Posted by jeff on May 23, 2013 in A Cappella
AAVF 2013 is chronologically over, but still pumping in my veins and breathing in my soul.
It was a wonderful, educationally enriching and communally loving experience. It would be impossible to give you an overview, but I’ll try to relate to you some of my personal experiences, in hopes that the subjective view will give some sort of representative impression of what went on.
It was all pretty well organized, user-friendly. My hotel was only a five-minute walk from the site, which was a big advantage. The biggest problem was not enough hours in the day—wanting to simultaneously attend all the workshops, watch the small group and large group competitions, hear the midday concerts in the foyer, grab some food, and schmooze!!
Pre-Festival – Sono and Naura were both new for me, young Danish groups of about 20 singers, both really high quality, interesting repertoire, flawless performance, charming appearance, setting the bar high for the rest of the festival.
Friday – The Mzansi Youth Choir and the Boxettes gave two very different examples of how far contemporary a cappella can go and still knock out the crowd. The Girls Choir of Mariagerfjord were ‘just’ another one of those perfect Danish choirs.
Saturday – Since first hearing them in Vasteros in 2008, I’ve become an impassioned devotee of Vocal Line, so it was of course a really great thrill to hear them again. The combination of Vocal Line, VoxNorth and Eivør wasn’t easy for me. It was a new aesthetic, speaking in a musical language I was less familiar with. It sounds fascinating to me, and I plan on exploring it in the future (in the present, actually—I’m listening to Eivør as I write!)
Sunday – WeBe3 was a totally new treat for me, improvisation at its purest, and you know I’m a purist . The Real Group and Rajaton both gave short but absolutely first-rate sets, showed why they’re the acknowledged leaders of our cult. It’s the third time I’ve heard both, and maybe the best. Level Eleven had some high points, and promises more to come in the future.
Monday – The group that completely blew me away was Jesper Holm’s Touché, as I had never even heard them recorded, let alone live. I knew they were a 12-voice group singing Count Basie big band charts and complex Gene Puerling arrangements from Singers Unlimited. What I wasn’t prepared for was the total, absolute technical perfection Jesper has achieved with these guys. Brassier than Basie, subtler than the Singers Unlimited, and purer than Gene Puerling, their mastery of these genres was TOTAL. The delivery was crystal-clear, as pure as glacial water. Even the soloists sang with superhuman control. And I was particularly impressed by how steeped these kids are in the vocal jazz tradition. They really do know where they’re coming from. And I can only dream where they’re going. More about that below. Just to make you even sorrier you weren’t here, here’s their entire set:
Reach Out and Touch a Star
Jens, Jeff, Line, Jim
It’s a strange situation at these festivals – you listen to the artist at home, think about their music; read about the upcoming concert; buy a ticket, buy a plane ticket and reserve a hotel; travel, with all the anticipation and excitement and build-up; and then an hour after the show you’re drinking a beer with the artist, with him telling you how he felt about the show. We’re used to admiring our ‘idols’ from afar. The warmth and intimacy of a festival such as this is a big part of its utter charm.
I met a guy on the train who was coming from Belgium to hear Bruce Springsteen in Denmark. They say Bruce is a really nice guy, but you’re watching him with 20,000 strangers from 3 kilometers away, with 500 armed guards in between you and him. Here, an hour after the show, you share a beer with the artist and hug him and thank him for the fine show, and he tells you how excited he was… Who de boss now?
Line Groth Riis & Anders Hornshøj, “Just Sing It”
They started with the incomparable dynamo Line Groth Riis leading 800 people singing two ultra-cool arrangements, with really fine, overpowering results. Go beat that. And that’s just for starters.
The Single Singers had to prepare four songs, three of which were quite difficult, in two rehearsals with no clear conductor. No mean feat that! It seemed quite impossible at the beginning, but somehow it worked at the end. The really great thing that happened there for me was singing Vocal Line’s version of Peter Garbiel’s “Don’t Give Up” with Jens Johansen himself conducting! So, that was a thrill in and of itself, but the really inspiring aspect was singing the song, being part of the tapestry of that beautiful, divine arrangement. I had listened to the song many, many times, but there’s nothing like singing it from within. (Guess what is going to be Song of The Week on my blog tomorrow?)
