In many ways, 2011 was a huge year for a cappella as a community and an art form, both internally and in its role in the greater realm of popular culture and social networking. Obviously it was also a year in which my participation in the a cappella community jumped for the first time since 2003 (wow), but the much bigger picture belongs to the following, in no particular order:
– VoCALnation– I attended this festival for Contemporary A Cappella League (CAL) groups in New York City, and I can only say this: it was fantastic. There were a number of incredible workshops, including the one broadcast on a May episode of Mouth Off which featured Duwende explaining their collaborative songwriting process. The room was overflowing, and the content was fascinating and well-demonstrated. The Saturday night concert featured Euphonism, a scorching set from Duwende, and then perhaps the biggest surprise- a breathtaking set from The Swingle Singers. I will be the first to admit that my general impression of the group, prior to that evening, was as a niche British group that sang a lot of classical and jazz, and were generally classy but maybe not edgy. In fact, when Duwende left the stage and the audience was basically drooling and sweaty, I feared a massive letdown. Instead, the Swingle Singers were simply stunning. Their pure musicality was literally the best I have ever seen; simple and sparse effects did nothing to hide the fact that these guys and gals were completely and entirely in tune and featured perfect intonation and personality in their voices. The choreography and the vast range of styles which they covered just completed a concert which I think I can safely say rocked the house. The buzz I seemed to hear as we were walking out was that few if any people had seen them live before, and nobody knew exactly what to expect; and the consensus upon leaving was unanimous approval.
– The Sing Off Season 3/Pentatonix– The 3rd (and first full) season of the Sing Off in America was both a success and a failure. In terms of “failure,” the ratings were mediocre to begin, and plummeted as the season went along, thus likely depriving us of another full season of the show. The success in our community, however, was remarkable. The show spawned numerous weekly blog reviews (including my own, I counted 6), a ton of Twitter chatter (see more below), and featured what was certainly the best collection of a cappella talent on any television show at any time in media history. There was a top-notch jazz group (Afro-Blue), an innovative group focusing primarily on hip-hop and rap (Urban Method), a massively talented female group (Delilah), and 3 fabulous all-male groups. And of course the biggest surprise and most impressive showing was a group of three 19-yr-old friends who met their rhythm section through YouTube and word of mouth. Seriously. And not only that- they were REALLY good. And consistently good. From an a cappella fan’s perspective, this season was truly remarkable: it showed the huge range of possibilities in the a cappella world, and more importantly showed us that boundaries in that world are still there to be broken. All in all, a huge success. Great work by Deke Sharon and the arranging/music staff (Christopher Diaz, Ben Bram, Rob Dietz, and I believe Nick Girard at the end) for helping to highlight these groundbreaking groups.
– The Sing Off Netherlands– After 2 seasons in the U.S., the show went international for the first time. I have no idea if they intend to feature another season, but the finale had a 17% share- which is pretty amazing.
– SoJam 2011– While I have heard for many years about the success of the SoJam festival, and I was unable to attend this year, I must include 2 facets of the event which I believe occurred for the first time. Even if they did not, I found both to be somewhat revolutionary and exciting, and I have to give props to the folks at CASA and SoJam for making them happen. First, I loved the idea of inviting numerous college groups to sing around the campus at random times; I forget what exactly they called these, but I thought it was a fun and cool opportunity for those groups. But the far bigger and more impressive feat was technological in nature. Since I, having 2 young children in day care and no disposable funds, was unable to attend, I was unbelievably excited to learn that the entire Saturday night concert would be streaming online on Ustream, thanks to (I think) Sled Dog Studios. Although the sound and stream was not perfect, I was able to watch Musae, the Boxettes, and then Naturally 7 perform, and I can safely say it was the best concert I have ever watched live on my computer. I really respect the decision to try this, and I know there were a few of us out there watching who were absolutely thrilled to feel like we were sharing the concert, even on a lesser level, with the audience that was live tweeting the show. So, thanks to the folks at SoJam, CASA, and Sled Dog Studios, and I hope you can pull it off again next year!
