Friday, May 27, 2005

It's nice to be surprised

I got in touch with a new choir, after a long battle to find correct contact information, among other things, a short while ago. I have been following the choir for a while, partly because of my research, and partly just because they are an interesting group. Well, last night, I finally got an opportunity to spend time with them. I was thrilled at what I discovered. This in a predominantly white, Afrikaans choir, with an extremely difficult repertoire, and a very high level of discipline. They are lively and enthusiastic, and there were plently of jokes flying about, and a lot of socialising, but when they were working on the music, the focus was tangible. There are two other choirs on this campus, that I am aware of, though I haven't yet made contact with either of the others, but it will be great to see how the atmosphere in rehearsals differs. And perhaps the most exciting thing is that this is the first of the choirs I have spoken to thus far who refers to Afrikaans music as "South African." Even the first choir I began researching, who do more Afrikaans music than the second one, suggested that the Afrikaans music was closer to European than African.

I got a little lost on my way to this rehearsal, and so was much later than I usually like to be. Still, I went in, and introduced myself to the conductor, who introduced me to the choir, and gave me an opportunity to explain my project to them. I was then invited to join in the rehearsal. At first, I sat off to the side, on the extreme right, in the front, where I was relatively inconspicuous, but at the suggestion of the choristers around me, I moved a few places over, so I was, unfortunately, sitting in a rather more conspicuous position. Still, I could hear better, and that should be more important (shouldn't it?). I found the whole experience rather taxing on my nerves, as My sight-singing was tested in action on some of the most difficult music I have ever sung. Talk about concentration! This choir doesn't sit in voice groups, like most of the others with which I am familiar. In stead, everyone is between members of different voice groups, and so not only do you have to be rock-solid on your own music, but you also have to have the most amazing blend. Also, these singers put their hands up when they make mistakes, to acknowledge them so that the director doesn't have to work on them. It makes a lot of sense, but is terribly daunting. I just sang really quietly so that I could avoid exposing myself like that.
This is a very energetic, lively choir, with a lot of good humour and enthusiasm, but absolute spot on focus when they are working on the music. That is always nice to see. The piece they were working on is called "Cloudburst", and is not easy. I look forward to hearing a performance of it.

I'll admit that I was very pleasantly surprised by this encounter. I was expecting a slightly staid, old-fashioned choir, with little of real interest. What I got was a really vibrant, exciting adition to my research. I can't wait to get going properly with the interviews, but those will have to wait till after my exams!

Friday, May 20, 2005

Obedience - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Obedience - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Following up on my previous link on "discipline", I came across this. I am a bit ambiguous in attitude toward ideas of control and discipline, as i feel that some self-discipline is necessary in order to function in a social environment, and that when that self-discipline is not forthcoming, that external control is needed. On the other hand, obedience to external control can lead to blind subservience, and lack of careful thought. I hope the links to the experiments described on this page throw more light on the subject.

Thursday, May 19, 2005


We just had a really interesting research seminar about composition process, and creativity, and the various conversations had me thinking so much about my choir work, that I just had to write something down, before I forget completely. There was a lot of talk about listening to and responding to music, particularly about body, or movement responses, which made me think about teaching my own choir African music. When we first started, there was a lot of resistance to movement, particularly from the men in the choir, many of whom claimed they "can't move my mouth and feet at once." It just occured to me that dancing isn't about just moving feet, but that, for now, is beside the point. Lots of people in the seminar today expressed a desire to respond physically to the music. The composer, on the other hand, commented that she had wanted to "force people to listen", and called herself a "sound fascist." When I got my choir moving, as I expected, the music happened much more easily, their faces livened up, and in some ways, the rhythm took on a life of its own. It actually mutated into a nice swing, which I didn't notice untill we tried to practice with a CD.
another thing that came up today, that I guess was to be expected, was the question "why does the public respond badly to contemporary music?", and an expansion of that, "why does the public respond worse to music they don't like than to art they don't like?" On the latter, I have nothing of value to add, but a general observation for me was that at NYC, our 8 bars of 'African Noise' was disquieting in that it's difficult to respond physically or emotionally to something so unbounded. Without the rhythmic drive with which I am familiar, I could neither count the bars, nor make my body move comfortably. And yet, oddly enough, I tend to move more in response to contour and melody in music than to rhythm. I have a problem trying to understand what it is in music that I like, or dislike, mainly because my favourite music is almost exclusively music I associate with particular times and place, or music that I have sung, and therefore associate with the pleasurable act of singing. I'll admit, though with some trepidation, that I like all of the music we sang at NYC, including the pieces I'm obsessing about. When I found a recording of "Rainmaker" on the internet, I got tears in my eyes, and the base melody of "Mbube", which is running through my mind as I type, makes me smile indulgently. Is music all about metatext? I need to ask one of my choristers tonight what it is about renaissance madrigals that he likes so much, and what about other music he dislikes, or is neutral to.