Jim Daus Hjernøe workshop
I joined five other workshops, each one an education in and of itself.
The amazingly talented Roger Treece, the man behind Bobby McFerrin’s “VOCAbuLarieS” was really pushing the envelope of grasping how rhythm and pulse work. It was sometimes a stretch to follow him, but yet a lot of fun.
Everyone was raving about Jim Daus Hjernøe’s workshop in Sweden, and I finally caught up with him here. “Rhythm and Groove” was uplifting, mind-expanding. He made so much sense out of central elements I’d never been aware of previously. I told him that in my next incarnation I want to come study in Aarhus. He responded that they have a really good remote learning program. If only I had the courage! Me, studying with these giants?
Single Singers rehearsal
I attended Katarina Henryson and Anders Edenroth’s “All Ears” workshop. I’d heard them go over the same material before more than once. And you know what? It gets better each time. Eighty strangers walk into a room, mostly fairly talented amateur singers. Then Katarina and Anders start teaching you the Art of Listening. And at the end of two hours we did a group improvisation – with our eyes closed!!! – about seven minutes of beautiful, transcendent, magical music. Just mind-boggling. Just these two hours were worth the 12-hour trip.
And Jesper Holm’s Advanced Vocal Technique. The program said ‘Harmonic complexity, swing feeling, jazz phrasing, sound and blend.’ Yes, that’s what he did. But I was reminded of the Yeats’ poem: That girls at puberty may find/The first Adam in their thought,/Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,/Keep those children out./There on that scaffolding reclines/Michael Angelo./With no more sound than the mice make/His hand moves to and fro./(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream/His mind moves upon silence.) The absolute precision of his approach showed again that ‘God is in the details’. It was a truly inspiring workshop experience. Jesper is my new role model for doing a job well. And I’m proud to count him as a new friend.
I met SO many people—friends from Vasteros 2008, friends from Stockholm 2012, more recent Facebook friends, and new friends from Aarhus – too many to mention. I made a list of about 25 people that I had memorable interactions with, but I’m not going to list them because I know there were another dozen that are escaping my fuzzy brain, and hopefully another dozen that I’ll get to know now by writing. I did notice that the hugs have gotten tighter over the years, that each subsequent meeting with these fine people deepens the connection from the cordial to the friendly to the beginning of real involvement.
As you know, I do a lot of talking and thinking and writing about music, and I was fortunate enough to have three serious, focused, professional conversations.
The first was with Peder Karlsson. I first met Peder at Vasteros in 2008. I had brought a group from Israel and had briefly corresponded with him via email. On the first day I was nervous, confused, excited. Peder walked by, and I asked him timidly where the Whatever Room was.
I was a novice, a nobody, an attendee from afar; he was The Star. He looked at my nametag, looked at me, let out a shout of “Jeff!” and gave me a bearhug. I knew something different was going on in this community. Then in 2012, our second meeting, we became a bit friendly.
So now in 2013 I told Peder that I wanted to Skype with him about the history of TRG. He said, “Now!” For an entire morning, Peder told me about the origins of The Real Group’s music. There was a bit of an argument: I was maintaining that TRG invented our contemporary a cappella, while Peder was (over-modestly, I think) asserting that TRG drew from a number of different existing sources. In any case, we both agreed that this is fascinating piece of AC folklore, and it will be my pleasure to work our discussion into a printed interview in the near future. Oh, and now I can comfortably say that I feel Peder is a friend.
This is just one example of many–too many (and too personal) to recount here.
By the way, the origin of TRG’s music issue has riveted me for a long time and spilled over into several other conversations I had. Bill Hare had a lot of first-hand knowledge to share, and Jonathan Minkoff was gleefully maintaining that just about everything I think is diametrically opposed to the truth. Fortunately Judy Fontana was there to keep us from trans-Atlantic blows, suggesting the theory that vocal percussion was developed simultaneously on either side of the ocean. I’m gonna be thinking about that, Judy!
