Barbershop in the City of Brotherly Love

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Bird's-eye view of the Harmony Marketplace in the Pennsylvania Convention CenterBird's-eye view of the Harmony Marketplace in the Pennsylvania Convention Center
Last week saw the Barbershop Harmony Society’s annual International Convention come to the historic city of Philadelphia. It was a musically rich and socially warm event, as ever, and I came home feeling that such full immersion in the artform has made me a better musician.

Stormfront won the quartet contest to rapturous audience acclaim – not only was their singing beautifully clean and tight, but their material showed some exemplary examples of how to craft comedic performances. Having said that, 3rd-placed Ringmasters were singing well enough to have become the first ever quartet champions from out of the North American continent had they chosen different material. There are traditionalists, I am sure, who feel that they should have been penalised more by Music judges for style issues. But there was a kind of poetic justice at work in that their material hindered them in all categories since its complexity and harmonic choices limited the extent to which they could produce the style’s classic expanded sound or directness of communication.

The chorus contest saw an emotional response to Jim Clancy’s last contest performance with the Vocal Majority, which was nonetheless pipped to second place by Westminster Chorus. The inaugural award for the audience’s favourite performance went to bronze medallists Toronto Northern Lights – about whose package I will probably write a separate post, as it was extraordinarily clever as well as entertaining.

While the winning performances are the ones to inspire, however, I think you learn more from the ones that don’t quite make it. The quartet quarter-finals, in particular, I find fascinating, as they show in such detail the route people are travelling on the way between mere adequacy and brilliance. So here are a collection of miscellaneous observations of the kind you can only make when you are generalising from the performances collected together at International.

  • Too many tags spoil the song. Really, several times I was ready and poised to meet a quartet at the end of the song and clap happily, but found that by the time they finally stopped singing, the moment had passed. Construction and form can make or break the enthusiasm of your ovation.
  • Quartets at this level are more likely to go sharp than flat. (Could it be the excitement of the occasion, perchance?) But if they do go flat it will probably be on the way into the tag, and it will result from a vocal issue rather than a musical one.
  • The quartet contest saw far more new material than the chorus contest, which stuck to much more to tried-and-tested arrangements. There was a certain amount of tactical play going on in which round songs were placed too: the quarter-finals saw very few stylistic risks being taken, while quartets seemed more ready to test the edges of possibility in the semi-finals.
  • The collegiate contest, meanwhile, saw a mixture of songs sung by recent quartet champions (the ‘hero worship’ approach to repertoire choice) and very traditional barbershop material. The people who talk about the need to ‘entice’ the young into the style with more modern repertoire need to listen to these guys to balance that idea with the evident pleasure young men get by ringing chords like crazy.
  • Both the collegiate contest and (to a lesser extent) the quartet quarter-finals saw a more developed skillset in sound than in delivery. The integrity and clarity of the chording was striking and impressive, whilst phrasing and flow was sometimes a bit clunky. It gave the impression that you need to sing that well in order to get to the International stage in the first place, but once there you’ll be placed according to your level of musicianship.
  • The collegiate quartets gave a nice demonstration of what a work-in-progress of moving into the style looks like not just in terms of their delivery, but also their body language. They quite often looked liked slightly caricatured versions of the more experienced quartets in their hand gestures, and in their use of what I started to refer to as the ‘barbershop squat’. You can’t help feeling that the acquisition of a more natural and fluid use of these gestures will go hand in hand with a more musical sense of phrasing.
  • Some years ago there was a collection of ‘classic’ tags in circulation. It was a compendium that gave a nice perspective on the style’s history, and whilst it seems to be no longer available, it has left its mark in the way the new arrangements of traditional repertoire will reference these classic tags. It’s a great musical gesture for a barbershop audience, as it makes everybody feel really included in the performance.
  • When I worked at Birmingham Conservatoire, I walked in to give a lecture to 90 first-year students one day, looked at them all and remarked: ‘So I guess purple is in fashion right now, yes?’ It strikes me that the major triad with added 9th is in fashion in the barbershop world right now.

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