I spent last Saturday working the current BABS silver medal quartet, Crossfire. It was a pleasingly varied day, focusing at different points on matters both of technique and artistry, and on big-picture strategic decisions and fine-tuning details.
One area we worked on that has had me reflecting further since was the relationship with performance traditions of arrangements that are strongly associated with particular quartets.
The ‘copycat’ performance is often derided as suggesting a lack of independent thought, but this position has to be balanced with the needs of an audience with a clear set of expectations from an arrangement. The question became how to deliver a performance that was true to both the community’s shared prior experiences and the quartet’s own personalities.
This dilemma was complicated interestingly by the changes in barbershop performance style over the last 20 years, particularly in the wake of the changes to the judging system in 1993. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the norm was to create variety by introducing lots of tempo changes as special effects, whereas the new system was designed in part to encourage a more holistic approach to songs with a greater sense of continuity.
Thus, to plug into a performance tradition established more than 20 years ago risks sounding distinctly old-fashioned. Indeed, to the influx of new participants the British barbershop scene has welcomed in recent years, the delivery may just sound peculiar, since it employs interpretive habits that are no longer really current. (Or at least, it will sound exaggerated – there is still a certain amount of tempo-changing for special effects, but it is used in moderation these days.)
On the other hand, the arrangement itself dated from an era when lots of chopping and changing was expected, so to try to smooth all these changes out would be fighting the actual musical substance.
We dealt with these competing imperatives by looking at how the various different tempi could be characterised in a way that built a thematic relationship between them to make sense of the contrasts. We ended up by keeping largely the traditional shape, though we did move one transition to make sure that each tempo presented complete phrases.
The rhythmic ‘flavours’ that emerged were characterised not just by their ‘feel’ – i.e. by how they collected and released the energy – but also by different tone colours. And it struck me how this is something that has emerged as the performance styles have changed. It used to be that tempo and dynamic were the two main dimensions in which barbershop performances created variety, and they tended to be applied in quite a ‘terraced’ approach. And while I’m sure there’s plenty more scope to develop artistry further (isn’t there always, for everybody?), these days we hear performances that both create variety in more dimensions and are more nuanced in the way they apply these changes.
This in turn has had me wondering how much the old Sound category was indirectly responsible for the peculiarities of barbershop performance that we usually attribute to the old Interpretation category. If ensembles were being encouraged to maximise their lock and ring and to create a continuously ringy sound, it could be that this inhibited the use of contrast in the dimension of sound quality, leading to an over-dependence on tempo change as an interpretive device. It’s like if you prevent people from using their hands while they talk – they just use their eyebrows more to compensate. The Singing category of today still likes a lot of lock and ring, but the emphasis has moved from a largely acoustic approach to a more singerly and artistic one.
Of course, living in the middle of this kind of change, it’s impossible to judge what is really artistic development and what is merely change in taste. But for real ensembles performing to real audiences at a specific moment in history, what matters is to find a way to deliver a song that is satisfying and meaningful to both at the particular moment they share.