Taking Stock of the 2015-2016 Season: 7 Observations

Well, the summer is approaching, and we’ve reached the end of another school year and another competition season. It has been a remarkable one, with past finalists winning at both the high school and post-collegiate level, and an international first at the highest-profile collegiate competition. Along the way, there have been remarkable recordings, stand-out performances, and more.

But at this point, the history has been written. Instead, permit me a half-dozen or so observations at the end of the season:

A cappella is stronger than ever. As a part of our Competition Countdown and #TheSpotlight shows, we had a chance to talk with (and listen to) over 200 groups. Some are better than others, but both the median and mean quality just keeps going up. I’ve talked with several longtime observers – many have (rightly) said that we’re hearing middle and high school groups performing as well as the best pro groups a decade ago. Plus, we’re still seeing new groups getting formed, so the ecosystem remains really healthy.

Breadth, depth – and specialization – is growing. Over the last 50 or 60 years, the science and business of medicine just exploded. And as it got bigger and transformed, a funny thing happened: specialization. You get a pain while on the court, and you’re just as likely to see a Sports Medicine doc instead of a general practitioner. We’re seeing something similar with a cappella – witness the continuing explosion of south Asian groups, Jewish a cappella groups, geek-themed groups, 80s-focused groups, and … well, you get the idea. What a great thing this is! There’s room for everybody, and if you have a passion just for ancient Russian a cappella folk music? There’s a group for you.

Lines are blurring. It may seem paradoxical that when we have more specialization, we’re also seeing delineations between genres begin to fade. As we’re hearing more 9ths and 13ths work their way into pop a cappella covers, or barbershop quartets bringing out vocal percussion, the silos are every so slowly beginning to break down. This is perhaps the most gratifying observation of the last season – sure, it’s early days for this and it’s happening slowly, but we have so much to learn from each other that this cross-pollination can only be positive.

Some nagging issues remain. All of that notwithstanding, we still have things to confront in our own community. At the ICCA finals, there was one – one! – all-female group. One might ascribe that to a random occurrence this year, but a look at our history tells us otherwise. Yet there are a metric ton of great female groups out there at all levels…so what’s going on here? We need to continue the conversation about how we’re evaluating these performances – are we suitably equitable? At the same time, events this year highlighted a couple of extremes in terms of how to coach groups and help them improve, bringing to light some other aspects of ourselves that could use some (civil) discussion.

There’s a flash vs. substance conversation to have. Are we appropriately rewarding soul and storytelling? This season saw performances that were objectively remarkable, entertaining crowds in halls large and small. And often, they were rewarded. But the overlap between entertainment and emotional connection with the audience is not complete, and there were times when groups that just put on a fun show got higher marks than those who were digging deep. Is that OK? Is that who we want to be? I dunno. But it’s worth talking about.

We’re placing a big emphasis on soloists. About two thirds of the way through the ICCA finals this year, it just hit me like a ton of bricks: the solo + backing arrangements have become more ubiquitous than ever. At the time, it seemed like The Voice-ification of a cappella – rewarding the stellar solo performer over the tight, emotive, ensemble work. To be clear: I’m not anti-soloist, and there were solos at the finals (and other shows) that were mind-blowing. To focus on that approach exclusively, though, ignores the wide variety of textures, dynamics, and effects that can come from a meaty, front-and-center, ensemble arrangement. Perhaps this will be like a pendulum, and will swing back with time – we’ll see.

The future is exciting. OK, I said I had six observations, but I can’t help including this one, too. Think of the great stuff ahead: more genre mash-ups, more stellar talent, an ever-stronger pipeline from middle school to post-collegiate singing. Sitting at the ICHSA finals this season, I was practically giddy at the array of talent on display. There are local and regional high school festivals popping up everywhere. Yet the untapped potential remains off the charts – in terms of getting more singers into the genre, in terms of international collaborations, in terms of greater pop culture incorporation. 2016-2017 is gonna be fun!

Have your own observations? Share ’em!

