Connoisseurship and Peculiarity

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I recently had the pleasure of judging at the pan-European barbershop convention in Veldhoven, Holland. I noticed some interesting things about performance style that led me to reflect on how traditions develop in relationship to their audiences.

The thing that I particularly noticed was the barbershop delivery style that rushes through all the little words in a phrase and draws out all the phrase-end embellishments. (I’ve also written about this from a somewhat different perspective in my first book.) What struck me was the very coherent, or at least consistent, patterns of distortion this approach applied to the music. It reminded me of those dolls that map the density of nerve endings in the human body by enlarging the areas that are more sensitive. So you get a model with huge hands and tongue, and titchy elbows – a very distorted figure, but one that makes sense in its own way.

I was thinking about the process by which a performing tradition produces this kind of consistent distortion, and I think it’s to do with connoisseurship – i.e. a small, specialist audience – and with competition.

Barbershoppers around the world didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to rush the lyrics and relish the swipes; rather a mild tendency to do this was rewarded by contest judges, and so the audience members from that event all went home and gave a little more speed to their words and a little less to their embellishments. Arrangers, seeing the growing popularity of this delivery style would likely minimise things to hold performers up mid-phrase, but give them lots of candy at the ends of lines.

And because there is such a huge overlap between performers, arrangers, judges and audience members at barbershop conventions, a slight tendency can become self-reinforcing very quickly. The rest of the world, however, looks on slightly bemused. To an outsider, the delivery style can seem mannered or even unmusical, since they are not listening with the filters of that form of connoisseurship.

It’s rather like pedigree dog shows. You get this breeding to maximise the traits rewarded by judges, and connoisseurs get very excited by the exacerbation of those elements the dog-breeding culture values. Ordinary folk looking for a pet, meanwhile, think the prize-winning dogs just look odd.

And it’s not just barbershop of course – it’s probably true of any area where there is a specialist audience that responds to and reinforces specific dimensions of the cultural product. Arguably, 20th-century classical music went through a similar process with the whole thing about attenuation of tonal resolution, emancipation of dissonance and atonality. Composers and their (increasingly specialised) audiences pursued certain musical traits into places that can do great things to your head if you develop an understanding of the culture, but are not particularly accessible to newcomers. David Griggs-Janower likewise suggests that the music of Bach can be an acquired taste - but certainly one worth acquiring.

By contrast, mass markets militate against connoisseurship in this sense. Broad appeal can only be achieved by making the cognitive barriers to entry as low as possible. This is why connoisseurs tend to be rude about popular music – whether that be classical music listeners being rude about rock or progressive rock fans being rude about Britpop. At the same time, there are few specialist musicians who wouldn’t mind having the huge fan base of pop stars.

This is why Freddie Mercury was so special: he was able to reach out to a generalist audience and give them what we can usually only get from specialist listening: that sense of being clever, of getting it. It’s not that he wasn’t peculiar in his way, but he could persuade a lot of people to aspire to just that kind of peculiarity.

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