The second conversation was with Roger Treece, whom I’d asked in advance to meet with. I was aware of his work on “VOCAbuLarieS”, and really wanted to hear how Vocal Line was connected to that project. I also wanted to learn more about where Roger is applying his very prodigious talents these days. We had a great, honest, intimate talk which I hope to write up in one form or another (assuming that the glass of water I spilled on the table didn’t erase the file on my recorder). I sincerely hope Roger finds the perfect venue in which to work in the future, because I think his talent is unlimited and he can be a formative voice in a cappella in the next generation.
The third conversation was with Jesper Holm. I’d met Jesper very briefly in 2012, barely long enough to discover that we have a lot of overlapping interests and that I possess an obscure Singers Unlimited CD that he covets. I gladly brought it to Aarhus as an offering, looking forward to getting to know him a bit. We talked for less than an hour, but reached incredibly interesting places. We discussed the very substance of vocality, where group vocal jazz is today, and where it might go in the future. We also raised some ideas about utterly new vistas to explore, and concrete plans about how to do that. We were talking about inventing a new musical language. My blood is still pounding over that conversation. I hope that when the clouds clear, the substance remains and that Jesper sets out on that very profound journey.
What I’ve Taken Home
Oh, just so many ideas. And techniques for making better music. And exposure to new types of music. And hopes and plans for the future. And friendships. Membership in a most special community. And a whole lotta love.
I was at the original Woodstock festival. Given the choice of going back there or going to the next AAVF—no competition, man. Hands down, it’s Aarhus. Something is very sweet in the state of Denmark.
Really, I have only one serious complaint about the festival. You weren’t there, Florian. You and my old buddies Kongero and my new buddies The Swingles and my future buddies The Idea of North.
So I guess we’ll just have to make plans to meet again in Aarhus in 2015.
Please feel free to visit Song of The Week, where you’ll find lots of postings on a cappella and other musical genres.
The Real Group — ‘Nature Boy’
A cause for celebration
The Real Group, 2013
Four Swedes and a Dane recently climbed up on bar stools in a living room with a few friends in Södermalm, Stockholm. What the big deal? They’re The Real Group, the best singing group in the world; they sang ‘Nature Boy’ breathtakingly, with an exquisite lead by Emma Nilsdotter in an inspired arrangement by Anders Edenroth; it was filmed with impeccable taste; and the result is just a little perfect.
The Real Group and Contemporary A Cappella
The Real Group honed their a cappella jazz skills in the late 1980s as five buddies doing their academy studies together in Stockholm. They invented their own academic program, and a whole new take on group jazz singing. Inspired more by Bobby McFerrin’s restrained virtuosity than by Manhattan Transfer’s brash, brassy showiness, they reworked Count Basie arrangements in a five-voice context and sparked an entire musical movement, Contemporary A Cappella, with luminaries such as Rajaton (Finland), Vocal Line (Denmark), The Swingle Singers in their current very hip incarnation (UK), The Idea of North (Australia), and even obliquely Take Six (US). Here’s a SoTW I wrote about The Real Group a while back, with lots of links to their music.
The Real Group, 2013
Contemporary a cappella may be a small movement compared to hip-hop or trance, but its devotees are passionate and growing in numbers. And we all know what passionate cults are capable of. I’m flying this week to my third congregation of cultists, the second this year, at the Aarhus Vocal Festival in Denmark. As unique an experience as Woodstock was (yes, I was there—the Forrest Gump of musical fests), we hippies tended to stare at each other in bewilderment. Here it’s all hugs and grins and a sincere sense of brotherhood in harmony.
Much of this warmth is due to The Real Group themselves, because they’re warm, personable, down-to-earth people. Remember how everyone copied The Beatles’ mop tops? TRG’s modesty has become the currency of our genre.
After twenty-eight years, The Real Group is still going strong (albeit with two changes from the original line-up). In recent years they’ve moved more towards original material – for example, ‘Pass Me the Jazz’ (the next clip to be released from the same session as ‘Nature Boy’); fine as it is, it’s a special pleasure to return to the Great American Songbook and one of its more unusual luminaries, ‘Nature Boy’.
Nat ‘King’ Cole
Nat ‘King’ Cole, eden ahbez
In 1947, a short, barefoot man with shoulder-length hair on a bicycle pushed a tattered score into the hand of Nat ‘King’ Cole’s manager, Mort Ruby, backstage at a theater in LA. Cole liked the Yiddish flavor and intriguing lyrics of the little song and began playing it in his shows. It went over very well, so he wanted to record it. Go find the composer in order to get the rights to the song.
