BABS in Bournemouth

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The Bournemouth International Centre: The scene of my introduction to barbershopThe Bournemouth International Centre: The scene of my introduction to barbershopThe weekend saw the British Association of Barbershop Singers back in Bournemouth for their annual convention. This was a bit of a nostalgia-fest for me, as it was the venue of my first ever barbershop convention in 1996, and we were even staying in the same hotel as we did back then. And of course, on the first really beautiful weekend of the year after a cold winter and late-starting spring, the logical thing to do is to go to the seaside - and then spend most of the day in halls with no natural light.

The first big story of the weekend was the way that younger quartets dominated the contest, taking four of the six spots in the final, and two of the medals. Only two of these were strictly speaking 'youth quartets' as defined for contest purposes, but new champion quartet The Emerald Guard included three faces who first made their mark in British barbershop through the Youth Quartet Contest, and the other three - The QuarteTones, Taglines and current youth champs, Park Street - are all associated with university barbershop groups.

The other quartets (what do you call a not conspicuously young quartet?) also did a fine job, producing a tightly-fought contest that was very difficult to call. And this was the second big story of the weekend: that it's tight at the top. The chorus contest was also very difficult to call, with only 10 points between first and second place, and only 4 between third and fourth.

Besides all this drama and excitement, though, the thing I found myself being most engaged by was the quality of musicianship brought to the ballads in some of these performances. Ten years ago, when I was finishing writing my book on barbershop, performances even from the better ensembles were still often characterised by a somewhat mannered approach to delivery, which I investigated in chapter 6. The ballad style we're starting to hear now still smoothes away pulse, but seems to have a greater respect for poetic metre and melodic structure.

The stand-out ballads of the weekend, for me, were Windsor A Cappella's rendition of 'The Party's Over' and Steel's performance of 'It's Impossible'. Both of these are emotionally - and consequently musically - complex narratives, with melodies that curl around attenuated harmonic progressions with flexible, nested rhyme schemes in their lyrics. It would be possible to get lost in all kinds of musical blind alleys there, but both ensembles negotiated their ways through the songs with both sensitivity to the moment and an overarching sense of coherence.

The Cottontown Chorus also deserve a particular mention for their artistic use of phrase boundaries. Regular readers will have met repeated discussions in my coaching reports of the idea of the 'thought point' - that the places where singers draw breath are the places where the song's persona has the ideas that then unfold in the next phrase. The way that Cottontown performed the silence at the emotional heart of their ballad - 'And if I ever lost you, how much would I cry? ... How deep is the ocean?' - was as exemplary a demonstration of how to do this as I have yet heard.

On a more personal and frivolous level, I laughed immoderately at the performances of guest quartet Lunch Break, and they have got all kinds of thoughts brewing that may appear in future blog posts. And it was an honour and delight to be introduced by them for my stand-up spot on Monday morning's comedy hour. That was my 41st comedy gig, and I don't think I have ever met a more supportive audience.

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