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161, The Swingle Singers, ‘Sinfonia from Partita No.2 in C Minor’

Posted by jeff on Jan 25, 2013 in A Cappella, Classical, Song Of the week

The Swingle Singers – ‘Sinfonia from Partita No. 2 in C Minor’

The Swingle Singers, 2013

I had the great pleasure last week of hanging out with The Swingle Singers. They were coming to our little corner of the globe for a couple of concerts, and graciously agreed to give a workshop for the growing local a cappella community. Both the workshop and the concert were knockouts, and I highly recommend you following their tour calendar and trying to catch them the next time they’re in your neighborhood. Here’s what they look and sound like today. Ain’t no one who won’t enjoy them, from the most casual listener to the most effete snob.

I wrote at some length in SoTW 139 about the history of the Swingle Swingers, the context in which they sprouted, the path they’ve traveled, and especially where they are today. In short, the original Swingle Singers were formed in 1963 in Paris under the direction of Ward Swingle singing Bach instrumental scores in eight voices with a jazz bass and drum accompaniment. They disbanded after a successful decade, and Ward regrouped in London. This new incarnation worked for the next thirthysomething years, into our current century, as an evolving a cappella group performing technically polished treatments of a standard range of folk, pop, classical and traditional music. In recent years they’ve become associated with the “contemporary a cappella” movement, which I’ve written about extensively, becoming a world leader in this burgeoning cult.

Ward Swingle

They’re creating new and exciting music, and they’ve just begun. They’re planning on recording a lot of new material for their 50th anniversary, and judging by the two samples from their recent concert, some new ground is about to be broken. One very impressive piece featured a fluid harmonic center gliding between keys while being driven by a programmatic rhythmic scheme. Bartok would sit up and listen intently. The other began with the bass creating a beatboxing backing loop, then added Billie Holiday’s vocal track from ‘Don’t Explain’ isolated from its backing and run through a compressor/limiter and distorted, à la ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’!! Then the group overlays this potpourri with a demure choral ‘accompaniment’ overriding Lady Day. Say wa??

The original Swingle Singers

Clare Wheeler, the very talented arranger and alto of the group, told me that for much of their audience, ‘The Swingle Singers’ means singing Bach in a jazz setting. But for her and all the current Swingles, it means creating new, innovative, interesting music. Just like Ward Swingle did fifty years ago, when he pretty much invented the mindset of crossover and opened up the music world to the potential of classical music in popular contexts,  vocal jazz and so much more. In fact, she told me, the 86-year old Ward Swingle heartily approves of ‘the new stuff’ and encourages the youngsters to pursue new directions rather than slavishly copying the original Swingle music.

“For him, The Swingle Singers is about being innovative. We see ourselves as a band, striving to create good music, not a party trick slavishly adhering to a principle such as doing everything strictly a cappella.”

The Swingle Singers, 2013

I loved hearing that, and was encouraging Clare to be bold and continue taking bold chances, because they’re a hip, young, fun group of musicians. But they also carry that name, and with it a mantle of noblesse oblige and the aura of that great, groundbreaking music that I was singing twenty years before any of the current Swingles was born.

So I sheepishly asked them if they knew my very favorite piece from one of my very favorite albums, the ‘Sinfonia from Partita No.2 in C Minor, BWV 826’ from the very original “Bach’s Greatest Hits”. ‘Sure’, they said, ‘it’s still in our repertoire, but we haven’t sung it since Ward’s party a few years ago.’ Wow. I sure would get a kick out of hearing Clare and Jo and CJ and Kevin and Oliver and Ed singing that ‘Sinfonia’, with Sara singing that crazy, divine virtuoso lead which will forever be one of my very favorite pieces of music.

It begins with a formal choral introduction, then launches into an extended scat solo that makes you wonder what Johann was smoking back there behind the chapel organ. That’s followed by a long polyphonic fade (actually if you look at the score it’s only two voices, but in Bach’s hands that sounds like twenty.) I’ve listened to it some three trillion times, and I can sing about 80% of the notes. Not that it’s challenging music or anything.

Glenn Gould practicing

Just to start off on solid ground, here it is by my favorite babushka, Tatyana Nikolayeva.

And here’s the piece by our favorite Canadian whacko, Mr Glenn Gould. It’s actually pretty restrained for him. But if you want to witness the madness lurking beneath that veneer of respectability, check out this clip of Glenn Gould practicing the Sinfonia.It’s not recommended for children or those weak of constitution. You might want to fasten your seatbelt and take a valium before watching this one.  

Christine Legrand

Here’s what it looked like back when the world and I (and The Swingle Singers) were young, the original Swingles singing the original Swingle Bach. The lead soprano is Christine Legrand, Michel’s sister.

