it as….) It’s also something that I’ve seen Conservatoire students propose for musicianship projects.

Some of these medleys are done very well (Michigan Jake could be pretty impressive singing anything, in my view, and they always worked with great arrangers), while others are less successful (some of the student projects I’ve witnessed haven’t lived up to their aspirations, alas). But I always find them a bit odd, and I’m trying to work out why.

On Rehearsal Vocabulary

‘Don’t think of pink elephants,’ is the phrase Bill Rashleigh uses to get directors to think about the vocabulary they choose. Obviously, everybody immediately does think about pink elephants. A similar thing is likely to happen, he suggests, when a director says, ‘don’t sing flat’. ‘Hmm, flat’, goes everyone’s brains, and the pitch follows the thought obediently downwards.

So, the initial message is that we should couch our requests in positive rather than negative terms. Say what the music needs, rather than what’s wrong with it. This is good advice from Bill, and I’ve found that learning to follow it has had a number of useful effects beyond the simple one of avoiding evoking counter-productive thoughts in rehearsal:

The Law of Benign Unintended Consequences

Every change we make has unintended consequences, we all know that. But you can tell a good idea by the way that the unintended consequences are benign and/or beneficial.

Two examples, one from my work at Birmingham Conservatoire, the other from Magenta:

Jiggering With Other People's Arrangements

Imagine you are a pianist preparing a performance of Beethoven’s Op. 2 no. 3 sonata in C major. You find the parallel triads in the right hand at the start of the finale a bit tricky, so you decide to omit the lower notes and just play a scale. On the other hand, you decide that the II7 chord in bar 4 is a bit bland, and change it to a 3rd inversion flatVI7 instead. When you get to the end, you think that the last two chords, V7-I don’t really make the point about how exciting this movement has been, so you add another V7-I after them, taking the right hand back up into the higher registers of the instrument.

With these changes, you feel that the piece suits your performing style and personality much better. But what does the audience think?

Extremely Random Thoughts

mark williamstreblemakers

This my third post about the recent a cappella extravaganza I attended in Hounslow, and since I’ve used up all my well-developed conclusions from the event, but still have a note-book full of things I found interesting, this one is taking the form of a miscellany. I may come back to think about some of these in more depth when I’ve lived with them for a while.

Sing A Cappella – Further Observations

Vox Concordia with Wendy NieperVox Concordia with Wendy NieperSwindon Scratch ChoirSwindon Scratch Choir

I talked in a recent post about the range and variety of groups participating in last week’s Sing A Cappella day in Hounslow. This variety made it possible to see some interesting relationships between, on one hand, people’s working practices and their relationship with musical content, and on the other people’s musical background and their habits of phrasing and articulation.

Gender and Gesture

The posture of the conductor will set the example for the choir. Usually stay erect, with the body expanded. Women directors should stand with their feet only as far apart as is necessary to maintain good balance.

Paul Roe, Choral Music Education

ChoralReef has a fascinating post about gender and conducting, ranging from generic questions of gestural clarity, to different types of leadership style, to the question of ‘girly gestures’. Here it homes right in on the key issue that women face when they become conductors: if we do it the same as guys do, then we’re branded as inappropriately unfeminine, if we do it differently, we’re girly and not to be taken seriously. One of the commenters on the post replies with the opinion that female conductors should ‘leave their gender at the door’. This is just such one of those ‘well, yes, but….’ type suggestions that I wanted to spend a bit of time contemplating it.

Connecting in the Capital

Capital ConnectionWell, I’ve not finished thinking about the Sing A Cappella day, but further thoughts on that have been interrupted by another foray down the M40 to London, this time to work with my friends in Capital Connection on the songs they’re taking to Llangollen International Eisteddfod this summer.

One of the songs they’re taking is a Nancy Bergman arrangement of the Glenn Miller tune ‘At Last’. It was one of those ones that, the more we worked on it, the more nice little arranging details we noticed. I always enjoy those discoveries – makes you feel like you’re in on a special secret when you find something that was there all along, but takes on a new meaning when realise how artistic it is.

Sing A Cappella!

Jonathan Rathbone working his arrangement in the plenary sessionJonathan Rathbone working his arrangement in the plenary sessionSunday 29th March saw hordes of a cappella singers congregating in Hounslow for a day that was billed as the inaugural event of a new British Contemporary A Cappella Society. Eight different groups participated in a day that involved coaching from ex-Swingle singers Jonathan Rathbone, Joanna Forbes, Wendy Nieper and Mark Williams, framed by plenary warm-up sessions, performances and workshopping one of Jonathan’s arrangements. I went along to observe and network (and being there without an ensemble earned me privilege of a badge that labelled me as ‘Individual Liz’ – something I shall treasure for all time), and came away with a notebook full of thoughts that will feed this blog for some posts to come.

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