Friday, January 26, 2007

Once Upon A Time 

"The presentation of barbershop music uses appropriate musical and visual methods to convey the theme of the song and provide the audience with an emotionally satisfying and entertaining experience. The musical and visual delivery is from the heart, believable, and sensitive to the song and its arrangement throughout. The most stylistic presentation artistically melds together the musical and visual aspects to create and sustain the illusions suggested by the music."
Barbershop Contest and Judging Handbook

I was born dour. Raised on The Cure and The Smiths, 95cm of annual rainfall and 30 hours of sunshine, my teenage years saw me succumb to high levels of melancholia and awkwardness.
Cross country running on Wednesday afternoons made me desolate and beautiful, and taught me that you can’t always stop just because you want to, but now I am middle aged and floppy, and my knees make Hammer House of Horror creaking sounds.
I’ve learned that melancholia will eventually go and bug someone else if you ignore it for long enough, but awkwardness is always with you, infuriatingly, unremittingly inappropriate, like having Noel Edmonds shagging your leg during a job interview.
Dourness is what made me. I am in touch with my inner grump and refuse to appear happy or sad to order.

At Barbershop practice, Sergeant Grimsargh (baritone) coaches us in non-verbal emoting. Expressing meaning through cheesy actions and facial expressions is as much a part of barbershop as anything else, and I confess I’m not keen.

Once upon a hill, we sat beneath a willow tree, counting all the stars and waiting for the dawn...
Sergeant Grimsargh wants us to look skyward, to smile and act serene. He demonstrates, and looks like a baby filling it’s nappy.
For the benefit of the judges and those at the back of the audience, we must amplify our emoting to grotesque proportions.
“… but that was once upon a time, now the tree is gone.”
He hams a sour face, a comically down turned mouth, seems about to bawl that he wants his nappy changing, and we are expected to want our nappies changing too.

I trust my own judgement and there is no fucking way I’m going to do that.
It’s a beautiful song, the lyrics are precisely weighted, delicately balanced, light and dark and poignant; the harmonies make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and take notice.
The noise we make is rich, warm, devastating in it’s simple purity. No sound engineer with all the technology in the world at their disposal could confect a resonance so perfect and whole as the one we produce in that rifle range, week in, week out.
The sight of forty grown men all conveying “I’ve just pooped!” kind of ruins it for me.

But that’s how barbershop is, and it’s an argument I’ll never win. What to be done?

I feel sad at the thought of quitting the chorus so soon. I had high hopes. But I feel sad at the prospect of staying.
Best just sit back awhile, try to detach myself from these two opposing sadnesses and let them battle it out for supremacy. Go with the one that loses.

Private Staining (tenor) keeps a scrapbook, photo albums, old concert programmes and newspaper cuttings going back thirty years. The other old soldiers flick through the pages, smile at the pictures.
I immediately recognise a kindred spirit: a keeper of journals, a chronicler, a hoarder of stuff, and - just my luck! - this also makes me feel sad. It’s like catching myself in a mirror and for a while I can’t breathe: a great wave of sorrow sweeping me away forever.

“That’s George. He moved to Australia. Died a couple of years ago.”
“And there’s Howard, look. He would always have us in stitches. Cracking jokes on the risers, even in competitions. You never knew what he was going to do next. He’s dead now as well.”

These are good, good people, bright and alive - “I’m a widower now, so there’s more to keep me busy around the house. But I cycle every day, three miles or more, always buy the paper on my way home” - but I am melancholic and awkward and never know what to say to anybody, and I’m not sure it’s right for me to be around here like this. I’ll give it a couple of weeks.

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