A Cappella

Executive Summary of Barbershop, Part 2: the Overtone

In my last post, about my talk on barbershop for Scunthorpe Choral Society, we got to the point where someone asked a really good question, and then it all got too long to answer in one blog post. So we are resuming here, refreshed, and having had a bit more thinking time to consider the question: can you generate the characteristic audible overtones of barbershop expanded sound/lock and ring when making a multi-track recording with yourself?

I’m always a bit slow when thinking about the physics of sound, not least because when given the choice at university, I opted to study Italian for a year instead of acoustics, thinking it would be more useful for a singer. But I’ve learned some stuff since, and my understanding of timbre, vowel perception, and the harmonic series makes me think that in theory, yes, you should be able to do this. The overtones fall well within the range of audible sound picked up by microphones, so the frequencies to be reinforced are clearly present in the sound. Moreover, you’d think that one person singing all the parts has a head start on getting the sound well-matched.

Executive Summary of the World of Barbershop

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Last Thursday an invitation from Scunthorpe Choral Society had me giving a short presentation on barbershop choruses as part of their ongoing series of visiting speakers. I was given the remit of talking about what is different in barbershop from other choirs (there’s lots in common too of course), and with a time slot of 15 minutes, it made me think quite ruthlessly about what were the essentials to share.

So, I started off with a whistlestop account of the genre’s origins and history, which for these purposes could fit into 6 moments:

Inside the Arranging Process with Cheshire Chord Company

CCCmar21On Thursday evening I joined the Cheshire Chord Company to offer a presentation on the arranging process, walking through some of the practical and artistic decisions that inform how a chart takes shape. As ever with these kinds of events, I came away far more interested in the questions than they were asking than what I had presented – after all, I knew what I was going to say in advance as I’d prepared it, but the questions take the conversation into all kinds of interesting places that I’d not necessarily anticipated.

One question that I’m often asked and find almost impossible to answer is what is my favourite chart. I’m generally poor at picking favourites of anything, but I think the reason it is particularly hard with arrangements is that every time I am arranging something for someone, for them it is their special thing. So, for the duration of the time I’m working on it, it is my special thing too. If I want the groups I arrange for to be delighted with their music, I can’t approach it as ‘just another chart’.

HALO on Race and Real Talk

HALOworkshopmar21Last Saturday the British Association of Barbershop Singers held a training event for its Musical Directors on diversity with a particular focus on racism, led by the quartet HALO. They have a well-developed programme in which they use the musical relationships within the barbershop style as a metaphor to help clarify various aspects of a productive dialogue about inclusion and race.

After presenting the core concepts and working through some of their implications, they use it as an analytical tool to tease out insights in the discussions between workshop participants. I came away with a sense of having some powerful new tools for understanding, and a deep admiration for their facilitation skills. If you ever get the chance to attend one of their workshops, take it.

Developing the Vision with Route Sixteen

route16feb21I spent part of Thursday evening on zoom with my friends from Route Sixteen in Dordrecht. If covid had not come along, they would have recently have premiered an arrangement they commissioned from me as part of an ambitious concept set to defend their Holland Harmony championship, but instead they have spent the last year as we all have working round the limitations of our new circumstances to continue their musical journey as best they can.

They are still focused on bringing this concept package to fruition, either for the Dutch or the European barbershop conventions, whichever comes first, though they have found the vision adapting in some ways in response to the covid experience. We spent some time discussing the practicalities of how to rehearse and perform their ideas for staging as they emerge from lockdown.

Thought Experiment: Can’t Get No Dissatisfaction

A recent conversation in a barbershop arrangers facebook group has got me thinking about the role of dissatisfaction in creativity. Participants were sympathising with each other over the experience of working on a chart, and knowing it isn’t yet right, but struggling to figure out how to make it work. Anybody in any creative endeavour (and I mean that in the widest possible sense) will be having a sympathetic sigh at that thought.

I initially thought my reflections would be leading to revisit the idea of decision fatigue. There are only so many decisions we can make in any one day, and one of the points of routine is to automate as many as possible to free up cognitive capacity for the projects where you want to make some new happen. The pandemic has blown all our previous-established routines out of the water, so anyone who finds themselves too tired after work to make much progress in their arranging is not failing. They’re just having their creative capacities consumed by things other than music.

BABS Directors Academy 2021

BABSDA2021Saturday held the annual director-training event from the British Association of Barbershop Singers. As with everything these days, it was virtual rather than live, and also therefore rather shorter than usual – 5 hours rather than nearly two days. And, as with everything, this brought some brightsides along with the dilution of experience.

We inevitably had much less opportunity to bond with and learn from our fellow directors (so much learning normally happens in the bar after dinner!), though it was still lovely to see their faces. But it did mean that we could enjoy two visiting educators from the US, Cindy Hansen and Greg Clancy, rather than the one that the budget would usually run to.

Along with a contribution from Linda Corcoran, director of the Great Western Chorus of Bristol, this generated some really interesting connections between sessions, and interactions between presenters. This was clearly not entirely an accident – there were clear connections between the themes of Greg’s session on musical identity and Cindy’s on branding – but Linda’s presentation pre-figured elements of both and gave a useful concrete case-study for everyone to refer back to.

Thoughts on Barbershop and Musical Comedy

The shibboleth in barbershop circles is that any attempt at comedy has, first and foremost, to be sung well if it is to work. The better it’s sung, the funnier people will find it. This post unpicks this assumption: there’s something to it for sure, but I don’t think it tells the whole story.

The reason why this generalisation seems generally plausible is, I think, because ‘well sung’ functions as an effective proxy for ‘thoroughly-rehearsed’ and ‘has high standards’. Ensembles that develop their skills in one of these dimensions typically improve in the others too. Lurking behind the truism is the memory of mediocre performances that were not very well executed as comedy, didn’t have enough jokes in them (those they did have being rather obvious), and that were also not very well sung.

But this is a case of correlation, rather than causation. It’s not necessarily the fact that they’re singing better that makes a successful group more funny. In fact, these two dimensions are at least moderately dissociable once you’re beyond the base level of ‘does the audience trust your skillset?’

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