By Jung Woo Bae in the Simplicity and Complexity issue.
I blow the pitch pipe on the key of A-flat, and, almost instinctively, the four of us huddle closer together, forming an intimate circle.
As the A-flat gradually dissipates after a few seconds of held uniformity, the bass starts humming his first note, the baritone follows with his, and the tenor concludes the neatly stacked chord.
After a swift intake of breath, we begin singing the 1905 classic "Wait ‘Til the Sun Shines Nellie," known for its arrangement in the barbershop style:
“On a Sunday morn—, sat a maid—, forlorn— . . . ”
At all times, we take care not to exert any flaws in pitch, for we know that the slightest taint in intonation could disrupt the flow of unified harmony.
Up until this moment, we have relentlessly pursued the promised yet ever-elusive overtone — a euphonic, ringing phenomenon that is a defining feature of barbershop music. An overtone can only be achieved if all four voices meld flawlessly together, as when the notches on a key link precisely with the pins in a lock.
As we drift through the musical phrases articulately inscribed in our heads, we prepare ourselves for the final segment of the piece, otherwise known as the tag. Ears sharpen, ready to discern the slightest of flaws.
At last, we reach the resolution of the song, and as we sustain the ending chord, we notice an angelic, ringing sound quietly emerging into existence. Invisible to the eye, yet just discernable with the ear, the overtone perches gently at the chord’s apex, like a halo floating on top our heads. Tasting the sweet chime of an overtone for the first time in our lives leaves us elated and ecstatically numb.
It wasn’t until my penultimate year of high school that I discovered barbershop: a four-part harmony a cappella known for its unique, complex chords. Each vocal section is constituted of notoriously difficult and unusual progressions of notes, namely due to the abundance of accidentals (musical signs indicating a temporary digression from the key signature by raising or lowering a given note). Yet, it isn’t just singing the individual parts that is challenging; blending them together is, in fact, the real struggle.
Individually, the sections sound incongruous to one another. At first glance, it’s easy to doubt that all the parts can merge together in the first place. This is understandable, because if complex meets complex, logic convinces us that further complexity should arise. However, barbershop proves the contrary. In barbershop, when all four sections are woven together in proper synchrony, it results in an intricate fabric of harmony that gives the genre its distinctive texture and sound. Sometimes, as exemplified by barbershop, immersing oneself in complexity may be the solution to finding the simplicity one seeks in life.
Searching for simplification inside a ball of chaos can be mentally exhausting and often fruitless. Yet in barbershop, singers undergo this process on a daily basis. Not only must they know their parts by heart, but they must also practice tirelessly for the chords to eventually lock. In every rehearsal, barbershoppers constantly strive towards achieving that beautiful sound of a properly “locked” chord or a ringing overtone. Though it’s a strenuous undertaking, they shoulder it to reach the fruits that the journey bears.
In this same vein, I believe that one must expend effort and dedication when grappling with complexity, for there is joy in reaching understanding after a long-fought struggle. We’re bound to feel a sense of catharsis in finding illumination —simplicity—at the end of a twisting labyrinth. And once we’ve felt that catharsis a couple of times, it becomes almost like an addiction, a permanent goal which we work towards with hopeful dedication. When we arrive at this stage in life, complexity will provide us with a constant sense of fulfilment and purpose to help us advance as more enlightened individuals.
Ever since my encounter with barbershop, I’ve begun to see complexity through a completely different lens. I see it not as a notion we must avoid or be discouraged from, but rather as a possible realm from which we can derive simplicity. A convoluted knot may appear daunting and even a little ugly, but beneath its unruly surface, there is beauty resting at its core. To reach it, we must take the time to untangle it string by string. We have to put it in on trial and experiment with it — turning it side to side, flipping it over and up. We must embrace it.
In our pursuit towards simplification, let us just pause and turn to where we least expect to find it. Look. There is clarity faintly shimmering in the opaque; can you see it? There are soft harmonies resonating from the complex; do you hear them?
Because I can.
Enjoy this video of a professional barbershop quartet in action:
Jung Woo Bae from New Zealand was 17 years old when he wrote this blog. His hobbies include playing basketball, playing the violin and piano, and being in the beautiful outdoors of his country. He has a passion for both music and literature and hopes to study medicine and fulfill his dream of becoming a doctor.