Thoughts on the Mixed Quartet

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This year's winners, PatchworkThis year's winners, Patchwork

LABBS Convention this year saw the UK’s second mixed quartet contest, following on from last year’s inaugural event. The standard was once again good, and the audience support enthusiastic, so it looks like it could be finding itself a regular fixture in the British barbershop year.

I reflected at some length after last year’s contest on the gender identity and voice-part identity interplays and instabilities that the genre brings out, and this year’s impressions are on similar themes.

Mixed barbershop is a minority form, having existed for a good many years, but mostly carrying on around the edges of ‘official’ activity. There are cultural obstacles to it that I don’t quite understand - back in the planning stages to the Millenium convention when male and female groups were to compete against each other, some of the outraged objections were along the lines of, ‘Whatever next? Mixed quartets???’ as if this represented the end of the world as we know it.

But there are also musical obstacles, as I discuss in my barbershop book. The way that the lead and baritone lines in particular are perennially tangled up in close-harmony textures does pose a question as how to form a mixed quartet. For, while there is a lot more overlap between male and female ranges than traditional SATB music exploits, still this common range lies in the lower part of female voices and the upper part of male, putting them, when combined, in rather different tessituras and expressive registers.

The easiest solution therefore is the 3+1 formation - either a female trio with male bass or a male trio with female tenor. For a 2+2 solution, there are two approaches: female voices on the upper stave (lead and tenor) with male bari and bass, or male voices on the structural parts (lead and bass) with female on the colouring harmonies of bari and tenor.

Now, either can work, but there are a couple of things that need treating carefully here. First, there’s a tendency to think of lead as an ‘upper’ part, given the way it’s written. But if you analyse ranges, the lead line nearly always lies both below and above the bari. We talk about the bari part weaving ‘above and below the lead’ - which it does, but it’s above when the lead is low and below when the lead is high, thus ending up with a typically narrower range. So, if you are putting a female singer on lead because it is a ‘higher’ part, you will probably end up with her needing to sing lower than a male bari. This may be fine, but check the assumptions.

The other issue is that of tessitura and expressive register. Just because one has the range to sing a song in a certain key, doesn’t mean that it’s going to be the best part of your voice to deliver the message. Vocal colour carries a lot of emotional information, and that arises to a significant degree from where a melody sits on an individual singer’s voice. Singing low (for yourself) has a different meaning from singing in the middle of your voice, which again is different from when you reach up high in your range. Heather Lane’s excellent theory of range and melodic communication is relevant here, and we need to note that this is not an absolute matter of high/low, but relative to the voice that sings.

(Actually, it’s not just 2+2 quartets who make me think this, but also some female trios with male basses who pitch things so as to get the benefit of the bass resonance, but at the cost of lead projection.)

I don’t think it’s inherently the case that a 2+2 quartet will work best with male lead/bass duo - you get good and indifferent blends in all combinations after all - but I do think that a quartet needs to pitch their songs according to where the lead is going to best deliver them. If you are making key choices that hamper the lead in order to accommodate other voices, it might be the moment to look at switching parts, or finding arrangements that lie better on that set of voices.

The other thought I had this year followed on from last year’s observation of intra-quartet flirtations as performance device. As I noted then, this works on a hetero-normative model.

But of course since last year’s contest, we have had the legalisation of same-sex marriage, so there’s no reason not to expect such entertainment devices to emerge in the unmixed version of the genre. This led to the vision of a 2+2 mixed quartet made up of two couples, but both gay rather than straight. Just stop and imagine that performance for a moment - it gets more interesting the longer you think about it.

This may sound like a frivolous observation, but I’m enjoying the way the change in the law is changing the meanings of all relationships, not just the minority it ostensibly is confined to. The shifts are subtle and deep, and it’s way too late in the post as well as off-topic to get into how the historical oppression inherent in the institution of marriage has been undermined by the law change. And it turns out they have reverberations in all kinds of corners of cultural life where we might have thought life was business as usual.

Hi Liz,

Just reviewing this article in the light of the forthcoming mixed chorus scene in Harrogate 16 and considering the best approach towards this new barbershop beast. Of course, most (if not all) of your observations about tessituras and expressive range probably still apply in the chorus environment but there is the added dimension of mixes of male and female voices within sections.

Do you have any thoughts about an optimal map of single sex parts to mixed voice parts? Something like:

- pitch up the men's arrangement a third/fourth as a general rule
- have deepest female basses sing lead with majority of male leads
- have moderately deep basses and baris sing bari with just a few male baris
- have higher voice take tenor as a mainly female part (although this demographic might create tenor overload ??)

In starting a group of this type I'm planning to experiment for the first song and see where people are best placed - but thumb rules to guide the process would be helpful.

Good question Andrew!

I am sure your suck-it-and-see approach is the best plan, as the answer will depend a lot on the collection of voices you find yourself with. Indeed all my theorising on the matter comes after observation of how different scenarios seem to operate in real life, and one thing that has emerged from my comparative research in different choral genres is that voice part identities are not nearly as fixed as they seem, but are developed in dialogue with the genres that use them.

HST, given than 3+1 works so well for mixed quartets, I'd be inclined to assume that you'll mix down from the top and up from the bottom, and possibly make key choices in the light of the M/F proportions you get.

Also, remember people don't have to sing the same part in every song...

Good luck with it all, looking forward to hearing how you get on!

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