Just completely on the side, I had a revalation the other day, concerning my writing. We were talking about making academic writing 'accessible,' and of course, the trend of the conversation was towards "dumbing down" the writing. That sort of conversation puts me terribly on edge, though, because it feels so patronizing. I got to thinking about why it is that I make this blog public, and continue to do so, despite the absolute lack of public engagement it receives. The thing is, this blog is about leaving an intellectual trail. I will write about Foucault and Butler (and heaven forbid! Adorno) in my final product, and the impression that a standard piece of literature will attempt to create is that I, as 'authority', understand Foucault and Butler (and heaven forbid!! Adorno). But the thing is, I don't. Or at least, I didn't when I started, and I might not when I write my paper. We have this thing in academia, particularly in social science, about leaving a research trail for whoever is unwise enough to attempt a restudy, or simply to alow the reader to make up their own mind, and yet there is an aversion to leaving a 'think trail', a path through the mine-field of intellectual activity over time that informs our thinking. Well, I want my work to be accessible, and complex, and academically sound all at once. So I'm going to attempt, rather that playing at being an authority, or playing at being a 'general public', to take my inteligent reader, academic, public, or otherwise, along my reading trail. And this blog will be my roadmap.

group effort

group effort Just something to help me with my proposal, the final draft of which is due tomorrow.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Discipline - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Discipline - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
After my rant on discipline in my comment to the description of the choir induction ceremony, I just had to explore this further!

Wits Choir

Wits Choir This website doesn't seem to be funcitoning fully yet, but it's worth bookmarking nonetheless. I sang with them for two and a half years, and my experiences there were the inspiration for this research. They were also the subject of my rather disorganized, but very illuminating, pilot study.
As of 3 September 2008, the Wits Choir official website is here.

