20 Years of BABS Conventions

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The weekend's running joke...The weekend's running joke...Yes, I know the British Association of Barbershop Singers has been holding conventions for more than twice that long, but the last weekend in May marked 20 years since the first one I ever went to. Back in 1996, I had a recently-acquired PhD in Music, a job lecturing in higher education, and thought I knew a thing or two about music, and so rocking up to Bournemouth to discover a whole new world of which I had had no previous inkling was a bit of a shock to the system. You’d say I haven’t recovered yet...

(To be fair, I had an inkling or two that barbershop music existed, but the social world it facilitates was a complete revelation.)

So I suppose that begs the question of what has changed over those 20 years. In many ways, not a lot: there is a remarkable continuity of practice and culture over time. Brian Schofield won a silver quartet medal in 2016, whereas I seem to recall he won a gold in 1996, but you wouldn’t call that a salient difference. There’s a greater variety of music in the contest repertoire than back then, though possibly more people complaining about ‘the same old songs’. (Incidentally, the solution isn’t just more ‘modern’ music, it’s more imaginative performances; everyone loves an old song when it is refreshingly sung.)

Some things that a decade ago I thought might be changing now clearly aren’t. Huge climax points followed by grand pauses are clearly back in fashion, whether the chart asks for them or not, as is phrase distortion, and disrespect for metre. You can tell when these kind of performance mannerism are deliberate choices when you hear them at all skill levels. Though I would say to our International qualifiers: all other things being equal, the people who can count should win.

And here is one thing that has definitely changed in 20 years: the number of quartets singing at a level to have a realistic shot at being accepted to sing at International level. This year we had three previous champion quartets competing to qualify, as well as qualifying scores from all three BABS medallists. It is also great to see BABS acting as a hub for quartets from other European organisations; the two quartets from Ireland didn’t quite make it this year, but it was absolutely right that they gave it a go, and their participation in the contest was great both for their growth, and for the overall sense of occasion.

The other obvious change this year was the introduction of a mixed chorus contest on the Monday morning. It is rather too early to say what if any significant effect this will have in the longer term, but it certainly shows a clear cultural shift in BABS since my early days. Interestingly, the contest was framed as a way to bring in choirs from outside the barbershop organisations, but in the event, only Bristol A Cappella brought a significant proportion of non-barbershoppers to the stage, and they came in the care of a core of singers with strong barbershop experience.

Whilst in many ways the mixed chorus offers a similar set of challenges to the mixed quartet, it also has some interesting features that make it distinct from both the quartet form and other mixed choral genres. In particular, the question of where you pitch the songs and how you manage the two overlapping middle parts play out rather differently, although we still heard multiple approaches to the questions. But what you can get in a mixed group is both male and female voices on the same part, at the same pitch, but in different tessituras. A key that puts a male voice in its strong, declamative region will be the rich, mid-low range for a female voice. This can present issues for section unity, but when you get it right produces a rich, but plangent tone that is both striking and pleasing.

By the way, I’m a bit late reporting on this convention because Jonathan and I went gallivanting off for a few days in North Yorkshire straight afterwards, and very restful it was too. If you ever find yourself in Helmesley, do go and see the walled garden, and visit the Bils & Rye gallery in nearby Nunnington. There is also a curry house that looks like it is lost in the 1970s, but has someone in the kitchen who can cook very well indeed.

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