February 2009

Do Songs Have Gender?

The acappella blog has a regular feature of Dos & Don’ts which offers simple practical advice to performing groups. Occasionally, though, what looks on the surface like straightforward common sense turns out to have an interesting underside that is anything but straightforward. Mike Scalise's post on choosing gender-appropriate material for your group has had me thinking about it for the last two weeks.

At a practical level, the advice to choose music that fits the gender of your group is of course sensible. But two things interest me: the list of successful exceptions presented to nuance the argument, and the question of how we assign gender to songs in the first place.

Radio moment

Well, had I remembered I was going to be on the radio this morning, I'd have said something about it earlier. As it happens, I completely forgot until I got an email from a listener halfway through the programme!

But with the wonders of technology, we all get a chance to catch up on what we missed using the BBC's Listen Again function: Click here to hear the programme.

The programme is called 'Hairspray and Harmonies', and it follows the Birmingham ladies barbershop chorus to convention last year. My role is as talking head to give some context and background. There's a second instalment next Friday at 11:00.

The Real and Ideal in Close-Harmony Arranging

F.W.J. Schelling (1775-1854)F.W.J. Schelling (1775-1854)When I was doing my PhD I came across the ideas Schelling developed in his early-19th-century philosophy of art. At the time I found them interesting for the purposes of the obsessions I had at the time (to do with gender and discourse and suchlike), but largely dismissed the ideas as waffly romantic claptrap typical of their day.

Like good ideas tend to do, though, they stuck around in my head over the years that followed until one day I suddenly realised how relevant they were to something I was currently obsessed with.

Soap Box: Noisy Breathing

Okay, so I’m sure nobody ever chooses to breathe noisily on purpose, but it’s still irritating when you hear an otherwise reasonably enjoyable performance preceded and punctuated by the sounds like Davros from Dr Who.

There are multiple reasons why it is irritating.

How do we conceptualise the rehearsal process?

question mark

‘Rehearsing a choir is like pushing a man up a greasy pole.’
John Bertalot

If you listen to how people talk about rehearsing, you’ll notice that there are a number of common metaphors that lurk behind what they say. Sometimes they are stated explicitly, but more often it’s just that the language people use comes from a particular domain. It’s useful to stop and analyse this language every so often, since the kinds of underlying metaphors we use to think about rehearsing affects how we go about it. Different ways of conceptualising the process bring different opportunities and limitations. Here are a few examples – I’d be interested to hear about others that you have spotted or use yourself.

Double Interpretation

The word interpretation has a double usage in music. It refers both to meaning – how a musician understands a piece – and to action – the concrete performance decisions they make.

Of course, these two senses of the word keep collapsing into one another. Listeners only have access to the musician’s concept through the concrete sounds they produce, and the musicians themselves likewise develop their internal representation of a piece through the act learning to produce it physically. The abstract quality of meaning has no real means to exist independently of its realisation.

Arranging non-barbershop music for barbershoppers

marmaladeBarbershop arranging benefits from a very clear-cut sense of method. There are well-defined procedures you go through that, operated with a modicum of intelligence and musicianship, will result in competent arrangements.

However, they only really work well on the kind of songs that barbershoppers traditionally sing: those with well-defined melodies and varied, functional harmonies – songs whose original form was written down. Songs whose original form was in recorded form – i.e. most pop music since the 1960s - don’t respond nearly so well to the barbershop method. But barbershoppers still want to sing them, so we have to figure out ways to make this work for them.

There are two sides to this: first, how to arrange in a way that works for the song, and second, making sure this still fits the expectations and performance habits of the singers.

Some of the issues we encounter include:

Performance-planning the musical way

There’s a lot of advice out and around about how to make interpretive decisions based on the idea of coming up with a plan. This is clearly a useful method for a lot of ensembles, as it gives them tools to perform with some unity of purpose and a common rationale.

However, I’m struck by how verbal the planning process often seems to be. It could just be that the verbal – written and oral - media for communicating these ideas encourages people to focus on this dimension. But it seems to result in interpretive decisions based primarily in the lyrics of a song: you analyse the lyrics to infer the story behind the song, then use the understanding of this story to drive decisions about delivery.

Now, I’m not trying to pretend that narrative and character aren’t important, as anyone who has seen me coach will know. But I think it is worth experimenting with turning this method inside out, for three reasons:

Hidden messages and performance decisions

dynamicsOne of the students on my Vocal Close Harmony course this semester, Amy, made the observation that you don’t see a lot of performance instructions such as dynamic markings on close-harmony arrangements. It takes somebody new to a style to point out things that you had forgotten were note-worthy - and in doing so, Amy made me think afresh about the hidden expressive codes that note-smiths (whether composers or arrangers) and performers share.

Musical Taste

There is something intractably fascinating about musical taste. At one level it’s just a personal thing – the musical equivalent of not being fond of celery – but somehow it also seems more important to us than that.

For instance, Chris Rowbury wrote back in June 2008 about how he doesn’t like a cappella (by which he meant the panoply of a cappella popular styles, rather than unaccompanied singing in general). And the late Steve Hall once told me that he liked pretty much all styles of singing except opera. Now, I happen to like both a cappella and opera, but I’m not going to get distracted into talking about why these particular musics are worth listening to – and indeed participating in – as these conversations usually get diverted into.

Instead, I want to think about how people experience these musical dislikes, and what they mean to them.

How to Spell Chords

Having inveighed at length about people spelling notes wrong in my last post, it seemed helpful to say a few words to help people get it right. This post is particularly for Matthew, who stayed after class on Monday quizzing me about spelling, but I figured if he wanted to know about it, other people might too.

The Spelling of Notes & Synaesthesia

When I was a student, we had an old piano in our student house. One day I was playing through a rather chromatic Elgar part song, and discovered with some annoyance that the B flat below middle C had stopped sounding. Later in the piece I was briefly even more annoyed to discover that the A sharp in that register was also out of action. Then I remembered that actually they’re the same key on the piano.

Singers and string players are used to the idea that enharmonic ‘equivalents’ aren’t necessarily the same notes, but players of keyed instruments don’t always grasp this in the same way. I have been somewhat bemused to find myself – a first-study pianist – as pedantic as I am over chromatic spellings, but I really do experience B flats as having different meanings from A sharps, even on the piano.

It wasn’t until I did an interview about synaesthesia for Radio 4 back in May 2008 that I really grasped what’s going on here.

Arranging to Make Singers Happy

singing group cartoonOver on Smartermusic, Dan Newman makes a passing comment in his quick ‘n’ dirty guide to a cappella arranging that I think deserves a little more attention than its brief mention there:

Entertained singers sing better

This is something that all arrangers should have engraved on their partner’s foreheads, so that they contemplate it whenever they are gazing at the person they love most in the world. It lies at the heart of my point here that elegant arrangements make groups sound better than they usually do.

But how can arrangers make singers happy? There are, I think, three dimensions to this:

Glorious Noteorious

noteoriousI spent a goodly chunk of yesterday with current LABBS Quartet champions, Noteorious, for a coaching session on two unremittingly cheerful songs: ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ and ‘Get Happy’. They’re great to work with, because they enter into the imaginative world of what we’re working on so readily. Even if they look like they think I’ve suggested something utterly nonsensical, they jump straight in with both feet and make it work.

Reflecting on our session afterwards, I noticed two interesting things about the process of coaching:

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