Nat Cole (1919-1965) led a very successful jazz trio in the 1930s and 1940s as the pianist. The apocryphal story is that one night a rowdy drunk insisted that Nat sing ‘Sweet Lorraine’, it caught on, and he began singing more and more. His first hit was in 1943, ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right’, which Bo Diddley credited as being a precursor of rock and roll. And Bo Knows!!
In the late 1940s, Nat cemented his move from jazz piano to popular vocals – ‘The Christmas Song’ (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire), ‘Mona Lisa’, ‘Unforgettable’, ‘Too Young’ and of course ‘Nature Boy’. But first we have to find that long-haired guy.
The Family ahbez
Alexander Aberle was born in Brooklyn in 1908 to a Jewish father and Scottish mother, grew up in a Jewish orphanage till he was adopted at age 9 by a couple from Chanute, Kansas, who changed his name to George McGrew.
He worked in obscurity as a pianist and dance band leader till he got his breakthrough gig in LA in 1941— playing at a small health food store and raw food restaurant owned by a couple of German immigrants, adherents to the Lebensreform lifestyle of health food/raw food/organic food, nudism, sexual liberation, alternative medicine, and abstention from alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and vaccines.
Alexander/George renamed himself eden ahbez (‘only the words God and Infinity are worthy of capitalization’), but his friends called him ahbe. Together with wife Anna Jacobsen, their son Tatha Om and another dozen ‘tribesmen’, ahbe and The Nature Boys (recognize that name?) lived off the land in Tahquitz Canyon near Palm Springs, slept in caves and trees, and bathed in waterfalls. They prided themselves on subsisting on under $3 a week.
The Nature Boys
The Nature Boys are today widely perceived as the precursors of the Hippie movement. Except for the bathing part.
One of the other notable Nature Boys was Gypsy Boots, aka Robert Bootzin. His health food store “Health Hut” was the first of its kind in the world, a celebrity hangout in the early 1960s. He invented his own renowned garlic cheese, the natural smoothie and the organic energy bar, cheered wildly at all USC football games, marched in parades, and swung from a vine on network TV shows – Groucho Marx, Spike Jones, and (25 times) The Steve Allen Show. His non-nature buddies included Marlon Brando, Jay Leno, Paul Newman and Muhammad Ali.
Meanwhile, Nat Cole’s people finally tracked down the ahbez family, living underneath the first ‘L’ of the HOLLYWOOD sign, and acquired the rights to record the song. Nat Cole’s ‘Nature Boy’ became a megahit, eight weeks at #1 on the charts, but it turned out that ahbe had given a half dozen people different shares of the publishing rights, and he ended up with virtually nothing. (After Cole died, his wife eventually gave the rights back to ahbe in toto.)
Here’s a fascinating clip from a 1948 TV show, in which ahbe explains how he came to write ‘Nature Boy’ and then meets Nat Cole for the first time, live before the cameras. Well, kind of.
ahbe lived in relative obscurity (I guess under that “L”), eating nuts and being healthy. Incredibly (or maybe not, when you think about it), he’s shown in this photo with Brian Wilson during the recording of “SMiLE”, just before Brian’s breakdown. ahbe recorded a couple of albums including songs like Eden’s Cove, which is somewhere between Martin Denny and Wild Man Fisher. If you listen to the break at 1’10” you may really grasp the key to Brian Wilson’s mind and the meaning of the universe. As well as the taste of the garlic smoothie.
He died in 1995 at the age of 86 in a car accident.
‘Nature Boy’—The Song
The structure of ‘Nature Boy’ is quite unusual—AB:
There was a boy,
A very strange, enchanted boy.
They say he wandered very far,
Very far, over land
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he.
And then one day,
One magic day he passed my way
While we spoke of many things
Fools and kings, this he said to me:
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return.”
It’s really not much more than an extended introduction. To tell you the truth, it’s hard for me to explain its tremendous appeal.
Is it the melody? Anders Edenroth, tenor extraordinaire of The Real Group and arranger of their stunning version, says “I like to see it as a hybrid between jazz and the elastic approach of the Yiddish tradition.”
