Wednesday, April 10, 2013

It's just another term for awkward

Rowan Atkinson had a sketch where he played the devil welcoming a new batch of recently deceased to the friendly confines of hell. First, he explains, he has to split them up into groups. He begins by asking for "thieves, murders...and bank managers."

I imagine quite a few college freshmen would like to add theory professors to that list. I've done some teaching of that august subject myself and have felt the love of a couple dozen sleepy frosh at 8 in the morning. Nothing like it.

Part of that equation is that most people who are forced to study it don't really see the point of having the subject in the first place. It's just a bunch of silly rules we all have to follow for no reason, right? I mean, real composers wouldn't let things like avoiding parallel fifths and hidden fifths and cross relations improperly resolved sevenths cramp their style. Besides, Bach broke the rules all the time, we've all heard somewhere (He did, once in a while. But's that's for another time.).

And so, very occasionally on this blog, I like to point out how some of these arcane rules actually do matter in real life. And, as a practicing musician, you never really know where bad part writing is going to strike. Here's an example from yesterday:



I was rehearsing with a children's chorus. They are singing selections from Les Miserables. The measures above caused a bit of a problem. Here's why: it's a little thing called crossed voices. Now, technically, someone would love to point out, the music above isn't strict four-part writing, so all of these theory no-nos don't apply. I would beg to differ. The reason why is we spent five minutes trying to get the altos to sing the correct note, and that doesn't happen very often.

There are two things to note here. One is that the top line above in the first two beats of the first full measure outlines an Ab major harmony. The bottom voice, however, outlines an f minor harmony in the same place. Since it's Wednesday I'm writing for other musicians, who I imagine can read music. But if you can't, this is the takeaway: the top and bottom parts are outlining different harmonies, even though they are going at the same time. It reminds me of a lot of freshmen compositions I've seen. It usually sounds weird, among other things. And it's actually hard to sing because your ears are thrown off course by the conflicting harmonic information being sung by the other part.

The other reason it's hard to sing is that the third note of that full measure on the bottom line jumps up to an F, which is above the note the top voice was just singing, which was an Eb. The bottom voices want to naturally sing the Eb the top voices just left, but the arranger wants them to cross over that spot and jump above the upper voice to find their next note. It's called crossed voices, and you would get it marked in red in theory class.

Ok, fine. But is it really that bad? I mean, it goes by in a hurry. And it's just a two-part texture. And it's from the 21st century, not the time of Bach. On the other hand, the prohibition against murder goes back a lot farther and we still think that's a good idea. Still, music has evolved a bit, and doesn't a composer have the right to the occasional crossed voice if he wants to?

Really I don't want to give the arranger a hard time over what is a relatively small indiscretion. But it did take five minutes out of our days. And, dirty rotten truth be known, I work with several choirs, and, sometimes the reason people struggle with their parts is because they are just a challenge. But I'd say a pretty decent percentage of the time its because the composer is doing something awkward for no particularly good reason. If your choral music says it was written by Bach or Faure or somebody like that it's probably you that need to come to terms with the music. But if it was arranged by somebody who writes for middle school choirs, there's a strong possibility that the part writing is actually behind some of the "challenges" that you are facing.

That's because theory teachers don't just get together and make rules to harass composers. A lot of these little infractions are what they are because they make things awkward and unnecessarily hard on the ear and on the performer trying to execute them. They were "invented" by people who happened to notice that what happened when you did some of these things was to cause just a bit of musical havoc.

Which is what happened when just the latest in a long series of little rule-bending excursions came across my rehearsal experience. I wouldn't fail the guy just for one little oddity. It even sounds kind of cool in a way. On the other hand, one note, five minutes.

Sometimes getting it right is a lot harder than getting it wrong. And doing what comes naturally and easily isn't always the best way. On the other hand, awkward is awkward.

Boil away a lot of technical terms, rules, and annoying little red marks on your theory homework, and that's what it often comes down to. Doing it well can actually be a time saver, too, in the long run.

Because as a performer, I can tell you, this stuff actually matters.

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