And here’s the ‘original’ recording, the one I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to sing along with for fifty years, longer than these seven whippersnapper Swingles have been swingling combined. What do they know? Well, they’re lovely people and fine musicians, tall singers on the shoulders of giants. They actually know quite a lot, and I’m looking forward to them showing more. But nothing can alter the lifelong love affair I’ve had with the original Swingle Singers, 1963, singing ‘Sinfonia from Partita No.2 in C Minor, BWV 826’.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

005: Glenn Gould, Toccata in Cm (J.S. Bach)
077: J.S. Bach, ‘The Art of The Fugue’ (The Emerson Quartet, ‘Contrapunctus 9′)
139: The Swingle Singers, ‘On the 4th of July’ (James Taylor)

 

The New A Cappella

Posted by jeff on Aug 24, 2012 in Writings

I’ve just returned from the inspiring The Real Group Festival in Stockholm, four days of workshops, lectures, concerts and hugging, a celebration of a music shared passionately by a small but growing number of adherent fanatics worldwide — The New A Cappella. Many of the participants expressed frustration at the difficulty in explaining just what this genre is. Here’s my attempt to provide an overview. Many thanks to Florian Städtler (the world’s leading NAC activist) and Tobias Hug (former Swingle Singer, premier repository of AC information) for their help in trying to impose order on this nebulous cloud of activity. All distortions, misrepresentations, factual errors, sins of omission and commission (and I’m sure there are many) are mine and mine alone. I welcome your comments and corrections, and hope that this overview will evolve to a higher degree of accuracy and objectivity. –Jeff Meshel

The Real Group Festival

Participants came from Åland (huh?), Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, The Netherlands, USA, and Venezuela. There was enough love and energy and excitement on the isle of Skeppsholmen to light all of Stockholm for those four days.

What is this New A Cappella that motivated almost 600 cultists to fly to immerse ourselves in? Read more…

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139: The Swingle Singers, ‘On the 4th of July’ (James Taylor)

Posted by jeff on Jul 6, 2012 in A Cappella, Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Hey, America, happy birthday! Two hundred and thirty-six, right? That’s a lot of candles dancing on the head of one cake, but I trust you’ll manage. We just want to wish you all the best—sorry, what’s that? It’s not the birthday of the United States? Huh? So what is it? Oh, it’s the independence of the Colonies from Great Britain that took place in 1776. So when was the US born? Thirteen years later, in 1789, when George W. the First took office? First independence, then coming into being. I get it. It’s like starting with your bar mitzvah, then 13 years later getting born. That makes sense.

Well, Happy Whatever it is you guys are celebrating. July 4th mostly connotes Entebbe for me, but I’m always willing to join a party.  And Momma taught me you don’t come to a party without a gift, so here’s ours – a very lovely James Taylor song as performed a cappella by The Swingle Singers, ‘On the 4th of July’.

In August, 1963, I was spending my summer vacation before the tenth grade staring at the albums in Neumark’s Record Store in Westsomething Shopping Center across the street from Woodward HS in Cincinnati. This is what I saw:

 

I yawned (having slept only 13 hours that night). Then I saw this:

I stopped yawning. “’Bach’s Greatest Hits’. That’s funny.” Then I peered more closely and saw that the Baroque musicians in the engraving were wearing shades. Cool, man. And I read the blurb “A unique vocal jazz treatment of Johann Sebastian Bach by the creative Swingle Singers.” Wow, really cool. So I shelled out my $2.99 (plus 12¢ sales tax) and spent the next few years listening to that album about as much as I listened to The soon-to-appear Beatles.

It was a revelation, eight voices swinging Bach note for note, accompanied by string bass and a brush of drums. The album was for me both a revelation and an education. I learned to sing bass by listening closely, hour after hour after hour. I literally wore out the album. It was the beginning of my lifelong love of Bach, and it still sounds fine to me today. When I played it for Mr. Lang, he immediately fell for it, brought us ‘Choral No.1‘ to sing, and gave me the finger cymbal solo.

The Swingle Singers evolved from a group of singers formed by the fine cool jazz chanteuse Blossom Dearie (her real name). Working in Paris under the direction of tenor Ward Swingle (of Alabama and Cincinnati) and soprano Christine Legrand (Michel’s sister), they stumbled on a style that would open the ears and minds of many, leading in the short range to children such as Switched-On Bach (the first widely heard electronic music) and Jacques Loussier (piano jazz improvisations on Bach). In the long range, their style had a paradigmatic impact on crossover experimentation, the fun potential of classical music in popular contexts,  vocal jazz and so much more.

