BABS Convention 2015

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Hmm, it was actually nicer walking along the seafront than this makes it look!Hmm, it was actually nicer walking along the seafront than this makes it look!

Like many of the UK’s barbershop population (and more than a few from overseas), I spent the bank holiday weekend in Llandudno for the British Association of Barbershop Singers Convention. It seems the convention is getting near to growing out of Venue Cymru - not only did they have to run the prime show twice there was so much demand for tickets, but the main arena is getting too small for the numbers who want to watch the contests. It was also significantly harder to get a table in a restaurant than in previous visits, which tells you something about the relationship between major venues and the surrounding businesses.

So you’d say things were looking healthy in the association, from a numbers perspective. And you’d say the same about the numbers on the scoresheets. Competition at the top is getting very tough, and it’s feeding through to some very solid achievements in the middle rankings too. There is always an interesting debate about how wise it is to approach the arts through contests, but on this occasion I heard the argument in favour put as succinctly as could be from a member of new chorus champions Great Western Chorus. Having pipped Cottontown Chorus into second place after their unbroken string of gold medals, he said, ‘We’re this good because Cottontown made us’.

Another striking sign of health over the weekend was the variety of repertoire we heard. There were a few songs/arrangements we heard more than once, but not many. And there was a lovely range from the traditional to the new: traditional songs in familiar guises, traditional songs in new arrangements, and newer songs coming to the barbershop stage afresh.

This made me realise that the accusation you sometimes hear about style restrictions impeding the style’s popularity tend to mix up two different things: age of song and a stultified repertoire. The problem with hearing the same old songs isn’t particularly that they’re old, it’s that they’re the same. The need for new music isn’t necessarily a need for songs written more recently, it’s the need to hear things you don’t already know inside out. Sure, it’s refreshing to hear some recently-written songs too, but those would get also tired through over-performance. It’s not an either-or thing; you get greater musical satisfaction from both-and.

(As an aside, I did smile to see two classic barbershop-nostalgia songs in the quartet semi-finals on Friday of the type that ask whatever happened to those good old songs. The guys just before you sang ‘em!)

Of the newer arrangements,* there were two issues that got me pondering as an arranger. The first was a sense of awkwardness when a song came back to chord I mid-phrase. I’m not saying that every song that came back to the tonic mid-phrase was awkward, but that when I noticed awkwardness, it was often enough associated with this harmonic trait to make me stop and ponder about it. I’m not sure if the problem is an arrangement issue - mismanaging the harmonic arc so the music lands back home prematurely relative to the melodic structure - or a performance one - settling in to the chord when you should just be passing through. Or an interesting interaction of the two factors.

The other issue was a tendency towards harmonic embellishment that had only partial control over its sense of direction. If you use the metaphor of the harmonic highway for the kind of tonal structural directionality on which the barbershop style is built, we heard an awful lot of harmonic off-roading, particularly (though not exclusively) during Sunday’s quartet final. Indeed, sometimes the music would dive off the highway, furtle about in the undergrowth a bit, and then just teleport back onto the main journey without actually traversing the terrain. And when it teleported back to chord I, it exacerbated the first problem I was fretting over. Schenker would have tutted.

(And whilst doing things that would make Schenker tut is a fun game, I think you need to know when you’re playing it.)

The headline excitement for the weekend was of course having The Vocal Majority over, but I am saving that for another post. For now the only other thing I feel an overwhelming urge to remark on is that yellow ties seem to be in fashion this year.

*This paragraph makes it sound like the newer arrangements were more problematic than the older ones. I think this may be true, but it is not a reflection on the relative competence of today’s arramgers compared to yesteryear’s; it’s just a case of survivorship bias. We only ever hear the older ones that have stood the test of time. Also, I tend to need to do more pondering over things I’m hearing for the first time.

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