On Avoiding Hack

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I'm writing this post while in the middle of arranging a song destined to be part of a barbershop contest package. So I am thinking very specifically about the craft of producing contest-grade barbershop, though I suspect I may find myself ranging more widely by the time I'm done. It is very much writing-to-figure-out-exactly-what-this-thought-I-am-trying-to-have mode, so I may ramble. You have been warned.

(Of course, if the thought ends up being especially trite, I have the option of never posting it. Though I might enjoy the irony of engaging in deep thought to come up with a truism. That in itself might say something about the subject.)

So, 'hack' is the phrase used in stand-up comedy for material on themes that are over-used. It is an insult that includes both lack of creativity (you couldn't think of anything original to say) and laziness (you came up with the most obvious joke, then stopped working). The term is, I imagine, derived from 'hackneyed' in the more general sense, as tired and clichéd, but there is a specificity to its usage in comedy that I find interesting.

(Actually, if I could find any way possible to connect it to my primarily musical purposes in this blog, I would write some interestingly Saussurian observations about the meanings within the comedy world of certain obscenities, which are both more nuanced and less offensive than in general usage. One of these days, maybe).

Anyway, hack themes can be tropes that are somewhat topical, but get over-used immediately or are just used for very obvious jokes, e.g. Fifty Shades of Grey, Jimmy Savile, vajazzle (sp? I've never tried to write that down before). Or they might be more general themes that you just hear too often, e.g. predictive text, supermarket self-service check-outs, or rohypnol. Lord love us, I even heard a joke about women being bad at parking the other day, which must have already been hack in about 1927.

Now, anyone who has ever arranged contest-grade barbershop will already be empathising with why I'm thinking about this. Because contest barbershop is a very clearly defined style that specifically curtails possible arrangement decisions in multiple dimensions. As I have argued before, these constraints can be very productive in the way they force arrangers to hot-house their creative growth through particular technical filters (she said, gaily mixing metaphors; you can sort those out yourself, I'm still trying to nail my thought).

At the same time, it becomes very easy to over-use certain devices.

The big dilemma you face, particularly when tackling a song that is not yet a barbershop standard, but which you believe could work well in the style, is how to make it sound convincingly barbershop, without making it sound distractingly barbershop. You want the song to come through louder than the style, but equally you don't want your audience sitting there fretting about whether it's kosher. You want it sound fresh, but you don't want it to sound so left-field that it fails to speak to the musical expectations of the audience.

Going back to comedy, there are two main reasons for people doing hack material. One is lack of experience. Once you've been to a bunch of comedy nights, each featuring 6-10 amateur performers, it doesn't take long to see which themes are obvious or over-used, and which are distinctive to a particular performer. Getting out there and gigging is partly to grow through increased stage time, but a lot of the learning is in seeing what your peers do and how they do it. This kind of hack self-corrects quite quickly, unless they have no self-awareness whatsoever - in which case they'll be failing to grow in multiple dimensions.

It is the same kind of problem that Tara Brazabon identifies in PhDs that have inadequate engagement with the literature - people think they are being original, when in fact they are simply ignorant of their field.

The second reason people do hack material is that it can be rewarded. It is often lowest-common-denominator stuff, both in theme and content. Sex, violence, toilet humour all command our involuntary attention* and can be guaranteed to get a response. If the room is too subdued it can get an audible reaction through shock value; if the room is overly rowdy, it keeps attention on the stage.

And if the audience members themselves aren't regular comedy-goers, they won't be bored of the jokes yet, even if other comedians are. Audiences can train performers into certain subjects - which is another reason why you need to perform widely so as not to get stuck in a particular set of local norms.

So other comedians get hacked off with those who do the obvious stuff because it feels like not only are they being lazy, but they are doing unfairly well by it. This dynamic is at the root of the particular snooty disdain you hear in the way the insult is wielded - nobody enjoys the artistic high ground more than those who are faintly jealous of those who sold out.

And I'm wondering how much of these dynamics also play out in the way barbershop arrangers handle classic gestures/stylistic clichés. Certainly depth of experience comes into play - you're not bored of even the most obvious embellishment the first time you hear it.

And you do also hear debates about whether certain gestures are 'cheap tricks'. Out-of-context tags, for example, where the whole texture suddenly leaps into a higher tessitura to finish with some ostentatiously ringy stuff that has no connection to the song's main narrative. You get grumblings about the whole end-of-intro-as-subsidiary-tag thing of post-Wright barbershop too, and now I think about it, that is a little like a vibrator joke - creative possibilities not yet exhausted, but it is possible to be too obvious and bump a listener out of their suspension of disbelief by accident.

But I think the main area where I've really noticed barbershop hack is actually not so much in contest repertoire, but in show tunes. There are a lot barbershop arrangements we hear way too often in contest, but they are at least usually the really good ones.

The problems with show tunes is not where they depart from the style. Usually that's appropriate; these are songs that wouldn't work as contest-grade barbershop, but can still sound fab in 4-part a cappella and offer a nice bit of stylistic variety to an audience.

The problem is where an arranger uses a classic barbershop embellishment or textural device in the middle of a tune that was making all kinds of different stylistic commitments. They use the gesture that comes immediately to hand from their general arsenal of techniques, rather than doing some original problem-solving to ask what that particular song might be asking for.

That is hack in both the senses of lack of creativity and laziness. It may also be rewarded by certain audiences, I'm not sure. Maybe audiences who haven't heard a lot of contemporary a cappella.

So I'm not sure how much working this through is going to help me avoid being hack in the contest tune I'm currently arranging. Fortunately, I have the most wonderful amenity of my partner Jonathan, who won't let me send out an arrangement if it has a bit in it he thinks I could do better. I've thanked him publicly before, but it doesn't do any harm to say it again.

*I was at that point going to link back to my post on voluntary and involuntary attention, but it appears I never wrote it. You can google the concept yourself.

An interesting concept, Liz, when actually hack is what many barbershop singers want to hear or sing. At Category School, Mr Wright's all too short session for the Music category on arrangement took as one exemplar the standard AABA popular song and included a little gem: "Remember that A was good enough for the composer" [first time around].

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