– Peter Hollens– this dude was busy! Hollens, who came into the year 2011 as the spiky-haired lead singer for U of O’s On the Rocks from Season 2 of the Sing Off was productive and successful this year with approximately 15 songs and videos online at final count. He sang all (or most) of the parts, recorded and mixed most of them, and shot the videos as well. More importantly, the videos progressed from the common multi-track/windows for these types of You Tube videos to some real storytelling videos and an original song (“Sleepwalking”). He had the videos up on YouTube at a fast pace, and the songs up on iTunes equally fast. Kudos to him for being so prolific and hopefully his hard work pays far greater dividends in 2012.
– Turntable.fm– Sometime in the summer of 2011, Peter Hollens announced on Facebook that he was on a website called Turntable.fm, acting as a DJ and spinning a cappella music. Many a cappella fans who followed him (including myself) went to the site, then available only to those on facebook who had a friend or group already admitted. In the first month, I was able to meet (in a virtual sense) and converse with (again, virtually) a slew of artists, arrangers, producers/engineers, and other fans from the a cappella community. I met people like myself who were former a cappella singers and who had simply aged out of college groups and been unable to get a group going afterwards, and it was this (in part) which led me to get off my ass and audition for a group again (after a very long hiatus of a cappella inactivity), and it was that audition which then led me to start this blog. I know there are questions out there about the legality of the a cappella sharing going on at Turntable.fm in the immortal a cappella room started by a mega fan, but I last took my copyright classes in law school more than 5 years ago, and I simply do not know what has changed since then, so I will not opine on that aspect of the site. But the bigger impact, I think, was the introduction of, essentially, a chat room for all members of the a cappella hierarchy to meet and discuss the common interests resulting from all-vocal singing.
– Twitter/Facebook/interwebs– Having turned to Twitter for the first time myself in the middle of 2011, I was shocked to learn how many of my a cappella idols and favorite groups/performers/arrangers/engineers were not only frequent contributors to the Twitterverse, but were quick to respond to my blog posts or messages. The same is true of Facebook, and I really am impressed with how groups have become active and smart by using Twitter and Facebook to promote their concerts, appearances, albums, auditions, and free downloads. New and innovative websites like sin3g.com were terrific contributions to the a cappella community as well. Bonus points to Overboard for completing their 52 weeks of free tracks (wow).
– Voca People– I posted my review of this show here, so all I will say is that this off-Broadway show which consists of music made entirely by the human voice should be an even bigger success than it is, and if you haven’t seen it, you need to put it at the top of your list the next time you are in NYC. Check it out here. PS- they have an album which should be available soon!
– AcaPolitics– I have a post coming shortly wherein I will review the web novel which turned into a full paper (and E-)novel. The author, Stephen Harrison, has created a universe instantly identifiable to and comfortable to anyone who sang with an a cappella group in college. And he did so by first repopularizing an old standard, serialized chapters, and then using cutting edge publishing technology by making the book available for e-Readers. Excellent job, Mr. Harrison!
– Tom Anderson– according to a recent tweet, the guy from Random Notes compiled 101 arrangements in 2011, a stunning feat that works out to a completed arrangement every 3-4 days. He also taught arranging workshops at 3 (or more?) a cappella festivals (Los Angeles, New York, and SoJam), co-hosted Mouth Off a few times, arranged and co-wrote the song “Sleepwalking” with Peter Hollens, and got arrangements onto Sing 8 and BOCA. I suspect he went from a guy that a hard core a cappella people knew about in 2010 to a guy that everyone in a cappella knows about in 2011. Not bad.
and Things to Look Forward to in 2012
– New albums from Sonos, Transit, Euphonism, and other groups…
– the first incarnation of BOSS: Boston Sings, a festival in Boston in mid-April
– Anything new from The House Jacks with their new lineup, featuring Nick Girard (Overboard) and John Pointer (this)
– Anything new from Musae, The Boxettes, and/or Delilah (all-female professional groups building on the big year of 2011?)
– another season (even if an abbreviated one) of The Sing Off? (we can hope)
– Pitch Perfect, a major feature film based on college a cappella
– the unknown- so much of what happened 2011 in a cappella was unpredictable, will 2012 be the same way?
Thanks to all of you for reading, and I am hereby wishing you a very belated happy and healthy New Year!