LABBS Chorus Day: Reflections on Style and Emotional Experience

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One of my premieres for the weekend that exemplifies cheerful diatonicism

One of the things we saw coming with the LABBS Big Weekend was how, freed from the constraints of contest rules, choruses took the opportunity to share all kinds of repertoire we’d never hear on a contest stage. At a personal level, this gave me the opportunity to hear a bunch of arrangements I’d had commissioned last year that I might not otherwise have had the chance to hear at all. There was even one chart that was commissioned several years ago but that I had never heard before.

What I hadn’t anticipated was coming to the end of the day feeling that the musical diet we’d been treated to was less varied than I had expected. For sure there were lots of songs we wouldn’t normally get to hear at Convention, but in the event that also entailed hearing a lot more primarily diatonic music than usual.

One of the things that the stylistic requirements for barbershop contest guarantees is harmonic variety. The centrality of secondary dominants in the definition of the style means that you never go very long without hearing lots of sharps and flats. You don’t get very much textural variety, for sure, and a whole day of travelling round the circle of 5ths can get a bit indigestible: ‘barbershopped-out’ is the commonly used term for having no more room in your head for any more chords, however gorgeous they may be.

But the cumulative effect of the chorus videos was quite different. I felt able to watch every single chorus video, and then come straight back in after dinner to watch the show. The first observation, then, is to note how the experiential impact of musical style becomes much more apparent on binge-listening than it does when you consider individual performances in isolation.

But it got me wondering why we had ended up with such a diatonic day. Obviously, it was the opportunity to share non-contest material that had made it possible, but that in itself wouldn’t pre-determine this harmonic outcome. It drew attention to the way that, of all the non-contest material you might choose, the songs with the kind of cheerful, encouraging messages that were most obviously appropriate to the event tend to come in more harmonically straightforward clothing.

This in turn puts into relief the association between harmonic richness and emotional complexity that contest-grade barbershop at its best exploits. To note: simply adding the barbershop chord vocabulary to a song does not necessarily increase emotional depth. It can just be annoying (and I’m tactfully not mentioning the specific examples I’m thinking of here). Handled well, though, it is the primary means the style has developed to achieve emotional range and impact.

Given the context in which everyone was preparing the videos, it is hardly surprising that most people steered away from the yearny, angsty dimensions of experience, and chose instead to cheer each other up. Frankly, this was just what we needed – it was a good judgement. But it was surprising to emerge from the experience thinking I’d like to hear a few more secondary dominants please.

For those of us who curate performing repertoires, we know that the key to a satisfying experience is variety and balance. You want some intense stuff, and some happy-boppy stuff for relief. The inspirational songs get extra power of uplift from the poignancy that a sad song brings to the programme. Normal barbershop contests guarantee the presence of the intense material through the combination of stylistic requirements and the Performance Category’s propensity to reward higher emotional temperatures. The LABBS Big Weekend delivered a preponderance of the sunny emotional uplands through the recognition of the need for mutual encouragement.

Considering the two side by side brings out the second observation: you’re unlikely to get variety and balance by chance. In a situation where everyone gets to make a small contribution, each will choose material that, to them, epitomises the meaning of the occasion.

One final thought. A recurrent theme in the conversations around the whole weekend (including my first reflections on it) has been how effectively the virtual event recreated the experiences of the live one. Whilst this post focuses on one of the differences, the fact that I’m writing it is a symptom of another of the similarities: the way I have come away from it having learned things I didn’t know I was going to. Every year I emerge from Convention weekend with full note-books and a renewed intellectual energy as well as the affective glow of connection with friends. It was a boost I needed this year more than most.

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