The Swingles Take Manhattan

The purest musical moments one can experience, as performer or audience member, involve joy, exhilaration, wonder, and a bevy of similar emotions. When The Swingles perform, the audience is pretty much guaranteed to experience a generous collection of such moments. This septet of international singers (now 4 Brits, 2 Americans, and 1 Canadian) recently finished a tour of the United States which included performances at the National A Cappella Convention, an appearance at the Boston Sings festival, and a number of shows in the south and eastern seaboard. The final show, Saturday in New York City, was heavily attended by family and friends of the group’s newest member, tenor Jon Smith, who hails from Long Island (the home of Acatribe). An interview with Jon will be coming here soon, but for now I will just note that he received a raucous hometown reception at Subculture on Saturday night.

This was my fifth time seeing the Swingles over the past few years, and I walked out believing, as usual, that this was their best performance to date. It is a rare and remarkable set of qualities The Swingles possess, a stunning combination of raw vocal talent, ambitious and effective arranging skills, and incredibly adept stage presence. The group uses these characteristics to great effect across a chasm of musical styles, from classical fugues to Turkish ballads, Brit rock covers (and I do love Elbow) to tangos, with original compositions mixed in too. Saturday’s performance was no exception, as the group offered songs from its two most recent albums as well as group staples such as its famous interpretation of Bach’s Fugue in G minor (go ahead, Google it- you’ll find versions of the group performing it literally decades ago) and the Beatles’ “Blackbird” (ditto).

My wife joined me to see the group for the first time, and she (a music teacher) was impressed by the group’s intonation, phrasing, and range. Indeed, it is precisely these types of unique musical traits which bring me back to see The Swingles again and again. I have seen close to one hundred professional a cappella performances over the years, and there are few if any groups who can match The Swingles in these categories of heightened musicality.  I am always floored by Sara Brimer’s pure, unwavering descants and the exquisite control exhibited by soloists like Oliver Griffiths in “After the Storm.” One interesting development was the new (to my recollection) use of vocal looping in the set. The group did the audience a service by explaining that this was not a traditional backing track and then making light of how it can go horribly wrong where the unexpected happens as they record the loop onstage. It is exciting that a group which already does  so many things well in performance is actively looking for new ways to express its sound.

A few other details about a typical Swingles performance, all used to great effect on Saturday, which bear mentioning. The group makes excellent use of staging and pairings of singers, a technique which is visually engaging even if it is not attributable to musical necessity. The singers are also particularly good at expressing emotional investment for each song, without regard for the part they are singing. Solos and duets are powerful both musically and visually. Unlike many groups, The Swingles have seven soloists, each of whom would earn star status in any nearly other group. Smartly, the group does not abuse or exploit this obvious strength, instead giving each only one or two full solos and sprinkling the rest of the set with duets and ensemble pieces.

On Saturday night, the crowd hungered for more solos from the local Smith but were hardly disappointed with what they got instead.  I heard many audience members, from a wide range of ages, discuss afterwards how much they enjoyed various songs. The collective feeling in the room was one of elation, triumph, and satisfaction. If you’ve ever seen The Swingles perform, you know it well.

Is Ours A Combative and Competitive Community?

The “a cappella community” means different things to different people. For some here in the States who have been around the community for awhile, it means a group of maybe 75-100 people who are current or former singers and other a cappella professionals, are connected on social media, and who comment or post in Facebook groups such as, mainly, the CASA group (and before that, the RARB/CASA forums).  In the past few days, a controversy broke out in that particular group when Tom Paster, director for Highlands Voices, posted a fairly long commentary on why Diana Preisler, who had coached his group through Season 1 of “Pitch Slapped,” was terrible (among some far more inflammatory comments).

The response included many comments from both people “in the know” (Deke Sharon, who was the other coach on Pitch Slapped, offered a detailed affirmation which was surprisingly critical of Preisler) and many people who had no apparent connection to the show or its participants.

Curiously, a moderator for the group apparently took the original post down after someone or some people reported the post to Facebook as “cyberbullying” or a similarly offensive message. The discussion then shifted into a discussion on censorship and freedom of speech before returning to the original focus when a Highlands Voices group member wrote his own post affirming the truth of the original post and referring to Preisler as a “she-devil,” among other things. Continue reading…

Of Frat Boys and Coquettes

Over the last month or so, I’ve been traveling around the country, sitting down with groups for interviews and performances for AcaVille’s weekly show #TheSpotlight. It’s a great chance to meet and hear really talented performers from all levels and all parts of the country – we talk to groups from middle school to the pros.

