Back in Bournemouth with BABS

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Trailblazers blazing their trail: pic courtesy of the BABS social media peepsTrailblazers blazing their trail: pic courtesy of the BABS social media peeps

The British Association of Barbershop Singers’ annual convention this year was back on its traditional spot of the last weekend in May, and also back in the venue where I had my first encounter with the genre as a living tradition 27 years ago. Strange that I’m now one of the middle-aged ones who has been involved for years, but that’s apparently what happens when time passes.

Anyhow, this felt more like a ‘normal’ convention than last year’s. This was partly a function of the event itself – we had more choruses back in the contests, for example (though many still diminished in number). But it was probably more a function of how we are. Whether to hug or not is back to being a matter of the nature of a relationship rather than a negotiation of risk comfort levels, and we’ve gone back to only ageing one year between conventions, so the changes in our friends are more subtle, and of an order we are accustomed to.

One of the things I found in myself as we emerged from the pandemic was a thirst for hearing new music – in general, that is, not just in barbershop. I want to listen to radio stations that play either recently released music or music that is niche enough that I don’t already know it. I want to go to musicals with original songs rather than shows constructed from the work of 70s and 80s rock stars. I seek out piano repertoire to learn that isn’t by the usual dead white dudes.

I mention this because in my early years of barbershop, someone with a thirst for music they didn’t already know would find conventions an unsatisfying experience. It was the norm even a decade ago to hear several songs multiple times over the course of a weekend’s contests. I didn’t see every competitor this weekend, but I was struck – and pleased - by how relatively rarely I heard a song repeated between ensembles. There were maybe four or five songs I heard twice over the weekend, but none repeated within a single contest.

This is partly a result of the culture of commissioning new arrangements that is one of the major sea changes in the genre internationally in recent years. (Special mention in particular to Barcode quartet who sang an original song written by their baritone Tom Wilkin.) But it’s not just that. There were a goodly number of old songs too, including some I’ve not heard for some years.

What seems different is that the association seems collectively to have broken out of the habit multiple groups all picking up the songs performed by medallists the previous year that led to the sense of everyone turning up to the party in the same dress. This is probably because we didn’t have contests for two years – people couldn’t do that so developed other strategies to choose songs. I’m hoping that people continue to use these new strategies to keep giving us this richer mix of music.

And it’s to performers’ interest to do so of course. People put a lot of time and care into preparing their convention performances, and the last thing you want your audience to think as you sing your first line is, ‘oh no not again’.

The other stand-out observation this year was how the mixed chorus scene has really developed: it’s still a smaller contest than the male voice choruses, but the overall standard significantly higher. This is partly I’m sure because a lot of them are project choruses, which rehearse intensively less often than the regular choruses from which they mostly draw their members. That is, they’re made up of the hardcore types who want more singing than they get week to week, so are self-selected to be dedicated. New champions Bristol A Cappella confound that generalisation, of course, though it aptly describes a good many of the others, including the previous medallists they leapfrogged to get gold.

Mixed choruses have also, on the whole, sorted out a lot of their voicing issues, and are now mostly pitching their songs in keys that better accommodate all their singers. This can only help the sound, as you get a much better ring when people aren’t gravelling around in an uncomfortably low tessitura but can sing in their best range.

It will be a decade this year since I stopped judging barbershop contests, and I find the way I think about the relative success of performances has become increasing simple and holistic since I have relinquished the obligation to follow a method. The base level for a successful performance is: if this were the only barbershop I had ever heard, would I say I liked barbershop? And the yardstick for contest success has become: does this performance make me want to come back next year to see more of this stuff? Obviously you need a more nuanced system to rank 25 competitors, but I find these questions usefully clarifying what really matters in a performance.

Amyway, I had drafted that paragraph just before the men’s quartet finals, then Trailblazers went and lived up to their name with a performance that made me want to come back again probably more than any other I have seen at a barbershop convention. It wasn’t just the virtuosity and artistry of their performance, which rightly won them the gold medal, it was that it was the first time I have heard a male quartet sing a song unambiguously about love for another boy. You can talk about inclusion as an aspiration, or you can just drive a coach and horses through the prevailing heteronormative frame. The thing that I liked most of all about this was how the audience responded with great delight to affirm that choice.

Really insightful appraisal of the prevailing “scene” Liz. Thank you!

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