I’ve been thinking a lot about naturalism in a cappella. We’ve gotten quite a bit of new music submitted to Acaville lately, and one of the benefits (and sometimes burdens) of my role is that I listen to all of it before it makes it on the air. Some of the music we’ve gotten isn’t actually newly-released, but earlier stuff from today’s artists.
In doing all that listening, it has really highlighted the evolution of studio effects in a cappella – a move that some would characterize as a move away from naturalism. Some might say better, some might say worse – but certainly it is different.
Think back to your earliest toners. And by toner, here I mean the early musical connections you felt in your heart – the artists or groups you heard and fell in love with. (Purely Platonic, people. Not strictly in the Urban Dictionary/Pitch Perfect sense.) Being 182 years old, contemporary a cappella was still growing up as I was, so one of my early toners was for the a cappella of Chanticleer, and their debut album. Along with Bobby McFerrin’s The Voice, I think it stayed perpetually in my CD player.
What was so amazing to me about Chanticleer was the blend – and the musical accuracy. You could measure their tone in places and find that it was perfect, plus or minus a few cents. (And as a geeky middle and high schooler, I did that experiment, confirming the result.) Autotune and its ilk weren’t on the horizon – so when I took an impromptu weekend road trip from college a few years later to see them in concert, what I heard sounded like it was right off the album.
Do we lose that kind of forced accuracy and strictness of pitch in an era of studio effects, where “pretty close” can be turned into “spot on”? Maybe a little. Assuming a group or artist still performs live, though, it can’t be lost altogether without dwindling numbers of dissatisfied concertgoers!
But are we focusing on the wrong thing?
Perhaps the bigger question is not about naturalism, but rather about authenticity. Does the output truly reflect a unique perspective of the artists? When you listen to an entire album (or collection of songs, for those who download individual singles), can you hear something consistent through it that stands out?
Consider the new Pentatonix album – of virtually all originals. If you listen through to the album, though, do you get a strong sense of the group throughout? Nate Chinen of the New York Times certainly thought so, although he found that sense to be soulless. I admit that I don’t totally disagree – the album is sleek, poppy, and eminently listenable. But soulful? Hm.
The group used studio effects on the album to a great and effective degree – and it may very well be authentic to the music that Pentatonix performs today. But as an album of all originals, I guess I would expect something authentic to who Pentatonix is as a group.
Consider the Octopodes‘ The Kraken. Or Arora’s Bioluminescence. Or Forte’s Uncharted Heart. Each, like Pentatonix, are albums of all-originals – from very different kinds of groups – and each has an array of styles and messages across the tunes. But listen through to each, and you will get an emotional connection to the group through the array of its music. And you’ll know more about who they are and what they’re about.
When we do long-form interviews with groups, questions I like to ask include “What makes a (group name) song?” and “How would you describe the (group name) sound?” These are intended to get at that same question: who are these people? If an artist or group can’t answer that question (and it’s amazing how often they have trouble with it), there’s a big missing piece in performance.
Some use studio effects more than others – and who can blame them? The tools are available, so why not take advantage? I think the key, though, is to use them to deepen the relationship to the listener.
Let’s advance the conversation beyond naturalism. A focus on authenticity and connection will only make the whole genre better.