Among the topics we sometimes discuss are the gender politics of a cappella. Now that sounds like a heavy subject, ripe for ponderousness or a quick trip to snooze-town. But for single-sex groups, it is still present, even if it’s in the background. And frankly, in 2016, I find that amazing.

In the all-female groups we spoke with, there was often an undercurrent of wanting to defy gender stereotypes within the genre, and some spoke openly and freely about being disappointed by some of the reactions within the a cappella community. They talked about some listeners (and, ahem, judges of certain competitions) wanting to put them into a box. We didn’t get into specifics about what that box looks like, but I imagine it is probably either vixen or coquette. Either way, it seems like we’re in the 1950s.

For some of the all-male groups, the issue was no less present. One spoke eloquently about trying to put together a competition set as an all-male collegiate group, and wanting to be high energy (and maybe a bit goofy) without being perceived as a bunch of frat-boys.

I’m certainly not equating the magnitude of the problem for each gender, and frankly, only having been one gender since birth, I’m in no position to assert that one way or the other. But come on – really?

I realize we are in a subjective medium, and that art is, after all, art. So as humans who have a biologically-driven need to classify and categorize, we put labels on things in one way or another. Certainly, some competitive events don’t always help this, either, when they don’t provide thoughtful normative rubrics for evaluation. (After all, without some kind of guide beyond “xx% for artistic expression,” we are all left to fill in the gaps, which can lead to trouble.)

But maybe we can decide that all-male groups can be coquettish and all-female groups can be frat boys. Or, even better, something entirely of their own making. The next time you see or hear a group that’s unfamiliar to you, perhaps start by trying to figure out what their artistic intent is to begin with. Then you’ll have a better way to determine if they’re hitting the mark.

And if you can’t tell, then that might tell you something about the quality all by itself. Instead of making assumptions based on gender, which is more telling about you than the performers.

2015- The Year in A Cappella

By: Dave Bernstein,  Tara Marie Ahn, and Christopher Hoffman

 

Unless you were unplugged from society in 2015, we shouldn’t have to tell you that it was another HUGE year for a cappella.

It all begins and ends with Pentatonix and Pitch Perfect 2, with a whole lot of great albums, videos, and news in the middle.

Before we begin, we just want to note that we have revived the monthly news posts at Acatribe so pay attention at the beginning of each month for all the relevant news from the previous month. In light of preparations for this post, we are skipping a formal December post but you may find some December news scattered in here. We will also include some of the big news from the September, October, and November news posts but you can read the rest on the summary post for each individual month. As always, if you have big news you’d like to share, feel free to email us at news@acatribe.com.

Finally, if you can think of some noteworthy a cappella news we omitted (and we’re sure there is plenty), please feel free to comment below or email us and we will update the post accordingly.

Also, though she is credited as a co-author, we have to note that our own Tara Marie Ahn did a ton of the work here and is very deserving of most of the credit. Show her some love on Twitter!

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So, let’s dive right in with the box office and music charts success of Pitch Perfect 2 and Pentatonix, respectively.

Pitch Perfect 2 was…a little bigger than expected. As in it grossed nearly $70 million in its first weekend and found up at $184 million domestic at the box office, and another $103 million elsewhere, for a total worldwide gross of nearly $287 million. So, yeah. A cappella is even more mainstream than you might have thought. The movie did fine critically, for what it is, garnering a 66% at Rotten Tomatoes and getting decent reviews at Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, and the Los Angeles Times, among others.

The movie also won the Top Soundtrack and Anna Kendrick thanked Deke Sharon and Ed Boyer in her acceptance speech.

Pentatonix did more in 2015 than we can fairly recount here. A few of their notable highlights, however, were:

Obviously there is plenty more Pentatonix news from 2015, but again- we can’t possibly get to it all. Feel free to add or share in the comments below! Continue reading…