When those icy Swedes start talking about that Yiddish kvetch, I just melt. In Anders’ arrangement, after the initial AB, at 2’26”, the group opens the song into a Nordic expedition into the Heart of Yiddishism, an immaculate union of the pristine and the passionate.
Another Nature Boy
Bernard Malamud, one of my favorite authors, said “All men are Jews, though few men know it.” He explained this famous statement as “a metaphoric way of indicating how history, sooner or later, treats all men,” meaning I think that the default experience of Jews is suffering, that all individuals at some point in their lives are touched by the same suffering that has been the fabric of Jewish history. This is the background that informs Yiddish melodies.
When ‘Nature Boy’ became a hit, a Yiddish musical composer, Herman Yablokoff claimed that the melody to “Nature Boy” came from one of his songs, “Shvayg mayn harts” (“Be Still My Heart”). ahbe retorted that he “heard the tune in the mist of the California mountains.” They settled out of court for $25,000. No recording of Yablokoff’s song is known, but here’s another Yiddish song with the same title, about a blind Jewish orphan boy selling cigarettes and matches in the ghetto of Grodno during WWII to stay alive. If you look at a map, Grodno in Belarus really isn’t that far from Sweden.
ahbez et Wilson, January 1967
Or perhaps, as Anders suggests, “the enigmatic meaning of the lyrics has puzzled and attracted quite a few listeners.”
There’s something riveting about “The Little Prince”, that small, unblemished, all-knowing innocent, imparting the wisdom of the world to the rest of us. Ironically, ahbe himself later had some reservations about his own lyric: “To be loved in return is too much of a deal, and that has nothing to do with love.” He wanted to correct it to: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love, just to love, and be loved.”
It’s also interesting to note that the first two measures of the melody of ‘Nature Boy’ parallel the melody of the second movement of Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A, Op. 81 (1887). What do you have to say about that, Mr Yablokoff? Are you going to sue Dvořák?
‘Nature Boy’ – Recordings
‘Nature Boy’ clearly strikes a resonant chord. Following Nat Cole’s hit, it immediately became a fallback vehicle for unbridled emotion in the Great American Songbook.
Here’s Nat Cole’s hit version of the song, but the orchestra gets a bit carried away, and I’d recommend this live version from 1948.
Some of the notable early treatments of the song from the 1950s are those by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan (in a rare dud) and Miles Davis.
The Real Group, 2013
But the song has proven to be immensely popular in a wide variety of settings, sometimes more successfully, sometimes less so. Interesting versions that I recommend skipping are those by David Bowie (bombastic), James Brown (unfortunately I could only find an audio version), Grace Slick (in her pre-Airplane incarnation, The Great Society), and Lisa Ekdahl (no Yiddish pathos there). The great jazz singer Mark Murphy starts out great but inexplicably chooses to take the song to Trinidad (no Yiddish pathos there, either).
Two excellent vocal groups, Singers Unlimited (1975) and Pentatonix (2012), show by contrast just how fine an accomplishment is that of The Real Group.
A few versions that are worth checking out for their own distinctive merits are that by Nataly Dawn, a very talented young indie artist; and Radka Toneff, who’s always fine, but who doesn’t squeeze the song the way The Real Group’s Emma does. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise I discovered is Lizz Wright, a singer I’ve long admired, in a drum duet. I don’t know how much it has to do with the essence of the song, but it’s one fine, intense piece of music.
Two singers get special mention. Surprisingly, Cher. She sang it in a 1998 TV tribute to her late husband Sonny Bono, calling her grief “something I never plan to get over.” She’s clearly singing from the heart of her heart, and ‘Nature Boy’ is clearly a chillingly apt tribute to him.
And, unsurprisingly, the great Kurt Elling. ‘Nature Boy’ is a signature song of his. He goes through the song once in a traditional take, then flies off into spheres of unparalleled scatting virtuosity, egged onwards and upwards by pianist Laurence Hobgood, an utter tour de force. Here’s his studio version, and you can find many fine live versions here.
And just in case you’d like to join the list, here’s a karaoke version. Send in your recordings to SoTW, we’ll be glad to post them.
