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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:

  1. African-American origins
  2. Commercialisation and the early recording industry
  3. Revivalist movement and organised leisure
  4. Development of women’s barbershop. [I’m sure some histories might not see this as an essential point given the musical and social parallels between the men’s and women’s forms of the genre, but since female barbershoppers are now in the majority both in the UK and internationally, it strikes me as historically significant from the perspective of today’s scene.]
  5. Invention of the chorus
  6. International export

Then, the most direct way to explore barbershop’s most distinctive features seemed to be via the case study of a single song, which would embody aspects of musical style, performance practice, and culture/social norms, and indeed the interrelationships between these three. For – as I made the headline point of both my talk and, all those years ago, my book – barbershop is not just a genre, it is also a community.

The song I chose was Clay Hine’s ‘It’s the Music That Brings Us Together’, written in lockdown last year and shared with the international barbershop community. Both the message of its lyrics, and the circumstances of its distribution tell you a lot about barbershop culture, whilst the harmonic choices give you as archetypal an example of the style as you are likely to find.

It is at once very classic in its harmonisation, and very contemporary: it draws on the standard repertoire of old, but is very knowing, very strategic in the way it deploys its voicings. There wasn’t time to get into those details on Thursday, of course, but it’s useful to articulate why this felt like a better choice to epitomise today’s style than, for example, one of the traditional polecats.

The full mix of Tony De Rosa’s learning tracks were also a great illustration of the performance style: vocal production, delivery and pacing, balance. In the normal run of things I’d prefer to use a recording of an actual ensemble singing it together in real time, but there hasn’t been a whole lot of that going on since the song was written. And, to be fair, if all learning tracks were as beautiful as Tony’s, I might be less conflicted about their role in barbershop culture.

You can’t give an executive summary of barbershop without talking about lock and ring: the acoustic phenomenon of generating audible overtones, extra notes that nobody is singing, through a combination of harmonic choices, style of vocal production, and genre-specific approaches to key ensemble skills (balance, tuning, vowel matching). Gage Averill nicknamed the barbershop fetish with this expanded sound ‘romancing the tone’, while in the early days of the Barbershop Harmony Society, they used to call it ‘singing with the angels’.

And this point elicited a great question that I found difficult to answer at the time and have had to come back to: is it possible to generate overtones when doing a multi-track recording with the same person singing each part, rather than in an ensemble with everyone singing at once?

In fact, it is such a great question that writing about it makes this far too long for one blog post, so I am going to defer my detailed thoughts on it until next time. I expect you’ll enjoy having a think about it too in the meantime. As well as being an excellent question, it makes for an effective cliff-hanger…

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