Arrangements That Don’t Quite Work

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One of the things that happens when you are a barbershop judge is that you get to hear multiple performances of the same arrangement. (You get it as an audience member too, but you get it more as a judge as you can’t pop out for a beer and a sandwich during the early afternoon session.) And sometimes you notice over repeated hearings that certain arrangements seem consistently to elicit sub-optimal performances.

These are arrangements that, on the face of it look fine. If there were obvious technical or artistic flaws with them, they wouldn’t get picked up by lots of groups. So it takes quite a few hearings to notice that whenever ensembles sing them, they always perform better in the other song – they’re more synchronised, better in tune and more naturally expressive. I’m not going to name specific arrangements, as I don’t think that would be polite. Rather I’ll just invite you to compile your own lists from your own listening experiences.

I am fascinated by these arrangements, though, for the implications they carry for my own work as an arranger. If I can only figure out why charts that look fine don’t sing – well I can avoid doing those things myself. I’m reminded of a comment a student of mine once made on the matter of self-awareness: ‘If I weren’t self-aware, how would I know?’

So, my thinking so far is that there are a handful of avoidable technical features that seem to show up:

  • A significant musical event occurring on an insignificant lyrical event. For instance, swiping onto a new primary harmony on the sustained last syllable of a word.
  • Phrase-end embellishments that invite the clipping-short of the primary harmony. For instance, swipes or echoes that delay the arrival on V7 by inserting II ½ dim on the downbeat may not leave enough time to sound the point or arrival and breathe, especially if the next phrase starts with an anacrusis, leaving it all sounding a bit of a scramble.
  • Lines that place surprising notes on unsurprising syllables, i.e. that have a counter-intuitive expressive shape for the singer delivering them.
  • Related to this, disjunct motion that comes out of nowhere and goes nowehere. Musical leaps are like physical leaps: the bigger the jump, the more you need a sense of running up to it to gather energy, and the more you need to absorb the energy generated over the ensuing few notes.

These are factors that, whilst not immediately obvious, are objectively identifiable as having the potential to disturb the performance. But I don’t think they’re the whole story by a long chalk. The frequently-sung charts that don’t quite work may display a smattering of these, but if they were riddled with them, they wouldn’t be frequently sung.

I think the issue is often also the song’s fault. Or, more precisely, the problem is placing the song in the context of a barbershop contest. The suitability issue here is not about style, but about emotional shape. Contest performances are expected to bear a significant emotional weight. The performers are aiming to make a major impact on their listeners (especially the judges, but they’re there in the capacity of representatives of the rest of the audience), and also will have invested a lot of their own emotional energy into preparation for the event. The songs that don’t quite work are the ones, I think, that struggle to bear this weight meaningfully.

Take ‘Walking My Baby Back Home’, about which I have already been publicly rude (ahem). It’s a light song. The story is cute but not especially important. It’s the kind of song you could bury in the middle of show set to give your audience a chance to daydream and relax for a bit without having to pay too much attention. The line that makes women uncomfortable (‘She says if I try to kiss her she’ll cry…I dry her tears all through the night’) could easily be a throw-away comment and would probably elicit a mild smile if sung self-deprecatingly.

The problem in a contest situation is that that line has to behave as the climax point – the pay-off, the punch-line. But, it’s really not that funny, so it’s hard to perform it as if it is particularly significant. The arranger has put a key change in there to help, but this just draws attention to the way that making a big deal of this line makes the ensemble sound sexually predatory and domineering.

Contest barbershop has an aesthetic that invests every song with emotional significance and a clear narrative trajectory. And for music that is sung at an event that is the emotional focus of a community’s yearly cycle, that’s appropriate. But when you try and craft this emotional shape out of music that is better listened to absent-mindedly, all that extra energy has nowhere to go. The song won’t absorb it, so it goes into distorting the performers instead.

Nice article Liz - I'd never thought about WMBBH in that way, but you are absolutely right. Eye opening.

love, Mike

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