On July 4, 2015 the Barbershop Harmony Society’s annual International Convention and Competition came to a close with Instant Classic winning the contest and becoming the 2015 International Quartet Champions. At first glance Instant Classic doesn’t seem like the popular conception of a barbershop quartet: no striped jackets or straw hats, and their competition songs aren’t classic Tin Pan Alley songs such as “Wait Till the Sun Shines Nellie.” Instead we get a young quartet who wears sharp suits and takes the stage singing less familiar and more contemporary repertoire. Instant Classic’s six competition songs drew upon a wide swath of source material that ranged from 1920s musical theater and 1950s television theme songs to 1990s R&B. Although this may seem contrary to the barbershop tradition, it’s actually firmly within the historical tradition of barbershop quartet singing; which has made a common practice of appropriating and covering popular songs from wherever and whenever they can be found.
Last night Oxygen network’s reality series Fix My Choir featured the Sweet Adelines International chorus Sirens of Gotham on the episode, “A Choir with Two Heads.” Fix My Choir‘s premise is Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child, and gospel musician Deitrick Haddon meeting with choirs across the country to help solve administrative and musical problems each group may have—basically making each choir more meaningful and enjoyable for its members. The episode featuring the Sirens of Gotham is perhaps the most public, non-comedic exposure for barbershop music in recent memory, and as someone who was peripherally involved in the creation of the show, it was also an interesting lesson in reality television.
The 2014 Barbershop Harmony Society International Convention was recently held in Las Vegas during the first week of July. As always, quartets and choruses travel from around the world to compete against one another. This year, Musical Island Boys from New Zealand won the quartet contest, and The Vocal Majority from Dallas/Fort Worth prevailed in the chorus contest. Normally the quartet contest is what gets everyone talking about, but this year the chorus contest was the primary talking point leading up the convention.
…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.
I had the opportunity recently to engage in a comprehensive study of a particular type of song: the barbershop contest uptune. Most people in America are aware of barbershop quartets and have a passing familiarity with the barbershop style of four-part, a cappella singing. What many of these folks are not aware of is the barbershop contest. Every year dozens of these contests happen all over world. Barbershop quartets and chorus compete against each other at a variety of levels. At these contests you will generally hear two types of songs: the barbershop ballad, which emphasizes sustained harmonies and a liberal use of rubato; and the uptune, which features more rhythmic elements and is sung at a faster tempo.