Musings on ‘Old Barbershop’

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Some time in the early part of the millennium, around when I was writing my first book, my then boss asked me what were the new and happening things in the world of barbershop. The question entertained me, as I had been in the midst of documenting the ways in which the genre has been built on an aesthetic of nostalgia. The slogan ‘Keep it Barbershop’ (and the identity label derived from it: KIBBERs), which was still in some currency at that time, was about the resolute resistance to innovation.

It is hard to put your finger on exactly the moment it changed (Michigan Jake? Team OC Times + Aaron Dale? Westminster Chorus?), but the last decade and a half has seen not only a good deal of innovation, but also a cultural shift to a world in which the new is greeted with excitement. The seeds were planted in the early 1990s with changes to the judging system that allowed a greater range of repertoire and arranging techniques, but it has taken nigh on a quarter-century to change people’s felt experience in relation to the defined boundaries. Back in 2005, when I wrote my article on ‘Cool Charts or Barbertrash?’, this was still a very active area of contention.

This shift came into focus for me recently when I was chatting with some friends about music we’d heard at an event that we, collectively, felt was rather dominated by ‘old barbershop’. As soon we had given that label, of course, we had to interrogate it. What did we mean by ‘old barbershop’? Did we all mean the same thing? What, specifically, were we responding to that prompted this generalised label?

My starting-point was that it sounded like the barbershop I had heard 20 years previously when I first encountered the genre. This was, in some case, specific songs and arrangements that were commonly performed back then that I’d not heard for years. But it wasn’t just the distance of time I was hearing, it was also certain features that brought into perspective how much the techniques and, to an extent, the aesthetics have changed since then.

First, there’s the song’s narrative content. Songs of nostalgia are still in fashion, of course. (The day barbershop gives up yearning, it really will have changed into something else.) But songs that express nostalgia for social relations that are long gone and really not regretted sound weirdly anachronistic these days. The gingham gown as signifier of female purity gives the live performance equivalent of listening to music on 78 rpm records without digital remastering.

Then there’s the approach to arranging. I think the key thing here was that the songs that sounded old were those that did not transcend the techniques taught by the old BHS Arranger’s Manual, published in the early 1980s. That manual is a great starting-point for people who want to get a grounding in the nuts-and-bolts basics of the style, but there are a lot of things it doesn’t get onto that today’s arrangers are deploying for expressive effect as a matter of course. These include:

  • Range and tessitura to shape form. Old barbershop lives in the core ranges of each voice part and relies on lyric delivery and dynamics to produce emotional shape. These days we think a lot more about pitch as a means to build opportunities for the performers to extend their expressive range. (An early masterclass in this - really a harbinger of things to come - is David Wright’s arrangement of ‘Basin Street Blues’ for Nightlife.)
  • Control of voicing.The Sweet Adelines guidance on arranging is a step ahead of the BHS here as it talks about the alternation of open and closed voicings as a means to facilitate rhythmic impetus. But there are all kinds of other factors to consider - as I have mused upon repeatedly in this blog over the years. One of the things I have learned out coaching is that it is much harder for people to perform the inherent energy in a chord with high harmonic charge if it is spread widely.
  • Distinction between homophony and embellishments. The basic method for barbershop arranging assumes that first you do your 4-part harmonisation, then you break up the monotony by adding embellishments. Which is kind of the arranging version of first learning the notes, then putting in the interpretation. It’s not a bad starting-point, inasmuch as it forces you to focus on the integrity of the structure before you go about gussying it up. But when you can hear this as a hard distinction in the finished arrangement, rather than a more integrated, fluid interaction between homophonic and non-homophonic material, that tends to be symptomatic of a rather mechanical approach to expressive shape.
  • Clunky voice-leading. The BHS Arranging Manual is explicit that barbershop doesn’t worry its pretty little head about this. And whilst the specific point it aims to make about consecutive 5ths and 8ves is, in some contexts, fair enough, as a general statement this comes over as someone who is not themselves very good at controlling lines trying to justify it by dwelling on the greater importance of sonority. What we learn in real life is that if you want your ringy barbershop chords to have maximum ping, anything you can do to make the lines singable will help. And since we also have an aesthetic of heartfelt expression, you’ll get a more natural performance from a less counter-intuitive line.

What I find interesting, having worked through all these points, is that this is a lot about technical competence, but it is also, I think, about expectations and norms in different eras. On one hand, there are a lot of older arrangements that don’t have these limitations - and which we’d probably hear as ‘classics’ rather than as ‘old barbershop’. On the other, the profile of limitations you hear in less-accomplished arrangements today is rather different. You’re still likely to hear voice-leading clunks, but the other issues are more likely to be of over-embellishment to compensate for chord-choice difficulties, or inconsistent control of harmonic rhythm. Today’s arrangers, that is, are readily inspired to transcend the Arranging Manual, but don’t always remember to secure the nuts and bolts first.

There was a third area that came up, but I’ve just noticed how long this post is already, so I’ll save that one for a follow-up.

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