Musings on ‘Old Barbershop’

Some time in the early part of the millennium, around when I was writing my first book, my then boss asked me what were the new and happening things in the world of barbershop. The question entertained me, as I had been in the midst of documenting the ways in which the genre has been built on an aesthetic of nostalgia. The slogan ‘Keep it Barbershop’ (and the identity label derived from it: KIBBERs), which was still in some currency at that time, was about the resolute resistance to innovation.

It is hard to put your finger on exactly the moment it changed (Michigan Jake? Team OC Times + Aaron Dale? Westminster Chorus?), but the last decade and a half has seen not only a good deal of innovation, but also a cultural shift to a world in which the new is greeted with excitement. The seeds were planted in the early 1990s with changes to the judging system that allowed a greater range of repertoire and arranging techniques, but it has taken nigh on a quarter-century to change people’s felt experience in relation to the defined boundaries. Back in 2005, when I wrote my article on ‘Cool Charts or Barbertrash?’, this was still a very active area of contention.

Genius and Bad Faith

battersbyThe conversations about race and repertoire that I mentioned just after the Sweet Adelines International Convention continue to thrive in both public and private spaces, and continue to present all of us with much food for thought. Today's post is in the genre of 'trying to nurture a vague hunch into full thought-hood'. If you are reading this, then I managed to articulate it enough to have something to publish...

The hunch is this: that the way classify certain cultural artefacts as 'art' or the product of 'genius' serves to protect them from genuine critical scrutiny. We may analyse them and discover cultural values that encode oppressive social relations, but that analysis does not dent the work's reputation or place in its canon. If anything, it just makes it look more important to be subject to all that attention: musicology as clickbait.

On Stage-worthiness

Back in April, when Sandi Wright introduced the Barbershop Harmony Society’s new judging category of Performance to delegates at LABBS Harmony College, she used three key concepts to explain its central values:

  • Risk - vulnerability, courage
  • Skill - absence of distraction
  • Stage-worthy - content that is significant and relateable

Interestingly, whilst there is a good deal of material online explaining the change from the old Presentation category, as of the date of writing, the only documentation of the new category itself that I can locate is a draft dated September 2015. Which only contains mention of the second of these, skill. So my plan to write about how interesting and exciting the adoption of the concept of ‘Stage-worthy’ into the category is rather undermined.

On Race, Repertoire, and Ignorance

Okay, this might be a long one. The subject is huge, even within the specific focus I am going to try to maintain for this post. Better get a cup of tea before we start.

During my schooldays, I learned the word 'pikey' as a colloquial adjective for miserly, niggardly. Its meaning emerged through contextual usage, with a particular emotional flavour. At some point during my teens I saw the word used as a noun, scrawled in graffiti near a gypsy encampment, and thereby learned to my surprise that it was a racial slur.

I don't have such a clear memory of the moment of revelation when I learned that the word 'cotton-picking', heard in cartoons in my childhood, likewise carried huge cultural baggage. But I can clearly remember the days of innocence when it was just sound, a mannerism used as an intensifier to give a certain rhythm and tone to the speech.

On Counterfactual Emotions

I spend quite a lot of time thinking about emotions - not just because I am a musician (though that is the context for a lot of my thinking), but also because I am a human being. Our discourses about emotion often couch it in opposition to thinking, as irrational, as something natural rather than cultural. You see this whether emotion is regarded as a Good Thing or Not To Be Trusted - whether a celebration of expressive authenticity or an unruly intrusion into a well-ordered life, emotion is attributed to the body, not the mind.

And there are, it is true, certain base emotions that appear cross-culturally, and which seem to be instinctual: joy, fear, anger, grief. But to classify our entire emotional lives in that way just seems like an excuse to avoid reflection: ‘Oh it’s just how I feel’ may sound like an assertion of freedom, but it is in some ways as closed-minded as insisting on a stiff-upper lip.

On Sopranos, Stereotyping, Sexism and Strain

I have been mulling over an interesting blog post shared by a friend recently. The writer, Mari Valverde, has some very interesting things to say about the misogyny implicit in cultural stereotypes of the soprano voice and the practical consequences for how composers and arrangers tend to write for it. I think she is really onto something, and she has made me think about the question of voice-part stereotypes (which I explore in various ways in both my books) in some new ways. I also suspect there are some aspects of the question she is tangling up, so I wanted to spend a post teasing out how my own thoughts are developing in the light of her ideas.

So, the following are factors that feed into the phenomenon of exhaustingly high tessituras in soprano parts:

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.

Choosing Relatable Music

It’s not hard to get people to agree that it’s good to perform music that an audience will be able to relate to. It’s not always the highest priority - some people might think first about beauty, or about spiritual depth - but a dialogue about musical values will usually find the common ground between these more abstract qualities and the importance of a meaningful experience that connects performers and listeners.

This does not necessarily make it easy, of course, to reach agreement as to what constitutes ‘relatable’ music.

I had two conversations in quick succession recently that brought this into relief for me. In both cases the issue arose through differences of opinion between a choir director and some of their singers, though in rather different genre contexts. It gradually emerged that people were using the concept of ‘relatable’ music as a code for ‘not that stuff you want to do that I don’t like’.

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