The Great British Barbershop Boys

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Performing at the showcase eveningPerforming at the showcase evening
This week saw the Great British Barbershop Boys unleashed on an unsuspecting universe. The quartet formerly known as Monkey Magic has been signed by Sony and rebranded. Their album, Christmas Time, is due out on December 6, but the advance publicity has started, and with a vengeance. The first press release went out on Tuesday, and within two days had appeared in one form or another in around 170 UK newspapers, whilst television coverage included an interview on daybreak and a mention on ITV Central News.

Thursday night saw a showcase event in London where the quartet sang a five-song set, and promotional copies of the album were handed out. I was invited along as one of their arrangers for the album, and it was lovely actually to see them in person after the rather manic time over the summer getting the music ready to record in a very short timescale.

The quartet is sounding in very good form. This is in many ways no surprise – they are an experienced ensemble, having won the BABS championship in 2008, and having competed internationally in both the collegiate and main quartet contests since. But the rigours of the recording process had put pressure on them in ways rather different from those of contest.

First, there was the sheer quantity of music to be learned and recorded within about a month. There are 16 tracks on the album, and they recorded at least a couple more – and they were only able to get together on the weekends, as they all have day jobs. They were also arranging several of the songs themselves. Compare this to the contest-preparation regime where you have a maximum of 6 songs to prepare, and can take all year on it if you like – indeed, many quartets repeat contest material from year to year.

Going through this kind of mill is rather like tempering metal. It can strengthen the performance, but if there are any hidden flaws it will crack it. In this case, it has significantly strengthened them. The ensemble skills they have honed in the three years together have transferred into the new material, and they performed with confidence and panache. One could hear the extra degree of polish in their performance of the one song they performed from their contest career (‘No No Nora’), but the difference was subtle – their new songs were surprisingly polished for the amount of rehearsal they’d had.

Indeed, I think the real magic of this song was that they could really relax into it as they knew it so well. When I’ve heard them sing it in contest situations, they were entertaining and charming in their story-telling, but there was still that edge that said ‘it’s a contest’. Thursday’s performance had a joie de vivre that suggested the contest situation could never scare them again after the way they’ve had to work to get the album done in time!

The audience was welcoming and enthusiastic in applause. Again, this makes sense – everyone had been invited to celebrate the new signing, and besides, being sung to by four self-evidently nice young men is an inherently pleasurable experience. But talking to the quartet afterwards, they seemed genuinely pleasantly surprised by the warmth of the reception. Joe remarked that they were getting laughs in places where they never had from barbershop audiences.

I suspect there are a couple of things going on here. The specific one is to do with semantic depletion: barbershop audiences know ‘No No Nora’, and however much they enjoy the funny bits of that particular arrangement, they know they’re coming. Surprise is important in humour after all.

The more general one is that barbershop audiences are used to hearing four people sing complex harmonies live with no instrumental backing. They support and love those who do it particularly well with great energy and dedication, but they nonetheless see it as a normal form of behaviour. Thursday’s audience were just less accustomed to this kind of experience, and the fervour of their response was in direct proportion to its novelty.

And of course, novelty and skill are a winning combination – indeed probably one of the things that led to the popularity of the barbershop quartet originally, back about this time last century.

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