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LABBS Convention 2012

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The new convention venueThe new convention venueThe weekend saw the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers assemble at the Telford International Centre for their 36th Annual Convention. This was the first convention at this venue and, while in some ways it wasn't ideal (such as the limited availability of hotel space in walking distance), it did provide a very kind and honest stage for the singers to perform on. All the ensembles sounded like they were able to produce what they had prepared there without distraction and everyone I spoke to confirmed they had experienced it as a good performance environment. The team running the sound system deserve to feel very pleased with their work over the weekend.

As indeed do the singers. For what the sound system revealed was a collection of both choruses and quartets who have significantly developed their skills. The chorus contest saw 11 choruses attain scores over 70, with many of the lower-ranking groups making significant gains too.

Driving these gains is an upgrade in the basic quality of vocal production and ensemble work - and indeed these go together. At a vocal level, improved support delivers more legato singing and a more consistent tone, and this facilitates the ensemble skills of blend and unit sound.

And improving the fundamental quality of the choral instrument in turn gives people more scope for musical expression and communication. At lower skill levels, people are limited by what they can physically achieve; the better the technical skills, quality differentiation becomes more about imagination and musical understanding.

The other notable event of the weekend was Britain's first mixed quartet competition. This was prompted by the introduction of mixed quartets to the European Convention in Veldhoven next year, and Sunday's contest was to select British representatives for that. But it wasn't just about this one event - rather, that event provided the impetus to introduce a format that has had its supporters for many years. The trophy is named after Neil Watkins, who served both men's and women's barbershop in many capacities for many years, and would no doubt have preferred to have been competing in the competition than being honoured by it.

Now, mixed quartetting really highlights the whole/part ambiguity that ensemble performance involves. A song has a singular persona, an 'I' who speaks the message. Yet this is delivered by a collection of individuals. Just as the ear perceives the music not as four different lines, but as a single piece sung in harmony, the eye suspends disbelief and accepts the group as representing that single communicating consciousness.

Now, mixed quartets challenge that conventional perception of a performance by both drawing attention to it and playing with it.

First, there is the question of the gender of the persona. With a single sex song, one simply accepts the gender of the ensemble as that of the persona without thinking about it, and lyrics are either sufficiently gender neutral or gently tweaked to support this. Everything fits into a safely stereotypical binary-gendered and heteronormative cultural framework in which boys can be boys and sing to girls, and vice versa.

But with a mixed quartet it's not immediately clear if the persona is male or female. With a three-plus-one line-up, it can be the majority who defines the gender. When K4 sang 'The Boy I Used to Be', it didn't imply that Delyth on tenor had a transgender past - the suspension of disbelief was secure.

In the two-plus-two configuration, there isn't the option to elide one gender into the other, so you have a clearer sense of the tension between the persona of the song and the identities of the singers. What tends to happen here is that, whilst each singer can and does present the message realistically from their own position, the aggregate persona of the song tends to resolve onto the gender of whoever is singing lead. So, Double Trouble, who switched between male and female lead between the two songs quite clearly gave us a change in perspective by doing so.

At the same time as this global song-persona/ensemble-identity thing is going on, you get a lot of opportunity for business in the performance. You get this intermittently in quartet performance as a matter of course, where the individuals in the ensemble interact in such a way as to draw attention to their separate identities at the same time as they are creating the illusion of an overall musical persona. Indeed, the Convention's guest quartet Metropolis build much of their comedic material on precisely this interplay between part and whole.

It is entertaining precisely because of the way it plays with and draws attention to the artifice - it invites the audience to enjoy their own collusion in the fictions that ensemble performance creates. At a musical level, it often emerges at places where the primarily homophonic texture of barbershop breaks to give one or more parts a degree of independence. I am reminded of Neil Watkins saying that the arranger's job is to imagine the entire performance and then write that down.

In a mixed quartet, the very heteronormative framework that makes the construction of an overall persona problematic offers a lot more opportunities for business. Romantic dramas implied by (or projected onto) the song can be played out in the interactions between singers. Love triangles emerge and resolve, tales of wedding bells turn into tales male vs female solidarity.

And of course it's not just gender identity that mixed quartetting challenges: voice part identity shifts as singers adapt to new combinations. Whatever you may sing in single-sex barbershop, when you move into a mixed quartet, someone is going to have to move either the vocal range in which they sing their usual part, or move to a new part to fit their usual vocal range. K4 made this, rather than the dramas of gender identity, the central theme to their second song.

In the first seven mixed quartets to compete on the British barbershop stage, I think we saw a pretty comprehensive range of solutions as to how you go about this. Not only in terms of voice combinations and key choices, but also in how you go about making these expressively coherent with the norms and expectations of the genre. There are multiple solutions to these questions, and one of the things that made the contest so entertaining was precisely in celebrating this artistic variety.

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