BABS QuartetCon 2021 – The Musical Experience

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Kiera Smith's photo captures a focal moment of a barbershop contestKiera Smith's photo captures a focal moment of a barbershop contest

Having discussed in my last post the experience of going to a largely normal barbershop contest in the Covid era, it is time actually to talk about the musical experience – which is, as I understand it, the point of going to these things!

My headline impression from the weekend’s listening was that, vocally, the British barbershop community is sounding in pretty good shape all things considered. Of course, this impression is strongly shaped by the classic logical error of survivorship bias - by definition only those people who feel their voices are reasonable shape are likely to put themselves forward to perform on the contest stage. Indeed, a couple of competitors withdrew after the programmes were printed; we don’t know how many others self-selected out at earlier stages.

Still, there remained a healthy number of quartets. And the decision BABS made maybe 12 or 13 years ago to remove any restriction on the number of quartets any individual can compete in continues to contribute to this health. There is a handful of genuinely obsessive quartetters who between them are helping a lot of others participate who might not otherwise be able to.

A lot of the discourse around the weekend’s contests involved being impressed at how much people had achieved on relatively little rehearsal. The clarity and accuracy of chording in a lot of these performances does indeed testify to an impressive level of musicianship. My suspicion is that the Harmony Brigade scene has done a lot to develop the skills on show here.

You would also have to say though that you could tell when a group had had the opportunity to rehearse in more depth. The stand-out performances for me were the Trailblazers and Sharrow Vale Blues – top seeds in the men’s Prelims, and winners of the Mixed Contest respectively – both of which show a level of musical sophistication and communicative power that takes time to develop.

Another stand-out performance, I found myself surprised to note, was Midtown’s rendition of ‘From the First Hello to the Last Goodbye’ on Sunday morning. Midtown were over as guests to headline the Saturday night show and do the mic-warmer spots for the contests, and I might have expected their most striking performance to be of the kind of innovative repertoire they have made their name with. But there is something particularly compelling about a group who can do all that tricksy stuff just standing there and delivering a barbershop classic in all its purist beauty.

I had remarked on the Saturday that, if you were going to look for a barbershop test-piece – that is, a relatively simple song that nonetheless shows up exactly the extent to which you have mastered the style – then this arrangement would be a strong contender. (David Wright’s ‘Love Me and The World is Mine’ would be another possibility, though I don’t think it has quite the stylistic perfection of ‘From the First Hello’.) Hearing it sung by such a skilled group just brings home what it is that the purists love.

It also brought to mind a comment from one of the Peter Wimsey novels, commenting on modern art: ‘there’s a difference between a man who can draw but won’t draw and a man who couldn’t draw in the first place.’ The tricksy stuff isn’t there to disguise an underlying lack of technique or musicality, but rather is facilitated by a deep understanding of the principles of their craft. If you hear them perform and they don’t include this in the show, ask them for it in the afterglow, you’ll love it.

One more observation from the weekend, this one a bit more niche, but hopefully useful for my arranger friends. Quite often you hear some cute harmonic movement going on at the end of a phrase that requires the lead to move off the note they finished the phrase with to make the chords work. Even where these are fabulous chords, and even where the lead effects these moves with exquisite beauty, I am left wondering if it is worth taking the lead off tune-duty to moonlight in the harmonies. Is the beauty that these extra harmonies add enough to make up for the feeling that the singer you have imprinted on for melodic narrative has momentarily lost interest in you?

It feels like being taken to a really nice restaurant, and then your date sees someone he knows from work, and rather than just saying hello, stops and talks shop for a bit, leaving both you and the colleague’s date standing there with polite smiles feeling a bit like gooseberries. However charming and attentive your date is for the rest of the evening, if they tell you that you’re the centre of their universe, you’ll take their declaration of dedication with a pinch of salt.

Indeed, you could see this as a musical enactment of that barbershop narrative of romantic partners competing for time and attention with your singing buddies. (Those wedding bells are breaking up that old gang of mine, No No Nora and the narrative twist, etc.) Which plays out in barbershop performance between the imperative to please the audience and the inherent pleasure for the singers: here, this is for you… and then this bit’s for us…

So, arranger friends, let’s think twice before making our audiences feel like gooseberries on their date night. Chord worship is for the afterglow, when it really is all about us.

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