‘Old Barbershop’, Part 2: A Case Study

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In my previous post on ‘old barbershop’ (I am keeping the inverted commas as the term doesn’t get more self-evident with use), I talked a bit about lyrics, but mostly about specific technical features of the arrangements in core repertoire 20 years ago compared to now. The third area that came up in the conversation that sparked these posts was a framed as a general issue, but in the context of a particular song. There are threads to be untangled here.

So, the general issue was choreography, or possibly body language. There are patterns of inhabiting the body that are inherently linked to how we understand a style, indeed are part of the way we store it. This comes out both in explicitly-planned moves, but also in the general performance demeanour.

And it turns out that these patterns change over time, and are strongly linked to our sense of taste or good form. The person who raised this issue was responding quite viscerally to styles of presentation that she found dated, in much the same way that you’d feel some vicarious embarrassment for a person who turned up to a party in clothes and hairdo that were ostentatiously, but not ironically, 30 years out of date.

The adjectives used to describe these moves - mechanical, awkward, false - are the same kinds of adjectives you’d use to describe a performance of intermittent competence. One where somebody clearly had seen the kinds of things that the style entails, but hadn’t internalised them yet. But the performance under discussion was actually very accomplished. The singers owned the moves, they were just of another era.

This is the first thread from this case study: how styles of physical musicality (or musical physicality) change over time, and how people respond to them.

The second thread is that the instance under discussion was a performance of a particular arrangement that is strongly identified with one particular quartet, and has accrued a very clear performance tradition based on that quartet’s rendition. This is Second Edition’s ‘Hello My Baby’ (shown at the head of this post). It is a chart that I have only heard attempted by reasonably accomplished (or, at least, up-for-it) quartets, and the pacing and phrasing invariably follows the shape as performed by Second Edition. For example, here’s a performance from the 2011 collegiate contest:

It seems to be something of a ‘statement piece’ song choice. By choosing to sing it, you are laying claim to a certain level of ambition, and aligning yourself with a certain model of barbershop masculinity that is simultaneously respectful of the tradition and appropriating it for the young guns. This is still the case when it is sung by middle-aged men, so long as they have that ostentatiously ringy sound and an energetic body language.

But it is interesting that, given the quartet persona/profile associated with the song, that nobody ever tries to re-imagine its delivery in anything more than momentary detail (e.g. lengths of pauses, not placement thereof). I think to an extent the arrangement would resist that, but, still it’s surprising that the young guns don’t try.

But the continuous performance tradition does give a wonderful illustration of the way intuitive patterns of feeling and movement are integral to musical thought. For, whilst people duplicate Second Edition’s delivery, their body language is entirely their own - while still being entirely consistent with the way Second Edition performed.

Anyway, I was uncertain whether you’d still call this ‘old barbershop’ when it so clearly relates to a reference performance and the collection of meanings it has accrued. But it is very much barbershopper’s music, in both pacing and gesture: to the extent it affirms a barbershop audience, it risks alienating audiences that don’t share that tradition. This is where Chapter 4 of my barbershop book (on barbershop’s cultishness and public image issues) meets Chapter 6 (on performance mannerisms).

The third thread is that, twenty years ago, when we talked about ‘old barbershop’, one of the key things we meant was that stopping/starting delivery, with frequent tempo changes that had evolved in dialogue with the erstwhile Interpretation Category. One of the major projects of the 1993 judging category changes was to encourage a more holistic, less atomised, approach to delivery, via the concept of ‘theme’ in the Music and Presentation Categories.

Notwithstanding occasional song-specific examples such as this case study, this project succeeded remarkably quickly. Whilst the tradition still deploys changes of pace and delivery style, it works these days in alignment with larger structural boundaries, with much less of the bar-to-bar shifts.

Which in turn leads me to wonder what sounds normal now that, in 20 years, we’ll be hearing as old-fashioned.

Interesting thoughts, Liz. I did wonder however, if you'd missed the New Fangled Four's treatment of Hello My Baby when mic warming BHS finals this summer (or just discounted it as a performance with a rather different purpose than just singing the song to its best effect?)

I did miss that, yes. How interesting, must go and seek it out. Thank you!

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