Chord-worship, Embellishments and Testosterone

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There has been some interesting research over the years about barbershop and constructions of masculinity. Richard Mook, in particular, has investigated the discourses in both golden-age (i.e. early 20th-century) and contemporary barbershop ensembles and shown how they configure the harmonic experience of expanded sound in terms of homosocial bonding.

This is possibly why you can get a room full of barbershop judges watching a video of the Gas House Gang's of 'Bright Was the Night', and the men are raving about what an amazing experience it is, musically and emotionally, while the women are saying, 'Yes but it's just chord-worship, isn't it? It's all about them; they're not really interested in the woman they're ostensibly singing about, are they?'. And both, in their way, are right. It is an amazing performance, but it is more about lock and ring as symbol and enactment of the bond between singers than about the content of the lyrics. And the comments posted on youtube about it are telling in this context - the verbal equivalent of punching the air and shouting 'yeah'.

This may also, now I think about it, be the reason behind the sentiment I quoted in my barbershop book of a male informant who said, 'I'm sure women's barbershop is just as much fun to sing, but I don't think it's as fun to listen to'. He's not getting his vicarious hit of male bonding from a female quartet, he's only getting a musical performance.

(There is an interesting question here about how female quartets configure their experience of expanded sound in terms of social meaning. I don't know of any gender-specific systematic research into this, but if you made me hypothesise on the basis of hanging out in this world for nearly two decades, I'd say there's a similar overtones-as-bonding dynamic going on, but it's not understood as essentially feminine in the way the male discourse invests the experience with masculinity.)

Having said that, I noticed an interesting variant on this pattern during the quartet contests at the BABS Convention a few weeks ago: hyper-embellishment as male-dominance display. Contests are by their nature competitive environments, so it should not be surprising to see competitive forms of behaviour from the participants. But it was interesting to observe the interaction between arrangement choices and on-stage personas. The kind of complexifying stuff that contemporary barbershop gets packed full of in the name of being 'progressive' or 'edgy' were precisely the musical features that were used for strutting and preening and hey-look-at-me-ing.

This was the case in both rhythmic numbers and in ballads, though the types of embellishments involved were different in the different musical contexts. The up-tunes were full of push-beats and triplets and other such devices that make you realise that the terms 'cool' and 'hot' when used as metaphors to describe music are both code for 'phallic'. The ballads were full of extended swipes and harmonic substitutions, which are more about showing off how clever you are (and also, potentially, how emotionally deep and complex).

You will notice from the tone in which I am writing this that, like many a heterosexual female, I can quite enjoy a good male-dominance display when it's done with pizzazz and musicianship, but am inclined to take it a bit less seriously than the protagonists do. I am still rather more interested in the music, but so long as I get that, will take a bit of masculine strutting in good part.

Which brings me onto a related point about which I have both musical opinions and musicological observations: quite a few of these quartets were far more interested in these surface embellishments than they were in the underlying musical structures they were intended to embellish.

At a musicological level, this is particularly interesting, because in both traditional music theory and culture at large, structure is construed as masculine, and embellishment feminine. Rossini's twiddles were imagined as effeminate against the architecture of Beethoven, while for theorists from Rameau to Schenker harmonic structures have been imagined as exerting a safe masculine control over the feminine frills of ornament, which are considered virtuous when so mastered, but dangerous when they proliferate. (Part III of my PhD is about this kind of stuff, if you wanted a reference for it. Naomi Schor’s Reading in Detail was a significant source for this bit of my thesis, and shows how this works beyond the realms of music.)

So, to see embellishment enacted as invested with testosterone was interesting, to say the least. This makes sense in the local, barbershop discourse of progressive versus preservationist values, with the pushing of stylistic boundaries understood as an act of challenge to authority, if not outright rebellion. It goes to show, though, how musical meanings are generated within specific cultural contexts: connotations don't necessarily transfer between social worlds.

At a musical level, my feeling was that hearing embellishment overwhelm structure like this gave the impression of a quartet that was all mouth and no trousers. Push-beats without a reliable metrical framework comes over as a showy, blingy kind of display that lacks the wherewithal to sustain it. Harmonic diversions lose their effect without a strong sense of the primary trajectory they divert from. Music without backbone lacks integrity, and leaves the flashy stuff sounding a bit hollow and pretentious instead of impressive.

The conclusion to draw from this is: it's all well and dandy - and indeed entertaining - to compete through the flaunting of bright musical plumage, but to succeed* you need to man up and learn to count.

* And, yes, I am available for coaching to help with this.

Priceless! My feelings exactly although I wouldn't have been able to put it so eloquently.
As you know, I sing in a mixed quartet, so we have some of the advantages of a little testosterone, however we haven't quite achieved puberty yet in respect of making that work for us. I do get the feeling at our "all in one group" competitions (along with some of the ladies quartets) that our heartfelt outpourings will never ever impress over the nasal booming (not always tuned) of the young male quartets with whom we compete.

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