For my money, with all the credit to all the fine artists who’ve recorded the song over the years, I’m going to stick with The Real Group. This is what our contemporary a cappella can be: just a little perfect.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:
033: Radka Toneff, ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’ (Jimmy Webb)
063: Pust, ‘En Reell Halling’
147: Frank Sinatra, ‘It Was a Very Good Year’
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
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?
The Old A Cappella
In the second half of the 20th Century, a cappella connoted primarily community choirs of 60-year old amateurs going out for a pleasant evening’s activity to sing classical and musty folk music, often at their local church; or barbershop quartets, as a small, self-contained musical entity. On the professional scene, a few groups such as the Swingle Singers, the King’s Singers, and the Whiffenpoofs performed a conservative repertoire, spiced with the occasional ‘Scarborough Fair’ or ‘Michelle’, not venturing far afield in repertoire or conception from the community groups.
In jazz, there were a few vocal groups, ranging in styles from the Mills Brothers to Lambert, Hendricks & Ross to Manhattan Transfer, most of them groupings of individuals rather than a unified group voice, none of them a cappella. In pop, vocal grouping went as far as 3-part harmony in Peter Paul and Mary, half a dozen songs by the Beatles, and Crosby, Stills & Nash. A cappella was non-existent. In the area between pop and jazz, the Hi-Lo’s, Singers Unlimited and the Four Freshmen developed intricate multivoiced harmonies, without significant innovation in the musical mindset.
Most of these groups employed an unobtrusive rhythm section (piano, bass, drums) backing the voices in a melody-dominated homophony; i.e., all the voices moving together in block chords in unified rhythms, with one voice (often the highest) singing the melody.
Young Real Group
Then in the early 1980s, five Swedish music students influenced by the vocal virtuosity of Bobby McFerrin coined a new approach — singing the arrangement, with each of the voices singing a wholly different line from the others. They formed The Real Group and with their first album in 1987 invented a new musical language, a new mindset in vocal group singing. They leapedfrogged existing preconceptions of a cappella singing. Each of the members brought a technically impeccable voice, refined and precise in the uniquely muscular Scandinavian style. They invented a new music—not harmonies in block chords, but a complete vocal fabric, five voices only weaving a complex polyphonic whole, miraculously engaging arrangements.
Current Real Group
They invented vocal percussion, in which either the bass adds rhythmic vocalizations to his line, or the baritone or tenor provides a dedicated percussive voice. For the most part they employed no overtracking, no studio embellishments. What you hear in a live performance is what you get.
The group was steeped in the traditions of both Swedish folk and classical jazz, as well as speaking the current pop vernacular. They sang Count Basie, the Great American Songbook, pop hits, traditional Swedish material, moving over the years to more and more original compositions.
The Real Group achieved enough commercial popularity in Scandinavia (and inexplicably in South Korea) to enable them to work as a professional group full-time. They strove to disseminate their musical vision, teaching and workshopping and nurturing ties with other young groups. That missionary attitude and their accessible demeanor, together with the innate attractiveness of the music, gradually began to spread.
The Other Groups
The Idea of North
Several other groups began to achieve artistic voice and commercial status, especially sextet Rajaton in Finland (from 2000, specializing in roots-oriented material) and quartet The Idea of North in Australia (from 1997, pop- and jazz-oriented). The Swingle Singers gradually moved stylistically into the New A Cappella mainstream. These four groups currently comprise the aristocracy of the fledgling genre, and are probably the only groups working professionally full-time.
A new generation of younger professional groups is growing in number, stylistic diversity, artistic quality and influence, especially in Scandinavia. Some of the most notable are Kongero (folk-oriented female quartet) and Vocado (glacial art music) from Sweden; multifaceted Pust from Norway, and the rhythm choir Vocal Line from Denmark. The latter springs from the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Aarhus, the only institution offering an academic program in the New A Cappella. Other notable professional groups from outside Scandinavia include Coco’s Lunch (Australia), Banda de Boca and BR6 (Brazil), Cadence (Canada), the Boxettes (England), Cluster and Neri Per Caso (Italy), the theatrical Cosmos (Latvia), the Perpetuum Jazzile choir with their 13-million hit clip (Slovenia), and Voco Novo (Taiwan).