Here are two of my favorites: Aria from Orchestral Suite No.3, a luscious, embracing recording I love dearly; and the soprano virtuoso piece Sinfonia from Partita No.2, with Christine Legrand reminding us just how much of a genius JSBach was. I won’t tell you how often I try to sing this soprano solo when I’m alone in the car.

The Swingle Singers recorded and performed extensively and successfully for the next decade, always impeccable, but never reaching the excitement levels of that very first album. In 1973, the original French group disbanded. Ward Swingle formed a new group in London called Swingle II, then The Swingles, then The New Swingle Singers, then simply The Swingle Singers, and they’ve been swingling ever since. They recorded a million albums–the old classical formula, folk songs, Christmas albums, a Beatles tribute, more Christmas albums–all of it faultless, blandly perfect, none of it groundbreaking.

In 2007 they began to metamorphose into a ‘New A Cappella’ group with the CD “Beauty and the Beatbox”, applying hip new vocal percussion to a mix of classics and modern pieces. Here’s their take on the Mexican standard Cielito Lindo. In 2009 this new approach ripened into “Ferris Wheel”, a charming collection of their own arrangements of pop songs. It includes songs from those artists most frequently recorded by New Acappella groups – Bjork, Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson (some other time I’ll tell you about my obsession about Brian Wilson being sung a cappella), Joni Mitchell, Sting, John & Paul, Nick Drake and James Taylor.

The Real Group Festival

‘New A Cappella’ is a genre I’m deeply involved in. It was more or less invented 25 years ago by the Swedish quintet The Real Group, who elevated vocal jazz from singing harmony above the accompaniment (Hi-Lo’s, Singers Unlimited, Lambert Hendricks & Ross) to ‘singing the arrangement’ a cappella. It’s a fascinating world of music, most highly evolved in Scandinavia. I’ve written about it a number of times (links), and will probably be doing so a lot more in the near future, because in just over a month I’ll be privileged to attend The Real Group Festival in Stockholm, where The Swingle Singers will be performing and leading workshops, together with a whole host of other stellar folks from our little cult. I was at the first festival four years ago. It was a life-changing experience musically, and even personally to no small degree–lots of lovely people from around the world embracing each other through music. C’mon Cindy, c’mon Sue, get on a plane and join us. You’ll be glad you did, I promise you.

What’s so good about The New A Cappella? Well, here, I’ll show you. There are a couple of songs from The Swingles’ “Ferris Wheel” that are among the very best of what the genre has to offer. Here’s their version Nick Drake’s ‘River Man’. It’s been recorded often–I even wrote an entire SoTW about it. The Swingles’ version shows just how effectively an AC treatment can elicit from a well-known pop song new understandings, new beauties. And here’s our SoTW, the oh-so charming James Taylor song ‘On the 4th of July’.

Ain’t it sweet? It’s from James’ last album of originals, “October Road” (2002). Here’s the original. It’s such shame that James has stopped recording new original material, but we don’t begrudge him. We appreciate what he has done. Like this one, a love song for mature audiences. It’s about a man in his mid-50s starting up with a lady he’s known for a long time.

It’s full of the irrepressible anticipation of a new relationship tempered by the wariness born of a lifetime of bumps and bounces and disappointments. It’s a jolly, inexplicable mix of Colonial America and music on the radio and the sly grin of still getting aroused by what may happen when she comes down for the fireworks. Love and and independence and rebirth, the sort of story James tells so well. So happy 4th of July to everyone, everywhere.

 

Shall I tell it again, how we started as friends who would run into one another now and again

At the Yippee Cai O or the Mesa Dupree or a dozen different everyday places to be?

I was loping along, living alone, we were ever so brave on the telephone.

“Would you care to come down for fireworks time? We could each just reach, we could step out of line.”

And the smell of the smoke and the lay of the land and the feeling of finding one’s heart in one’s hand

And the tiny tin voice of the radio band singing “Love must stand,” love forever and ever must stand.

 

Unbelievable you, impossible me, the fool who fell out of the family tree

The fellow that found the philosopher’s stone deep in the ground like a dinosaur bone

Who fell into you at a quarter to two with a tear in your eye for the Fourth of July

For the patriots and the minutemen and the things you believe they believed in then

Such as freedom, and freedom’s land and the kingdom of God and the rights of man

With the tiny tin voice of the radio band singing “love must stand”

Love forever and ever must stand and forever must stand.

 

Oh the smell of the smoke as we lay on the land, and the feeling of finding my heart in my hand

With the tiny tin voice of the radio band singing “love must stand,” love forever and ever must stand

On the fourth of July.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

SoTWs about a cappella music

SoTWs about J.S. Bach

SoTWs about James Taylor

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