BABS Convention 2019

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Mixed chorus champions: A Kind of MagicMixed chorus champions: A Kind of Magic

The last weekend in May is the traditional spot in the calendar for the British Association of Barbershop Singers to hold their national Convention. This year we were back in Bournemouth, the town in which I started my barbershop journey 23 years ago.

The headline change was that this is the first year that the mixed chorus contest has been fully under the BABS umbrella. Indeed, from the way the contest was introduced you’d think that BABS had invented the genre: they claimed that of the 10 entrants, half were newly formed to enter, and half were collaborations between existing clubs. (It reminded me of the way that when the Barbershop Harmony Society announced their new inclusive strategic vision they made it sound like they’d just invented women.)

For the record, I’d just like to point out that Bristol A Cappella was well established before this contest ever existed. The university societies have likewise been pioneering the model of a single club supporting a flexible combination male, female and mixed groups for many years too.

As the format is becoming more established, you can hear people working through the various artistic and technical challenges that mixed-voice close-harmony presents. In particular, this year I heard many more groups pitching their songs in keys that were comfortable for female voices. There were still some sticking down in or near the men’s key, and the comparison made the vocal strain this choice entails all the more apparent. Those who pitched up were also rewarded with an increased clarity and brightness of sound: this comes both from the absolute quality of higher frequencies and the relative qualities of where the music was sitting in people’s voices.

The statistical universe is too small to draw any hard conclusions about this, but I also noticed an intriguing correlation between those who had chosen female-friendly keys to sing in and those who had thought about the pronouns their songs used. It did give the impression that some groups are genuinely inclusive, while others were just adding women to a male-as-norm culture.

The mixed chorus contest is now properly integrated into the weekend’s programme (compared to the first couple of years), and this not only brings in a much better audience, but makes it easier to for that audience to listen to. It no longer feels like somebody is trying to make you eat a second main course after you’ve already filled up on pudding; it makes sense as part of the arc of the weekend’s musical experience.

I’ve borrowed this food metaphor from writer Stuart Neilson, who talks about ‘social calories’ as a way to describe the experience of managing social overload. Barbershoppers are all fully aware of the experience of being ‘barbershopped out’ by the end of a convention weekend, and Jonathan and I found ourselves talking about how we were having to manage our intake of musical calories so as to ensure westill had room for the Quartet Final on Sunday afternoon. This has always been the case to an extent (we usually only go to one of the evening shows to give ourselves time to digest the music we’ve heard during the day), but we felt it even more so with the longer mixed chorus contest, plus all the extra performances in the quartet contests from past champions aspiring to compete at International.

We managed ourselves well, however, and didn’t get to that point where things that you know to be beautiful are just becoming annoying because you’re too full. Which would have been a great pity, as the quartet final was truly splendid. Just had to stop typing there for a few minutes to feel happy about the performances we listened to. I’ll be taking musical nourishment from that experience for some time yet I feel.

I did notice, however, that it was harder to listen to songs that had multiple tags than it had been on Friday. You know what I mean: a song signals that it is coming to an end, and then it doesn’t quite come to a close but points you a few bars down the road, and then when you get to that corner it’s still a few yards yet. You can understand why people like to perform this kind of ending – there was an abundance of harmonic and vocal beauty on offer, and you could feel their joy in luxuriating in it.

But at that point in the weekend’s arc, it felt like it demanded more cognitive resource to stay the course on these last laps round the block than we necessarily had left. On the micro scale, it was like it used to feel trying to listen to an extra contest added on the end of the weekend. It’s beautiful, but I was ready to stop. It’s like when someone giving a talk says, ‘and to conclude…’ then goes on for an extra 20 minutes. You’d have been much more interested in the extra points had they not just told you they were about to finish up.

I’m thinking about this a lot because I’m doing a good deal of arranging for contest at the moment, and had already been grappling with the different shapes and lengths of arc that work in a 2-song contest set versus the longer and more varied trajectories of a show set. Putting these into the wider contexts of the contest as a whole (how many consecutive contestants to watch?) and the entire event (how many consecutive days of listening to be done?) will provide a useful framework to consider musical choices. Will adding extra music at this point in a song’s structure be worth the extra cognitive investment it will ask of a listener?

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