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A Snapshot of Barbershop’s Culture Change, Part 2: Arranging Styles

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My previous post about the experience of sorting through a packet of music from a barbershop chorus of the 1980s got a bit long, so I decided to save the rest of my observations for a second post.

The third main impression was that, as well as the pervasiveness of nostalgia in the songs’ subject matter, it was striking how nearly everything fit very safely into the core barbershop style. Primarily homophonic, melody in the second voice down, harmonic progressions, chord choices and voicings all very orthodox. It would pretty much all pass muster as ‘contest-suitable’ these days in terms the arrangement choices – though of course a lot of it probably wouldn’t have worked so well back in the 1980s when the scoring of contest arrangements still took a weirdly tick-box approach.

Compare with these days, when most groups’ repertoire that isn’t intended for contest purposes strays a lot further away from the core style. Given that contest has always been the means to control stylistic content, there has never been that direct institutional constraint on music for other performance contexts. I’m not sure if the question is why barbershop groups used to adhere so closely to the contest-grade style in their how repertoire in the past, or what happened to change that.

One factor has to be the logistics for distributing arrangements. When most music was sourced through the Barbershop Harmony Society and/or Sweet Adelines International, those central institutions could exert powerful editorial control over what everyone sang. If the people heading up the publication programmes were committed to a Keep It Barbershop aesthetic, different approaches just wouldn’t get out into the wider repertoire in the way they can these days when people can source arrangements without having to go through those gatekeepers.

I’m sure the rise of contemporary a cappella has had an impact too, with the development of techniques designed to evoke instrumental textures in a vocal medium. Barbershop has always had a few doo doo doos and the odd bm bm bm, but the variety of vocables, and the uses they are put to, has really benefited from the innovations in that scene.

But I think this aspect also goes hand in with the exploration of a wider range of repertoire. One of the things barbershoppers are always looking for is a recent hit that easily accommodates the harmonic language of contest barbershop – and these can be found in enough numbers to have made a striking difference to our contest stage. But a lot of popular music from the 1950s onwards, and especially that of the last 20 years, uses a more static harmonic structure and less varied harmonic palette, creating interest and narrative through other means, chiefly texture and timbre.

Arranging these songs in a primarily homophonic style emphasises their less interesting dimensions, rather than bringing out what makes them special. Barbershop really is all about the harmony, and if that isn’t the most salient element of a song, then trying to ‘shop’ it does neither the song nor the style any favours.

Thinking about this, I realise that I am probably one of the people who have helped drive this part of the stylistic change – one of the things I am good at as an arranger is making interesting textures that work within the vocal behaviours that people singing each part will be used from their traditional barbershop roles. And I note that my most popular arrangements are often those that are most imaginative in their use of texture.

And, again thinking about the wider cultural context of these musical changes, one of the things that has allowed arrangers to flourish is a shift in ethos that values imagination, creativity, experimentation. When the focus was on orthodoxy and preserving the past, it wasn’t that there wasn’t opportunity to innovate, there actually wasn’t much if any interest in innovation. I had the greatest difficulty in getting people interested in my charts 20 years ago, to the point that I pretty much gave up arranging at one point.

Now, new music is part of what people get excited about. One of the things that chorus directors often say when commissioning an arrangement is they are doing it to inspire the chorus. Having something that nobody has ever sung before makes people feel special, being able to choose that song, not just rely on what’s been published makes it feel more personal, being involved in developing the vision for how the chart will interpret the song gives a sense of artistic engagement.

It doesn’t scan, but now I’m singing, ‘There’ll be a nice balance of old and new songs on this well-maintained piano, this well-maintained piano of mine…’

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