When Brent Anderson was at UCSB he sang in the ensemble known as Schubertians, singing classical lieder. And while his career path took him into insurance and finance, he still yearned for the power of song, something at the same time more challenging than 18th century classical vocal works and less rarified.
His answer would be barbershop quartet.
“To be a solo singer is one thing, but to blend and harmonize with three other people is another, very complex, thing,” he says. “When I first discovered barbershop I thought it was fun. But then I discovered it was as challenging as anything I’d ever sung.” He quotes rock musician Ben Folds, who called barbershop the “black belt of vocal jazz.”
Mr. Anderson’s quartet Pacific Sound returns for its annual – since 1999 – fundraiser concert “Postcards Through Time” at the New Vic this Saturday, and it is bringing other proponents of the classically American sound to share the stage. Along with Pacific Sound, the line-up includes the all-female Carpe Diem, a newly formed ensemble who are heading off to this year’s Sweet Adeline competition. (Yes, there are state, nationals and internationals for barbershop groups, and America counts around 900 groups in total).
Rounding out the evening will be a new mixed-voice quartet called Ready Willing and Mabel, who will be backed by a 20-piece, red fez and bowtie-wearing big band called the Rockin’ Moroccans. You could say this is a genre with a sense of humor.
“People still think of it as an old man’s type of thing,” Mr. Anderson says. “And maybe across the nation the average age of barbershop is 50-55. But all the stuff that’s out there like American Idol and various singing contests, the fastest growing demographic is 19-29.” In fact two of the men in his group are in their mid-20s, both graduate students at UCSB.
Those two, Max Fisch and Michael Gaultois, loved the experience so much that they brought in six more members from their colleagues at the university.
In terms of music theory, it is the barbershop harmonies’ lack of dissonance and constant resolution of the chord that makes it pleasant to the ear. But it’s also the lack of dissonance that ages it – jazz introduced a universe of minor-sevenths, and more to the twentieth century, and we’re still feeling the shockwaves.
Yet, the thrill of those magical harmonies continues today. University groups regularly take current pop and rock hits and re-arrange them for a cappella delivery, from Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” to Guns ‘n Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” The art form is healthy, no doubt.
Saturday’s concert is more of a nostalgia trip than a rock show, however, and will appeal to those who love the sound of yesteryear. But in a venue like the New Vic, the sound promises to be as overwhelming as it was 100 years ago.
“I have learned so much more about music now in barbershop than I did in (classical chorus),” he says. “Most people who come to barbershop come to it from another style of music. Maybe that’s high school chorus, or classical, or vocal. Barbershop is easy to listen to and enjoy.”
Postcards Through Time
When: 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: The New Vic, 33 W. Victoria St.
Information: 800-353-1632, www.pacificsoundchorus.org.