A Cappella

A Snapshot of Barbershop’s Culture Change, Part 1: Song Subject

A representative sample from a large collection...A representative sample from a large collection...Back when I had first secured the contract to write my book on barbershop, the then Principal of Birmingham Conservatoire asked me in conversation, ‘So, what’s new in barbershop world?’ The question made me laugh, because the culture I was documenting was resolutely focused on celebrating the past, and really didn’t have very much interest in the new at all.

Of course, by that point – the early years of this millemium – the culture was already changing, but it was far from clear that how much of a shift would eventually take place. To be fair, we still don’t know that, but I had an experience recently that brought home how far barbershop has actually shifted since I first encountered it 25 years ago.

BABS QuartetCon 2021 – Further Random Thoughts

Having thought I’d corralled my main responses to our first weekend of live barbershop contest in two years in my previous two posts, I find a collection of miscellaneous thoughts popping intermittently into my head. (And where else would you expect thoughts, miscellaneous or otherwise, to pop, you ask.)

  • Key choice for Mixed Quartets. Back in 2012, my reflections on the UK’s first mixed quartet contest included observations about how the genre requires people to be flexible and creative in how they adapt to different voice parts and the ranges they might lie in when turning a genre that developed in and for voices working within largely the same range into one that encompasses a much wider set of vocal ranges.

    I find myself somewhat surprised, nine years on, how relatively few quartets really seem to have nailed how to pitch their songs so that the parts lie in the parts of their respective singers’ voices where they sound the best. You particularly notice it with the lead part – as curator of the melody, the heart of the song, you really want the tune to sit where the expressive ranges in their voice map coherently onto the expressive shape of the song. Quartets that didn’t compromise on this gave themselves such a head start in terms of communicative impact.

BABS QuartetCon 2021 – The Musical Experience

Kiera Smith's photo captures a focal moment of a barbershop contestKiera Smith's photo captures a focal moment of a barbershop contest

Having discussed in my last post the experience of going to a largely normal barbershop contest in the Covid era, it is time actually to talk about the musical experience – which is, as I understand it, the point of going to these things!

My headline impression from the weekend’s listening was that, vocally, the British barbershop community is sounding in pretty good shape all things considered. Of course, this impression is strongly shaped by the classic logical error of survivorship bias - by definition only those people who feel their voices are reasonable shape are likely to put themselves forward to perform on the contest stage. Indeed, a couple of competitors withdrew after the programmes were printed; we don’t know how many others self-selected out at earlier stages.

BABS QuartetCon 2021

Guest quartet MidtownGuest quartet Midtown

The weekend saw the UK’s first live national barbershop contest since the start of Covid, with and event that included the British Association of Barbershop Singers’ Preliminary quartet contest to qualify their 2022 Convention, the Barbershop in Harmony Mixed Quartet Contest, and an evening show. This wasn’t the first live barbershop event event – LABBS held a number of regional gatherings the previous weekend as a halfway-house back to a national Convention – but it was the nearest to normality we’d seen this side of the pandemic.

I’ll have various musical reflections to make in due course – I went along as much as anything to get a snapshot ‘state of the nation’ impression of how everyone is getting on these days – but for today the main things I’m thinking about involve the experience of doing something normal again after all we’ve been through.

Back in Person with Surrey Harmony

How long since I've been able to post a warming-up pic?!?How long since I've been able to post a warming-up pic?!?

Well, that was a treat! Wednesday saw my first live coaching visit since last Spring. It was Surrey Harmony, down in Coulsdon, whom I’d not worked with for 6 years or so. They had two new songs just off the copy, one of which I had arranged for them, and were ready to get their teeth into bringing the music to life.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how refreshing it is for an ensemble to have a different consciousness in the room, hearing new things, imagining different possibilities from the ones they are used to. It is equally refreshing for the coach to hear different voices, to diagnose different strengths and needs; these encounters stimulate the creativity in ways that your regular rehearsal can’t. The familiarity of a long-term working relationship brings the opportunity to build, but by definition doesn’t force you to listen and think afresh in the same way as you have to when faced with the unfamiliar.

On Painting with a Limited Palate

Culinary metaphors appear frequently in both my coaching and my writing about music. It’s a relatable sphere of experience – everyone has experience of eating – and I enjoy cooking as a creative endeavour in its own right.

A recent bout of covid has got me thinking about cooking as a compositional metaphor in a new way. A week after my symptoms first started that my sense of smell went on the wonk. It didn’t stop me cooking – we still needed to eat, after all, and when you’re stuck at home self-isolating, cooking is a good way to pass the time, as everyone discovered last year in lockdown.

But creating and consuming meals without the olfactory dimension is a very different experience from usual. For one thing, it made me notice anew how much I navigate my way round the kitchen by smell: judging spicing levels, gauging doneness. Now I have to work by theory rather than by feel: how much ginger would you expect a recipe to specify for this quantity?; how long should this take to cook?

Will it Shop?

My title is the name of an education session to be presented by the Nordic barbershop organisations in a week or two’s time, pre-recorded at the weekend. For those outside the barbershop bubble, this rather cryptic-looking question is shorthand for: ‘does this song lend itself readily to being arranged in a way that will meet the style criteria for barbershop contest?’ The fact that this quite specialised and complex question can be reduced down to three syllables tells you that it is a subject that often comes up in barbershop conversations.

I’m not going to tell you much detail about the content of the session, because you can go and sign up and get that directly, but I wanted to mull a bit about a few observations I made en route.

On the Aesthetics of Perfection/Imperfection

We strive to perfect our musical performances, yet the idea that something can be too perfect remains a perennial counter-narrative in musical aesthetics. As far back as the early 19th century, ETA Hoffmann and Carl Maria von Weber celebrated musical imperfections as signifiers of honesty and authenticity, in contrast to the artifice of high skill.

Roland Barthes’ famous essay ‘The Grain of the Voice’ similarly saw the polish of a classically-trained tone as smoothing away the individuality of the singer, in contrast to the vocal texture of vernacular styles, which he heard as vehicle for the singers’ physicality and life history.

Even more recently, Deke Sharon applied this criticism to barbershop in his keynote address at Harmony University in 2018. By prioritising continuity of ring over all other communicative elements, he suggested, the genre creates a shiny sonic carapace that can serve to keep outsiders at a distance, even while it affirms those in the know.

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