Soapbox

Diversity, Revisionism and the Pitfalls of Ambition: A Barbershop Case Study

Music history, like any history, isn’t a neutral portrayal of the past, but the result of a value-laden selection process. Somebody decides what counts as salient historical fact worthy to be included in the narrative.

Revisionist history comes about when someone notices that the choices underlying the narratives we have inherited about our pasts no longer chime well with the values with which we aspire to live our presents. They then go and dig out information about people and events that had hitherto been omitted, and they re-interpret those already included, sometimes finding quite different meanings in them.

Soapbox: Beyoncé Deserves an Apology

soapboxI wrote this post back in January, and put it on the 'post when there's nothing much else going on' list. But now seemed the appropriate moment to post it, in the week after Adele responded to winning a Grammy by saying that it should have gone to Beyoncé.

When I’m in my feminist musicology mode, I generally try to stay analytical rather than polemical, but sometimes I get cross. A headline towards the end of 2016 had this effect on me. I left it to brew for a while to see if it was just a passing irritation, but it turns out that it keeps calling me back to call out its casual sexism and racism.

The headline introduced a cute non-story about the quirks of CD charts, in which it was reported that the new box-set of Mozart’s complete works was the best-selling CD of 2016. I call this a non-story because the chart counts the number of physical discs sold, so a set that includes 225 of them doesn’t really have to sell very many units to clock up an impressive number. And of course the sale of physical discs is becoming something of a minority form of music distribution these days.

But it’s fun to note, and pleasing to see that such a mammoth undertaking as a complete-works set is doing well. Nothing to be cross about there.

The thing that aroused my ire, though, was the way the story was introduced*:

Soapbox: On Background Music

soapboxThis is quite a specific rant. It’s not the general principle of piping music into shared public spaces that I am going to inveigh against, though I know of many professional musicians who do get a bit grumpy about it. I have seen a well-respected choral conductor in a provincial hotel ask for a full English, brown toast, and for the radio to be turned off.

I am not unsympathetic to the view that treating music as aural wallpaper cheapens the art form and desensitizes our ears to music played with intention. But, you know me, I try to be quite live-and-let-live, and I note that a lot of people seem to like it. Sometimes I even like it myself, as a change from the music in my head, which I can’t seem to get anyone to turn off. Unless it’s Jingle Bell Rock, of course, then I want to stab somebody.

Soapbox: On Bad Faith

soapboxI have been thinking about Joanna Russ’s classic of literary criticism How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983) a fair bit recently, mostly in response to a clickbaity piece in The Spectator back in September that claimed that the reason that the work of female composers is not featured more extensively in educational syllabuses is because the various examples the author could think of are all crap. I paraphrase here, of course, but not by much. I’m not going to link to the article, because frankly I don’t want it to get any more traffic than it has already got, but I will point you to a nice response to it, and to my letter to The Spectator. Between them you should get the picture.

(I did dither about whether to write a response to them at all; part of me felt it was in the category of ‘don’t feed the trolls’. But I also figured that if nobody called bullshit on it, then future historical musicologists might conclude that such views went unchallenged in 2015. And if it needed doing, I was as good a person as any to do it.)

Soapbox: ‘Creativity’ is Not an Excuse for Unprofessionalism

I’ve been wondering for a while if I’m going to have a rant about this, and it seems the thought won’t go away so here goes. The following graphic has been doing the rounds on social media and it has been irritating me quite disproportionately for what is intended to be a friendly and empathy-inducing little picture.
creativity
To start with, let’s acknowledge the psychological truths that it does capture with some success. The red phase says something valid about how resistance to a task is proportionate to its demands on your brain’s background-processing functions. The things that are the hardest to start are the ones that, once embarked upon, will invade your dreams. And the flurry of work up to the deadline reminds us about the end-effect, and the way it so helpfully refreshes attention as we head into the finish line.

Soapbox: How Can You Tell a Good Director?

soapboxEvery so often, you hear someone articulate the idea that ‘So-and-so is a very good director, but their choir isn’t very good’. And when I hear this, my brain goes into melt-down at the sheer invalidity of this concept. The only measure of a conductor’s quality is the standard of performances they elicit from the musicians they work with. If your ensemble isn’t very good, it’s because the director isn’t very good.

Okay, so there are some caveats here. I anticipate your objections.

The raw material makes a difference. A director who is working with novices will not, from a standing start, produce results as good as one working with experienced musicians. This is particularly true of instrumental groups, but also a fair generalisation for singers. You’d expect auditioned choirs to achieve more than non-auditioned, as they have filtered out all the people who lack whichever set of skills you test for at audition.

Soapbox: The Anti-Educational Ideology of ‘Talent’

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I have written several times over the years about how ‘talent’ is a socially constructed narrative, and about the obsessive, dedicated work that goes into creating the skills that get labelled as ‘talent’. What I have been hitherto somewhat muted about is the damage that the mythology of talent does to our culture, and to individuals within it. This has come into focus for me in recent months as I have been writing about the phenomenon of the ‘non-singer’ as part of a book chapter for Oxford University Press.

The ‘non-singer’ is the inevitable by-product of our cultural construction of talent. We approach talent with a kind of magical thinking that sees the capacity for music (or indeed for all kinds of other specialist activities) as somehow both genetic and supernaturally bestowed upon particular, ‘gifted’ people, who are thereby set apart from normal mortals.

Soapbox: Stop Messing with Pitch

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I once knew a singer who had spent some years working as an organ builder and harpsichord finisher. He had a pretty reliable sense of pitch - as in the kind of pitch memory that often gets labelled as 'perfect pitch', but appears in many musicians in a somewhat imperfect form. That is, perfect enough for practical purposes - if you wanted to sing something in the right key but had no fixed-pitch instrument to hand, he'd usually be able to set you right.

But if he'd been doing a lot of tuning of keyboards recently, he lost the knack. He reported that constantly tweaking up and down confused his internal gauge for pitch and he had to revert to external prompts again until it settled down.

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