A different experience of a very familiar choir

I sang with one of the choirs I have been researching for about two and a half years. It was my experience of singing with them that, to some extent, made me want to conduct this research. It also made me want to conduct choirs, (funny, but I never really noticed that those words correspond. I wonder if I can't use that in my write-up?!) and that, ultimately, is what led to my leaving the choir. I began conducting my own choir only shortly after I left, but I was, and still am, a little heartsore about having left a choir that I cared very deeply about. I was, therefore, a little nervous on Saturday morning about seeing the choir perform for the first time since I left. In fact, in some ways it was, to be the first time I would see them perform at all. I had, of course, watched them as I conducted, but it's such a different type of watching, that it can hardly be compared.
I don't know what I was expecting, but it was with some surprise that I found my palms sweating as I parked my car outside the atrium, in which the performance was to take place. certainly I was a little nervous about seeing my former colleagues again, but surely that wasn't enough to provoke the rather extreme physical reactions I was experiencing. Even now, as I type this up, my reliving of the experience causes a wash of adrenaline that sends little cold shivers through me, and sets my heart pounding.
The choristers' reactions to me as I arrived were entirely welcoming and pleasant, and I was somewhat reassured by that, but I couldn't shake the feeling of impending -- what? -- that rattled me so deeply. The concert, ironically, was called a "welcome day", and like the induction ceremony performed by the recently combined choir a few months back, was about welcoming new members into the choir, signing a register, and showcasing the choir to the choristers' families. These ceremonies are becoming quite popular...
The conductor, wearing a dress I had seen her conduct in many times before, opened the proceedings by introducing the choir, and 'what it stands for' to the audience. A mission statement was read, and then the director went on to give the audience some "big words" she claimed they would need to properly evaluate the performance. I found this process both somewhat amusing, and very informative, and I really wish I had a recording of it. Still, without quoting directly, and ignoring my field-notes, for the time being, what stood out for me most was the conductor's use of the terms "integrity" and "style." She defined integrity as "heart and soul", and suggested that it was the emotional content that gives the music integrity. Not emotional content in the music, but in the performance. "style", on the other hand, was expressed in terms of what other informants have sometimes called "authenticity." Style is, according to this director, what sets an English choir performing African music apart from an African choir performing African music. I will have to look up the song that she used as an example, though it was one that I know well. She said that without "integrity" the "style" would be wrong.
Another thing that I couldn't help notice was her comment that "there aren't many choirs like this in the world." Tajfel and Turner par excellence. She was refering particularly to the multi-racial, and what she called "multi-musical" character of the choir.
The performance itself was very entertaining, partly just because it is a good choir, and I really enjoyed listening to them, but partly because of what I always seem to describe as energy. It's a term I've used more than once on this blog alone, and seem to use almost constantly with my own choir. And in some ways, it's quite acurate. Performing this way does seem to require an enormous output of energy, and it's difficult to do so when not pumped on adrenaline. This choir was always particularly interesting in the way this was attained. The conductor called it "focus", and we all had techniques for achieving it. I had spent some time on the aeroplane to Argentina two years ago listening to a relaxation audio channel, and I revisited that before every performance in Argentina. I also, as always, spent a lot of time praying, as did other choristers. One chap had an elaborate ritual combining prayer and meditation with wild stretching and leaping about, and some people just preferred to sit quietly for a bit. Once or twice, the conductor had us close our eyes, while she recited an elaborate relaxation mantra, or something similar, and the warm-up was always used to help focus, not only the mind, but the voice and body. Inevitably, adrenaline would interfear with the restful atmosphere we were striving for, but somehow it always worked. Perhaps too much relaxation would have taken away from the energy, while too much expenditure of energy would have exhausted us. Ballance really was, or is, key. I don't know what the effect of several minutes sitting in the audience would have been on the choir on this particular occasion, but when they got going with the music, they were good as ever.
It was interesting to note, though, that while the choir's spirits seemed to be high all the way through the performance, they certainly increased toward the end. I suspect that the main reason for this is that the last few songs were the most familiar. I had sung them with the choir when I was there, and they had always been familiar, and something we were confidant about. There were moments, however, during the first part of the performance, where the choir were very obviously uncertain, or lacking in confidance, and once the director stopped them, and then the second time around told the tenors to "fix it" on a song the choir had been singing for years, and one more recent number was repeated from the begining. Thing is, the errors weren't that bad, and I might not really have noticed, at least in the first of the two, had she not pointed it out. In the second, I was aware that the bases were weak, and struggling, but as they seemed weak most of the way through, I didn't take it as such a big deal. The weak bases were something of a surprise to me, as that choir had always had strong bases, and I was amazed to encounter a really top-heavy sound this time. still, I guess choirs like this do change from year to year, and this year is no different. Their strengths and weaknesses when I last saw them have been displaced, and a whole new character has developed.
I was surprised to notice that there was only folk music, in various forms, on the program, especially as I had always thought of their repertoire as very diverse. Thing is, when I think about it, they always did focus on the folk and popular music side. With the exception of the Halleluia chorus, the only western classical music I can remember doing with them, I conducted, and the results were disasterous. Ok, that probably had more to do with my inexperience conducting, but none the less, it's an interesting point to note, particularly when considering how heavily the other choir's repertoires, with the exception of one, are weighted toward Western Classical repertoire.
It's amazing to see how choirs change over time. Or was it just me who changed? Perhaps it was only my perceptions that changed, and the choir is still pretty much the same. It has been interesting nonetheless to compare Saturday to the last induction ceremony I attended. How the characters of the choirs differ....

Thursday, May 05, 2005

African Children's Choir

African Children's Choir There was a story about a group of South African children who had lost one or both parents to AIDS, who were recently accepted into this choir. It's so delightfully affirming and heartwarming to read about this

off topic, but so cool!

I just got an interview for a Fulbright Scholarship. The really tough stuff starts now, but at least I'm this far.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Language in crisis.

This weekend, the Music in the Mountains festival was held at the Drakensberg Boys' Choir school. I wasn't there (this is such a bad time of year for anything other than university coursework) but, less than ten minutes ago, I was given a real treat: the choir school was reported on on the TV news. They have just produced their first all Afrikaans-language CD. My mother's response was "they obviously have a contact on the news team." Her perception was that the news slot had been nothing more than free advertising time. I am interested in what motivated the choir to record an Afrikaans CD in the first place, and why this was considered news-worthy (I certainly consider it so, but I'm biased). But right now, more than that, I am interested in the fact that my mother is unaware of the crisis surrounding Afrikaans. It's not that I consider it something everyone should devote much time to, but her lack of interest in the matter, considering the fact that she grew up speaking both English and Afrikaans, and attended an Afrikaans highschool, suggests to me that part of the reason there is such a crisis is that it is so localized. Afrikaans is in crisis only in the eyes of those who engage it on a daily basis, and that is why they consider it a crisis. Funny, but I don't think the choir ever made an entirely English CD :-)