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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

True Barbershop

I spent last evening rehearsing with a local barbershop chorus.  I have a few thoughts.

It is very good for a conductor to spend time on the other side of the baton.

Barbershop is a world that intersects but slightly with the church music world, and even more slightly with the high-brow choral world.  It has a blue-collar vibe that is startling.  When the local director wants his singers to sit down, he yells "sit dooooown!"  The church ladies' perms would curdle if a choir director talked that way to them.

Barbershop groups tend to be somewhat flexible stylistically when they perform, but they are not given that latitude when they compete.  The Barbershop Harmony Society defines what music is "contestable."  I have heard rumors of barbershop's reputation for stylistic conservatism; it is a topic discussed in whispers, usually in seedy bars in third-world seaports.  It is one thing to hear the rumors; it is quite another thing to sit down with the official BHS Contest and Judging Handbook and read its rather (!) detailed, über-geeky rules for chord use:
The dominant ninth chord is used primarily when it is implied by the melody and the melody lies on the ninth.  Occasionally, the ninth may appear in another voice to create a pleasing duet or to create natural voice leading.  Only the root or fifth may be omitted, usually the root.  Use of a chord with the fifth omitted must be justified by a valid musical reason.  If the root is present, it must be voiced more than an octave below the ninth.
They also disallow instruments of any kind.  Looks like a plan to introduce an airplane propeller into my next barbershop composition is a non-starter.

Which brings me to the next point.  You know my agenda is to write music for these guys.  "But Fred," you scream hysterically, "those rules!  They'll stifle your artistic expression!"  We roll our eyes at the rules because personal expression is a Myth that dominates our modern understanding of art.  Then we reconsider, reminding ourselves that constraints often stimulate creativity:  think Rachmaninoff's Vespers.  The truth is that art struggles in environments that are too permissive, but also, in environments that are too restrictive.  There's a region of magical twilight where just enough resistence leads to just the right kind of struggle that results in a satisfying work of art.  That finding that region is difficult is only one more way that Art Is Hard.

I'm going to try writing a contestable barbershop composition.  I won't spend all my time in the barbershop world, but I'm going to enjoy it while I'm there.  I will wallow in lush harmonies and indulge my wildest passing-tone cravings.  One does not fill one's bathtub with chocolate pudding every day, but one does it once in a while, right?  (You do do that, right?  Hello?  Anyone?)

Frankly, I completely get the reason these rules were developed.  Novelty grants a short-term advantage but causes mission creep over the long-term.  These guys want a contest of barbershop music, and they don't want their contest spoiled because some jerks perform a "barbershop rap" or some other abomination that brings the house down and wins the trophy.  (A bronzed shaving brush, no doubt.)  Coney Island Baby:  yes.  Phoney Island Baby:  definitely not.  It's in the nature of things that, over the years, BHS judges were forced to define what barbershop means, in ever more legalistic terms.

If you read the rules carefully, you'll find they include escape clauses.  A little of the vermouth of dissonance is allowed, as long as the important chords deliver lots of the gin of dominant and tonic.  I'll look for subtle ways to subvert their paradigm.  If I'm lucky, I'll subvert it and make them like it.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to admit, I have a bit of a split personality regarding this issue. On one hand I agree that the ringing of the major 7th chords is one of things I love about this music, but then I have to admit that my favorite quartet is Realtime, followed closely by Nightlife. Both of these quartets tend to "stretch" the rules a bit and sing out of the box as it were. I guess I just love Barbershop music sung well.

6:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I listen to barbershop quartets singing I love what I hear but I have no idea how to write the music!

6:04 AM  

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