BABS & EBC Conventions – Reflections on New Music

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It is time to start marshalling some of the thoughts I’ve been having about the music I’ve heard at my first two in-person barbershop conventions since 2019. One of the interesting bits of context for this is of course that at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s Category School in 2019, the Music Category came away with a slightly less ‘anything goes’ approach to style, but then coronavirus came in before that decision could be enacted in live contests.

So we were coming into these conventions with an extra 2-3 years' arranging time, but no real case law to see how that policy tweak would play out. As it happens, I heard tell of only one case of an explicit score reduction for style in the contests in Sweden, but it did not discernibly disrupt the overall scoring profile – you wouldn’t have guessed it from just looking at the numbers. So for the various other charts that I thought might have been on the windy side of the style, there may also have been some score reductions, but likewise of a magnitude that inflects rather than devastates the Music score, and thus not immediately sending out a ‘don’t go there’ message to other competitors.

One of the conclusions I came to from the new arrangements performed at both events is that the general loosening of constraints since 2013 has opened up some interesting challenges for arrangers as well as opportunities. Three observations rise to the top:

1. Form

I thought I was being facetious when I remarked that the Sweet Adelines time-limit for contest performances prevents arrangers from writing charts that go on too long for their material. But once I’d said it in jest, further listening made me think I actually had a point.

An observation I made some years ago (which now, of course, I can't find to link to ) was that you often need to compress the form of song when arranging it in a cappella – if you include all the instrumental guff and repeated sections from the original literally, it tends to sag in the middle. I think this is even more the case when you are dealing with contest-grade barbershop and its limitations on textural variety, than when you can use texture as a means to articulate form.

2. Coherence of Sonic Envelope

I commented after the BABS Convention in 2018 on how, when one arranger has made adaptations to another arranger’s chart, you can often hear the joins – the change in approach to harmonic and voicing choices changes the characteristic tone the arrangement has on that ensemble.

You get similar changes to the sound world when moving from a vocable intro into full homophony. Whilst starting with doo-doos can ease you nicely into a song, my recent listening has encouraged me to think twice about starting that way in situations where you’re not using texture to build form – i.e. in contest-grade barbershop that needs everyone singing the words together for most of the song.

Likewise, now that the BHS system is more relaxed about occasional chords from outside of the barbershop chord vocabulary and accepts a more generous use of the ‘allowed but regulated’ chords (major 7ths, added 2nds or 6ths, etc), the arranger now has to think consciously about how to handle dissonance.

One of the things a highly circumscribed harmonic vocabulary and prescriptive approach to voicing had offered previously was a built-in guarantee of stylistic consistency. Indeed, that was the trait that fascinated me on my first encounter with a barbershop contest. It sounded like a bunch of songs had married their cousins and here were their kids.

The downside of that homogeneity is of course lack of variety in the listening experience, but the upside is that a lot of the decisions about how to make an arrangement sound like it hangs together have been made for you. Now that we have rather more freedom of choice, we have to start making those decisions for ourselves. What constitutes ‘musical unity’ has far more to it than coherence of harmonic style, but I found as a listener that inconsistency in the sonic envelope was the most immediately perceptible symptom of a chart that hadn’t quite decided who it was or what it was doing.

3. New Music, and the Balance of Stuff and Not-Stuff

I was struggling a little to find a descriptive title for this third observation, and then I remembered David Wright’s description of his approach to embellishment.

One of the things I noticed was that quite a lot of the new-to-the-contest-stage arrangements leant to the side of including lots of stuff. There is a general agreement amongst arrangers that a chart should grow, should go somewhere, often described in terms of ‘development’. And I often felt that the escalation of embellishment in newer charts sounded like it was trying too hard.

A number of things were going on here. In some cases, I think it was a result of putting some juicy ideas in early on, which put pressure on the need to build. Trying to sustain a form that was arguably too long (as in point 1 above) would also generate the same pressure.

But there was also a sense that arrangers felt they had to do all the heavy lifting to make the music interesting. And in the context of a culture where a smallish pool of standards get performed too many times, you can understand that instinct. Indeed, if you’re doing a ‘pimp my polecat’ job on an old standard, then gussying it up and making it all whiz-bang is an entirely appropriate strategy.

But if you’re bringing a new song to the contest stage, you can actually trust the song itself to create its own interest. Getting too fancy with the embellishment strategy just gets in the way of the story (by which I mean both the lyrics and the melodic arc). A great example of an arranger managing to avoid standing in the song’s light was Zero8’s first song. Given the dramatic theme, it was absolutely imperative that we heard all the lyrics, and the arrangement was almost entirely homophonic, giving us total narrative clarity, with all the musical enhancement and nuance effected with harmonic colour. Watch and learn.

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