So we had a contest…

…to determine the best barbershop quartets and choruses. We have one every year, this year it was in Toronto. It’s one of my favorite events of the year for sure. Tuning, just intonation in particular, is central to my aesthetic as a composer and performer.  The sound of chords locked in tune is an exhilarating experience, and unfortunately contemporary musical training in the academy doesn’t emphasize tuning at the degree I prefer. Classical training (for lack of a better term) seems to exist in a world of  “in tune enough” rather than aspiring to be perfectly in tune. So the International Convention and Competition is the best place to hear the most in-tune and ringing chords in the world.

This emphasis on tuning is what drew me to barbershop singing. It has been my experience that barbershop singers are the most dedicated and sensible practitioners of just intonation in the western music tradition (the only other style of music I’ve heard that does this is Indian Carnatic music). Just intonation as a system of making music is a no man’s land of speculative intellectualism. Just visit the Wikipedia page on the subject (take a look at the discussion page as well); once there you’ll find long discussions about mathematics of just intonation, and various commas, and theories about different variants. These all seem to lose sight of the fact that just intonation is an acoustic phenomenon. That is to say that these are sounds, and we need to understand them by hearing them, not through mathematical expressions. This is what barbershoppers do, they learn just intonation by doing just intonation, and passing the practice through an oral tradition.

Anyways, there was this contest for the best barbershop quartet and chorus last week, and this was the first time in several years that I have either not attended the International Convention and Contest, or watched it live via the webcast that is offered every year. This year I elected to purchase the delayed webcast option (way cheaper) and for the last several days I have been mainlining lots of barbershop music.

This year was quite interesting. As the event approached there was clear favorites for winning in both the quartet contest and the chorus contest. For the quartets, Musical Island Boys–a quartet from New Zealand–was the favored quartet to win; and in the chorus contest the Westminster Chorus from southern California was heavily favored to win. Both ensembles placed second. In the case of Musical Island Boys, I was not surprised. They lost to the Los Angeles area quartet Masterpiece; but it was the Toronto Northern Lights winning the chorus contest that really surprised me. For me, Westminster has defined my expectations about what a choir can achieve in terms of tuning and fidelity. This expectation was set by their performance from the 2010 contest (which they won handily):

This performance was obviously something extremely special, and based upon this performance and several concerts I had seen by Westminster, I had been saying over and over again that no other barbershop chorus was going to come close to them for many years. I’m not alone in this feeling. I have talked to many other active barbershoppers who also say that Westminster has redefined what the ideal chorus sound is.

So why were they not able to defend their championship this year? The best answer is that on July 5, 2013, the better performance won the day; and that performance belonged to the Toronto Northern Lights. Unfortunately I cannot post videos or audio from the event, but when one listens and watches the performances, it is clear who had the better performance. Westminster certainly produced a consistently clean and ringing sound, but overall they seemed to lack the same inspiration and connection that Toronto had (I feel a bit bad saying this, because lots of those guys are friends of mine). Toronto also had an extremely clean sound too, not as good as Westminster, but close enough to bring them victory. The final word: the better chorus lost, but the better performance won. Congratulations to both choruses for their phenomenal work.

There were some other great things about this year’s contest also. Both quartet contests (Collegiate and International) were won by SoCal quartets, and if Westminster had won, then southern California (LA/Orange County in particular) would have swept the entire convention. This just goes to show that southern California is a mecca for barbershop in the world. I’d also like to say congratulations to After Hours, whose set in the semifinals of the quartet competition was really, really special and amazing. I look forward to hearing more from this quartet in the future.

Another group I’m really excited about is Voices of Gotham. As I mentioned in my last post, this barbershop group is based in NYC and when I visited them on my first night in town they showed nothing but class and hospitality toward me. They placed 8th in this year’s contest and performed a fantastic set. Last Thursday I joined them in their celebration and I have every intention of joining their ranks as soon as possible.

Next year’s contest will be Las Vegas, and I’ve been told we are taking over the whole MGM Grand Hotel. It’ll be a great contest and I am planning on being there.

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