BABS QuartetCon 2021 – Further Random Thoughts

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Having thought I’d corralled my main responses to our first weekend of live barbershop contest in two years in my previous two posts, I find a collection of miscellaneous thoughts popping intermittently into my head. (And where else would you expect thoughts, miscellaneous or otherwise, to pop, you ask.)

  • Key choice for Mixed Quartets. Back in 2012, my reflections on the UK’s first mixed quartet contest included observations about how the genre requires people to be flexible and creative in how they adapt to different voice parts and the ranges they might lie in when turning a genre that developed in and for voices working within largely the same range into one that encompasses a much wider set of vocal ranges.

    I find myself somewhat surprised, nine years on, how relatively few quartets really seem to have nailed how to pitch their songs so that the parts lie in the parts of their respective singers’ voices where they sound the best. You particularly notice it with the lead part – as curator of the melody, the heart of the song, you really want the tune to sit where the expressive ranges in their voice map coherently onto the expressive shape of the song. Quartets that didn’t compromise on this gave themselves such a head start in terms of communicative impact.

    (Tangential opinionated moment: I find it very irritating to see arrangements published for mixed barbershop described as SATB. I understand the commercial reasons for this, but it’s also really quite misleading. A friend who directs a mixed chorus was telling me at the weekend that they’re mostly doing SATB music, as opposed to barbershop, at the moment due to the combination of voices who have restarted after Covid. There is a clear musical and vocal differentiation between the idioms, and selling one labelled as the other is not necessarily helpful.)

  • Phrasing, meaning, poetic structure. Take the line:

    Yesterday I saw a city full of shadows without pity

    Who or what in this line lacks pity? How you phrase your delivery has an impact on the meaning you create.

    Yesterday I saw a city full of shadows
    without pity

    This is the way that this is usually sung, and implies, to my ears, that it is the protagonist singing the song who is devoid of pity for the city full of shadows. You could sing it like this though:

    Yesterday I saw a city
    full of shadows without pity

    This phrasing suggests that it is the shadows in the city that lack pity for our protagonist. Given the context of the rest of the song, which is a lament of loss and loneliness, this reading makes more sense to me. It also brings out, rather than hiding, the internal rhyme of the poetry.

    This could cue one of my periodic grumps about the problems with relying on teach tracks, but we’ll just take that as read and move on, shall we?

  • I know what Mona Lisa wants. That smile isn’t really so very mysterious, it’s just her polite face she puts on when being pestered by men who think it is romantic to objectify her – to the extent indeed of presuming to give her a nickname. Young women whose looks attract a lot of male attention learn that a smile is de rigeur or you’ll be heckled on the street by strangers, and told by those you know that a resting bitch face isn’t nice.

    What she wants is a bit of peace and quiet so she can get back to reading her book, or composing her symphony, or doing her science experiment, or whatever it is she’s interested in doing when she can get a bit of time and headspace to herself. She might, conceivably, be interested in a romantic partner who shares this interest, but only if they can resist mansplaining about it all the time.

  • On heteronormativity and gender roles. There were a couple of nicely done lyric tweaks over the weekend that gently and unobtrusively updated lines that in their original form evoke jarringly old-fashioned concepts of romance. This only works when it’s just the odd line – sometimes the problematic relational structures are baked more deeply into the song’s narrative – but it turns out that doing this can redeem an otherwise nice song spoiled by a distractingly anachronistic moment.

    One song with the relational structures fully built in is ‘If You (or, when sung by women, I) Were the Only Girl in the World’. I’m not unduly bothered by the heteronormativity in this instance, possibly because the whole thing is so overtly hypothetical. But it is commensurately entertaining to think about what happens when you try and sing it from the perspective of a gay protagonist. Or, indeed, to think about the believability issues if singing it in a mixed quartet. Hope you have as much fun with those thought experiments as I do.

Liz, you need to remember that Yesterday I Heard The Rain was written in Spanish. If you listen to the Spanish as sung you will realise that the English "translation" - version - is feeble in comparison. So much more work has to be done by the melody and harmonic progression, particularly in that spot you highlight. Not just the teach track. About which, I agree with you 110%. And then some :)

Good point - that certainly makes an extra complicating factor. I'd still say that the English lyricist's structure of internal rhyme respects the melody there though, bringing out the first and third iteration of that motif. And of course there may be ways of phrasing the lyric that work differently in the original language than in English - but you'd need to sing it in Spanish for that sense-making to work for an audience...

Still, that's a really interesting point about the contexts in which performance traditions develop!

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