To Err is Human*

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Toronto Northern Lights in rehearsalToronto Northern Lights in rehearsalWell, I said in my last post that Toronto Northern Light’s package that won them third place at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s International Convention recently deserved a post of its own, so here goes. It doesn’t appear to be up on Youtube so I’ll start off by describing what they did for those who haven’t seen it, and then highlight a few points as to why I admired it so much.

The first song was a medley of parodies on the theme of robots who wished they were human. All the chorus were costumed in grey overalls with all their visible skin painted in silver make-up except their director, Steve Armstrong, who played the part of the human operator. At the end of the first song, he sat down at a desk and went to sleep, while all the robots actually came ‘alive’ as humans to sing their ballad, ‘Over the Rainbow’ under the direction of their assistant director, Jordan Travis. At the end they returned to their robot world, leaving their operator to wake up with a hunch that something unusual had just occurred.

So, from this description it sounds like a nice idea that could be anything from wonderful to terrible in performance, depending on how it was realised. I’m interested in identifying the things that contributed to it being wonderful, and learning from them.

First of all, it helped that it was all beautifully sung. There are those who debate whether better quality singing makes comedy more entertaining, but for my money, the cleaner, richer and more expressive the performance is, the bigger the emotional impact it has on me. I like it when people sing to me; I like it more when people sing to me well.

And I think beautiful singing is also a symptom of a degree of attention to detail that suffused both the construction of the performance and its enactment. The whole chorus moved with a style of physical motion derived from the machines in the Terminator movies, and the continuity and consistency of the visual illusion was not only incredibly effective, but also went hand in hand with the consistency of sound.

This discipline in characterisation then drew attention to the way the whole theme acted as a kind of ironic commentary on the disciplines of barbershop performance. The style’s aesthetic is couched in terms of emotionality and authenticity of communication, but the techniques required to do it well are designed to erase the individuality of the performers – uniform voice production and word sounds remove the identity markers of place and class carried by accent, and synchronised delivery aligns everyone’s sense of rhythm and nuance into a uniform pacing. (This is not unique to barbershop of course – professional orchestral performers probably experience an even greater tension between the interpretive individuality their training develops and the lack of autonomy they get when that training wins them a place in an orchestra.)

What was so clever, though, was that this ironic subtext itself played a significant role in creating a successful performance. The characterisation gave a clear motivation for the level of physical and imaginative discipline required to carry off any performance at this level.

And there was such a plenitude of ideas. You can’t make a comedic presentation work with only the one big joke that you build it round; you need to keep the giggles on the boil throughout, with little jokes building up to the big pay-offs of the major punchlines. When Steve used a remote control to signal the pitch-pipe at the start of the first song, I was reminded of Nick Park’s account of how they wrote the scripts for the Wallace and Gromit films: ‘We just sat around drinking tea, and anything that made us fall off our chairs laughing was in’. You could see both the depth of creative team-work and the sheer joy that had gone into honing these details into the whole.

There was some exemplary parody-writing too. They had picked a number of songs that had featured in high-profile performances at International Conventions in recent years, which immediately gave that specific audience a sense of being in on the jokes, of getting it. And then they changed as little as possible of the actual words to turn them to their current use. A robot catching his head as it fell off (itself a masterly bit of acting from David McEachern) set up ‘Put Your Head on Your [rather than ‘my’] shoulders’, for instance. And the touching story of a ‘very gentle droid’ whose love did not flourish elicited a gradual ripple of anticipatory glee as the audience recognised the song and realised they were headed to the punchline, ‘For their hearts were full of springs’.

The second song after a comedic opener can be difficult to handle. So, the choice of ‘Over the Rainbow’ was a great way to turn this problem into an opportunity – since the yearning for a state of being beyond your reach actually retold the primary message of the first song, but in (temporarily) human terms. You didn’t have to shift your suspension of disbelief from where it had been to find the performance moving; indeed, having laughed at the same sentiments previously amplified the impact of their sincere expression.

It’s also worth mentioning the supreme act of delegation of a chorus’s director spending the entire second song with his head on a desk. Steve has always worked with co-directors to whom he entrusts significant parts of the chorus’s performances, but he would usually join the singing ranks when he hands over the directorship. But just putting his head down and leaving them to get on with it is a wonderful act of trust: he was there for them, and there with them, but felt no need to interfere.

Well, you can tell I enjoyed it. But it’s also one of the performances that led me to feel I came home a better musician than I went.

* The title of this post is the slogan on the T-shirts the chorus were wearing around the convention.

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