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BABS Convention 2018

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Momentum Chorus: photo credit - BABSMomentum Chorus: photo credit - BABS

The three major talking points for the final weekend in May this year were the Ireland’s repeal of the 8th amendment, Momentum’s astonishing performance in the mixed barbershop chorus contest, and the glitzy yet ill-designed refurbishment of the toilets in Harrogate International Centre. Of the three, only the second is strictly relevant for this blog, and the other two I’m sure are covered more thoroughly elsewhere anyway.

If you’ve seen the contest scores, you’ll already know that Momentum’s performance was better than anything we saw in the World Mixed Voice competition in Munich the previous month, though in my view the scores don’t show quite how much better. I’d like to hear them in a head-to-head with Heavy Medal, as I think they could give them a run for their money.

The key take-away from this success is not simply that if you pre-select experienced and obsessed singers who are prepared to put the graft in ahead of time you can produce an awesome sound. We knew that already. The key point, for me, is that just because it’s a project chorus with very limited rehearsal time doesn’t mean you have to forgo musical shape and purpose. The opening bars of their first song made all kinds of promises about expressive range, and the performance kept all those promises as it unfolded.

Given that this contest produced the best contest performance of the weekend, it is all the more fortunate that BABS had reconfigured the shape of the event, integrating the mixed chorus contest much more closely into the weekend. It thus enjoyed a much bigger audience than in previous years, and the winner had a spot on the show so that the other competitors could get the chance to hear them.

The range of repertoire choices was perhaps not quite as wide as the European Convention back in October – certainly there were fewer premieres this year – but it is still noticeable compared to a few years ago. I spotted something of a trend this year of taking an iconic barbershop arrangement and giving it a make-over – adding melodic flourishes, changing chords. Of course, in a barbershop texture, the former necessarily entails the latter – so perhaps I should say, changing chords to allow for melodic and harmonic flourishes.

Most, but not all, of the adaptations were within the embellishments and tags, leaving the original primary harmonies intact in their original voicings. What was interesting here was that, the better the group, the more you could hear the joins between original and altered versions in the sonic envelope. The stylistic differences between different arrangers is not just a theoretical question of chord vocabulary and approach to voicing, it brings acoustic consequences in the quality of ring.

These performances got me thinking again about L.B. Meyer’s implication-realisation models of musical meaning. In his formulation, meaning emerges from the internal logic of music in the context of stylistic norms shared by composers, performers and listeners. Meaning is generated in the interaction between what you think is going to happen based on what you’ve heard so far and what actually does happen in real time.

This dynamic is clearly relevant also to this scenario, but the horizon of expectations is set not by the understanding of how music goes in general, but by prior knowledge of the detail of specific pieces of music. Your relationship with the performance, as companion on a journey on which the singers are taking you, is different when you’ve travelled that precise path many times before.

This frame of references makes the moments where the road diverges from and rejoins the known route much more striking than the same harmonic moves would be in a less familiar context. Aesthetically, it functions almost as a parody – where the entire point is in the gap between the known and the delivered. Unlike a lyric parody, though, the underlying message of the song doesn’t change, so the gap functions rather differently, tending to draw attention onto the arranging devices themselves.

It did make me wonder how the songs would come over to someone who understands the codes and signalling conventions of barbershop, but didn’t know the classic charts these performances were working with. But I’m not sure it would have been possible to get inculcated into barbershop culture without having heard, and probably sung, them many times. So that may have to remain an interesting thought experiment.

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