Happy Birthday to BABS

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Harrogate's beautifully restored Royal HallHarrogate's beautifully restored Royal HallLast weekend saw the British Association of Barbershop Singers celebrate their 40th anniversary at an extraordinary convention in Harrogate. It was always set up to be an extraordinary occasion, what with an eye-watering 46 choruses signing up to compete on the Saturday, and a total of 7 international quartet champions visiting for the weekend.

It became more extraordinary than you would ever have imagined, though, on Friday night when a lightning strike took out the electricity supply to the auditorium and in a truly heroic effort from the BABS team and the convention centre staff, all performances were relocated to the newly-refurbished Royal Hall at the other end of the centre in time to start Saturday's contest only 10 minutes late. It was all rather astonishing.

The AIC show (Association of International Champions, for those unfamiliar with barbershop acronyms) was still, unsurprisingly, the highlight of the convention. You might think from a standing start that a show featuring nothing but a series of barbershop quartets might be a bit lacking in variety, even if they are some of the best in the world. If you have ever sat through a long quartet contest you would certainly be forgiven for this expectation. But in this case, you'd have been wrong.

Part of this was because of good programming of course. You are always going to get a wider variety of repertoire in a show than in a contest, but someone in the production team had done a very good job of making sure that not only was each quartet's spot pleasingly balanced and varied (something they'd each take care of as a matter of course), but that the whole was also well-shaped and emotionally wide-ranging.

But this expressive diversity would not have been possible without the underlying distinctiveness of each of these champion quartets. This is reflected in (or possibly, emerges from) the kind of repertoire each chooses of course, but it is about more than that. It is about all those features of timbre and rhythm and gestural shape that we read as 'personality'. Whilst each champion quartet personified an ideal of the barbershop soundworld (since that's what you have to do to get your gold medal), they also transcended the sound. Even Old School, whose stated intention is pretty much to typify the genre in its purest form, still could not be reduced to it.

I don't know if you could have put any seven international champs on a show and said this. This bunch were certainly well-picked to lead to these observations. But then again they are not the only seven that could do this.

I suspect this is in part a function of how the international contest seems to function. You need to perfect your sound to get to compete at the top level - interesting but technically inconsistent will exclude you from the top 20, let alone the final. But once you've got technical mastery, then it's expressive character that differentiates.

I suspect it is also a function of having moved beyond contest. When you've won the highest accolade your peer group can bestow, you have much more scope to follow internal rather than external motivations. You carry on because it is musically and performatively rewarding to do so.

What I'm not sure about is the extent to which this delightful sense of expressive breadth is working in the genre as a whole. We are certainly seeing similar processes in those BABS quartets who continue to aspire to international contest after winning their British gold medals. Reckless in particular are developing some very imaginative approaches to vocal colour. But I'm not sure to what extent that is being rewarded in international contest at the level they are currently scoring.

I hope it is. For a long time barbershop has tended to configure it's discourse about style in terms of those musical elements that can be notated. 'Edgy' or 'purist' approaches could largely be differentiated by harmonic content and degree of non-homophonic embellishment, while both camps took pretty generic approach to timbre. It becomes a whole lot more interesting when you add tone colour into the debate about your musical choices.

There you go. I managed to write an entire blog about the convention and focus on interesting questions of musical content and expression without once mentioning that Hallmark of Harmony won the chorus contest with one of my arrangements. Well, I nearly managed.

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