Throughout Europe, the number of amateur and semi-professional groups is growing daily. Singers are typically in their late 20s, with significant musical training and a strong drive for artistic excellence. Although most follow the musical model of The Real Group, the diversity of styles is expanding as well. Numerous individuals and groups are experimenting with looping, in which a singer typically records live onstage a series of overdubbed tracks, especially through figures (repeated elements, such as a basso continuo), thereby creating a polyphony fabricated in real time. An entire a cappella beat-boxing scene is developing (such as Roxorloops from Belgium). Both of these approaches are employed in the evolving ecappella style (Florian Städtler’s term). Practitioners include the Danish group Postyr Project.
The hotbed of US a cappella activity is on campus, in the very active college AC scene. The music is disappointingly sophomoric, based on pop covers drawing from a limited reservoir of material. Participants are enthusiastic, and competitions (especially Harmony Sweepstakes) are well-attended, but the lasting effect is no more than a musical party. This is certainly due in part to the innate turnover in the groups’ personnel. The TV show “Glee” has purportedly helped alleviate the uncool image of a cappella singing.
New York Voices
Inexplicably, the professional NAC scene in the US is as different from the rest of the world as 110 is from 220, but much less than half in quantity or quality. In fact, it hardly exists. Some of the leading groups are closer stylistically to music made in the 1950s than to The New A Cappella, such as Take 6, Naturally 7 and the Persuasions (gospel- and doowop-based) or Rockapella, the Nylons, the Bobs and M-pact (novelty pop). The New York Voices have achieved some stature but have failed to produce much significant music. Vox One made several accomplished and intriguing studio albums, the last in 2006. Additional groups work regionally, but have made no wider musical impact.
Why A Cappella?
The current virbrant scene of NAC seems to be inspired from two directions, both as a trickle-down effect from The Real Group and friends. But no less important is the fact that the music is challenging and fun to sing. Just as the professional scene breeds amateur activity, the amateur scene creates an interest in high-level accomplishment.
Dubious US Contribution to A Cappella
It is interesting to note that all types of older a cappella – community choirs, barbershop quartets, college glee clubs – participate in competitions. These are often encouraged by conductors looking for a goal to inspire the singers to rehearse harder.
The New A Cappella needs no such challenge. The young singers are typically well-trained and highly motivated. In addition, the tone of the scene is one of mutual admiration and encouragement. This attitude is openly promulgated by The Real Group. They spend much of their time and energy teaching. Founding member Peder Karlsson is now a ‘non-performing member of the group’, focusing full-time on expanding the activity of The Real Academy. Their approach is based on fostering self-esteem and positive reinforcement, and includes them embracing (literally and figuratively) groups of all degrees of achievement. This attitude in fact characterizes the entire professional scene and serves as a model for amateurs. The leading groups are all friends, they shun any sense of competition, and they openly encourage the activity of their equals and groups less experienced.
In addition to the plethora of amateur groups and the growing number of professional groups, NAC festivals have become a central activity. The Real Group recently held their second major festival in Sweden (August, 2012) and plan another for the summer of 2014. A biannual festival is held in Aarhus, Denmark biannually. An festival is held in London. SoJam is held annually in N. Carolina in the US, as well as numerous regional events.
Jeff Meshel’s Song of The Week — A Cappella
Florian Städtler’s Acapellazone
CASA — The Contemporary A Cappella Society (US)
Primarily A Cappella
Joy Spring, Walking Down the Street, There Will Never Be Another You
Ok, I confess. I am a member of a cult.
A proud, card-carrying, dues-paying proselyte, full of missionary zeal, collaring unsuspecting wedding guests, subjecting them to my fanatic preaching of The Word. Or, in this case, The Music.
A cappella (unaccompanied vocal) jazz has been pretty much the fulcrum of my thoughts for the past three or four years. Now, that may sound pretty silly to you. That’s because a cappella jazz most commonly connotes rosy-cheeked college kids tooting away at geeky renditions of hackneyed pop hits. But that’s because our musical vocabulary is too often narrowly American. With all due credit to the good old Stars and Stripes, there are other scenes out there, and this is one genre where the action is elsewhere. And I’ve had the good fortune to be exposed to the vocal jazz scene in Scandinavia, and the myriad of wonderful groups making amazing music there.