'Prog Barb' in Southport
The big story of the weekend was the presence of International silver medallists, the Musical Island Boys not only as visiting performers, but also as competitors. They had been unable to participate as planned in the Pan-Pacific convention earlier this year, and so the BHS had agreed to let them use the BABS contest as the occasion at which to compete for a qualifying score for the International Convention in Portland in July.
There was something strangely exciting about this. It wasn't merely in hearing performers of this calibre, glorious as that is - after all we do hear top-class quartets on a reasonably regular basis. But it brought home the very different feel a contest performance has from a show.
The buzz was there in audience before the quartet appeared - a nice reminder of how it is not only the performance that creates an atmosphere, but the occasion and shared meanings that frame it. And central to that buzz was the sense that the performance mattered to the quartet; it had clear consequences for them; they had some skin in the game. Not that anyone doubted they would achieve the score they needed, but they still had to go out and achieve it, and were doing so on our home patch.
The performance itself also had an edge, a touch of fire to it that differentiated it from their show performances (and the difference was clearest where we heard the same songs across both contest and show sets). The higher stakes lit the quartet up more brightly.
And their contest material was notably adventurous in a weekend that was otherwise atypically traditional for a BABS contest. We heard a couple of arrangements that were new to the British stage, but nothing like the number of contest premieres the last few years have seen. And we also heard quite a few songs from yesteryear revived (the period of time, not the quartet!) -indeed I enjoyed meeting those old friends more than I would have expected a decade ago when I was hearing them all the time. There are a couple of truly excellent but currently over-sung arrangements I could do with not hearing for a few years so I can be delighted to get reacquainted with them in due course.
But the Musical Island Boys' contest material was not only new to British ears (and indeed I believe it contained at least one actual premiere), but was also firmly committed to that branch of the genre I am starting to refer to as 'Prog Barb': progressive barbershop, abbreviated by analogy with Prog Rock.
'Progressive' in barbershop terms usually denotes nailing your colours firmly to the mast of innovation in a way that tests the boundaries of the style, and carries with it the connotation of a belief that modernisation is the route to keep the style alive and growing. But the comparison with Prog Rock brought into focus to a couple of specifically musical characteristics that arrangers are currently exploring.
First, there's the extended size of arrangements. This has been happening for some time (probably ever since the BHS removed time restrictions on contest sets) and has some interesting expressive results. Longer arrangements don't just take more time to sing, they require a greater sense of architecture from arranger and performer, and a bigger emotional investment from performer and listener. There's a seriousness of purpose involved in mentally grasping large spans of musical time, whatever the expressive flavour of the actual content.
Second, there's the exploration of other musical styles in a manner that Philip Tagg would label 'genre synecdoche' (for those who like a spot of musical semiotics). Now, as I wrote about a few years ago, 'style' in barbershop world has traditionally meant elements you can identify in notation rather than their implications for vocal styling. But the requirements for lock and ring have typically entailed significant constraints on what you can do in terms of vocal delivery - the inflections and colour changes singers use in different styles get erased when songs are brought into barbershop as they would interrupt the continuity of consonance.
The charts the Musical Island Boys sang are emblematic of the way arrangers are finding to maintain the integrity of barbershop's harmonic soundworld while making references to other styles so as to widen the genre's range of cultural reference. The one everyone talked about the most was Aaron Dale's arrangement of 'Who's Lovin' You', where lead line opened with the vocal roulades from the Jackson 5 original before landing in tight four-part harmony. But there were similar (if less immediately ostentatious) types of stylistic mediation also going on in Tom Gentry's handling of Maori and English lyrics in 'Now is the Hour' and Kevin Keller's haunting arrangement of 'Childhood'.
And of course, the Musical Island Boys also present these kinds of negotiations in their show sets, with their cross-breeds of barbershop with traditional Samoan music. I can't help feeling that these explorations offer more interesting and audience-friendly ways of expanding the style's expressive range than simply going through increasing forms of embellishment inflation. I like a post-Wright 'Pimp my Polecat' as much as the next barbershopper, but it's not the only form of entertainment.