Musical Identity

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.

Developing Our Lexicon

One segment of our working brain-dumpOne segment of our working brain-dumpToday’s title is a direct quote from the inimitable Mo Field, who as Guest Educator at the LABBS Directors Weekend last summer, invited the assembled chorus directors to consider the kinds of vocabulary and turns of phrase they habitually use with their singers. What kind of values do they encode? What underlying messages do they give about what you care about?

Re-reading Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code earlier this year gave a nice cross-reference to his analysis of successful coaches. Distinctive and pithy catch-phrases that capture central principles of praxis are one of the characteristic behaviours that he documents.

Musicking with the White Rosettes


This may prove to be a tricky post to write. Not for any emotional complications – it tells of an entirely cheerful and purposeful occasion – nor for conceptual conundrums – we all knew what we were doing and we did it well. The problem is the entirely practical one of how do I write an account of a coaching session that was pretty much entirely about specific musical detail without actually talking about the music?

I run into this problem to an extent every time I go to coach an ensemble on a new arrangement that they will want to reveal at some point in the future, but there’s usually some generalisable technical points to distract you with while I’m avoiding naming the song. Is vagueblogging a thing?

And of course it would be unthinkable to go and work with the UK’s most consistently successful barbershop chorus and not blog about it. That would be silly.

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.

To Recreate or Reimagine?

When arranging a popular song for a cappella, like any other type of cover version, you have two basic options for how to approach it. You can aim to recreate the original in the new medium, or you can use the act of transfer to reimagine the music. In the first approach, the primary pleasure for your listeners is recognition: Oh yes, I know this, here are all my favourite bits in a new context! In the second, it is rediscovery: Oh, I’ve never heard it this way before – now I hear it in an entirely new light!

As an arranger, I am often complimented for my work of the first type. People value the sense of being true to something they know and love. But sometimes I’ll choose instead to completely recast a song, either because somebody asks me to (as in my arrangement of I Will Survive), or to solve some essential problem that the song presents.

A Brand New Endeavour

Warm-up action picWarm-up action pic

I spent Sunday working with Endeavour, a brand new mixed barbershop chorus. They have been in the planning for some time, but actually sang together for the first time on Saturday, so I had the honour being their first ever visiting coach. Their singers are drawn from barbershop groups in Ireland, the UK and Germany, so their rehearsals take the form of intensive weekends in locations handy for airports.

It is an auditioned chorus, and many of the singers know each other from participating in the various Harmony Brigades. Hence, it is populated with people with considerable experience and skill as singers, and who are accustomed to learning music independently. Their challenge is melding these vocal and musical resources into a coherent ensemble within a short timescale so as to make the most of the artistic potential available.

More on the Icicle 7th

Chinese 7thOr at least, on the name that chord has gone by hitherto. My previous blog post on this got quite a bit of discussion going amongst barbershop arrangers. Not over the new name – most people were as happy to recognise Karri’s suggestion as very fit for purpose as I was – but about the necessity to replace the old one.

There were two types of responses overall. There were the ‘thank goodness, this has been bugging me too,’ type – which I’m not going to dwell on except to acknowledge their existence, as I’ve already written quite a lot to meet those needs. And there were the, ‘this has never struck me as racist so I don’t see the need to change’ ones. These ones need a more detailed response.

On the Belief-Capacity Relationship and Choral Stereotypes: A Case Study

Some recent email correspondence about an arrangement of mine turned into a fascinating practical case study in a couple of areas I enjoy theorising about. Normally in this situation I’d make a point of anonymising my correspondent, but since he or she didn’t actually sign any of their emails, it’s kind of a moot point. (This isn’t actually relevant to the story; I just wanted to share the oddness with you!)

Anyway, whoever wrote to me is a chorus director whose chorus had recently purchased copies of my arrangement of Happy Together without consulting him/her, and he/she was dismayed to discover it features a good deal of bass melody. The leads in his/her chorus apparently cannot do harmonies, despite many years of trying, so would I give him permission to re-arrange it with the leads on the tune.

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