On a related theme…

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In my recent post about the concept of ‘theme’ as it is used in barbershop culture, I neglected to point out its background. It is a relatively new term in the scheme of things, having been introduced into the vocabulary of the judging system in the 1993 category changes.

Maybe I should take a step back for those who aren’t familiar with the history of the barbershop judging system. Whilst there has been a relatively stable approach since the 1940s in that contests are judged by several people, each of whom has a set number of points to award in a specific category with its own particular focus, the number of categories, their names and their scoring methods have undergone periodic revisions over the years.*

The 1970 reforms made a significant step away from a box-ticking approach to scoring performances (plus 1 for every artistic effect, minus one for every wrong note etc) to a more qualitative approach, although the Arrangement Category was left counting swipes for another 20 years. In 1993 the whole system became much more holistic, with the Music Category cutting across the previous distinction between music as it appears on paper and music as it is performed, and the Presentation Category likewise cutting across the previous divide between visual and vocal performance. It was almost as if someone noticed that audiences experience a performance as a single entity.

The idea of ‘theme’ arose as the previous Interpretation Category was disbanded, and its previous responsibilities taken over by both Music and Presentation. The legacy of the earlier box-ticking approaches had been an approach to interpretation that worked in terms of ‘effects’, of ‘doing something’ with each bit of the song. Singing it all in the same tempo, for instance, was thought of as ‘not doing anything’ with it, so there arose a tendency to seek out points of interest that could be highlighted in each stage of the song and an interpretation ‘plan’ built to feature them. At its best it could be very effective – but in the hands of average performers (which, by definition, form the majority) it frequently resulted in a disjointed sequence of ‘moments’, with exaggerated volume and tempo changes, in which the actual song got buried under the pile of interpretative weight.**

The idea of ‘theme’ was thus a way to get people thinking about the songs themselves, rather than about the plans they could build on top of them. The notion of seeking out a song’s strongest musical element had appeared in Joe Liles’s classes for directors at Harmony College back in the 70s, and he also wrote an article about this, so the idea had been in circulation for some time. (Indeed, it is entirely possible that the people who introduced it to the judging system in 1993 had attended Joe’s classes back before they grew to such positions of influence.)

It was David Wright who gave it the label of ‘theme’ and who, in cahoots with the likes of Larry Ajer and Gary Bolles, was responsible for getting it adopted by the two judging categories. And I do think it was a cunning move to build it in as a common central concept for both. It would be all too easy for Music and Presentation to get themselves polarised as relating to the technical and the emotive side of the performances – indeed, much as the old Arrangement and Stage Presence categories probably were. But the idea of ‘theme’ highlights the way that both categories are centrally concerned with communicating the content of the song, and it forces people to think of the song’s detail as it relates to the whole.

And it has been a successful concept, too. If you compare barbershop performances of the 1980s with today’s, you’ll notice a lot less mucking about with the song. There’s still some, of course, and indeed I don’t suppose people would really want to lose that aspect of the performance tradition entirely. But the song usually makes it through these days, which is particularly a relief for those audiences who aren’t steeped in the idiosyncrasies of barbershop performance practice, but who do know and love the popular songs of the 20th century it draws on.

* For more about the history of barbershop judging, see Chapter 4 of my first book.
** I’ve written at greater length about these performance mannerisms in Chapter 6.

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