The Naturalism Debate: We’re Doing It Wrong

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 OctopodesThe 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.

8 Comments

  1. Dave Bernstein   •  

    I don’t disagree with your basic premise, Aaron, but I do disagree with the application to Pentatonix for a few reasons. First, we already know what they are as a group- American has watched them from the moment they became a group, as they recorded live covers of songs they liked for YouTube, as they offered a sneaky original tune on prior EP’s, and now as they offer something a little different. While their new album has some variety stylistically, the basic components for nearly every song are: (1) catchy choruses, (2) driving percussion which is simple and often includes stomps, claps, etc., and (3) uncomplicated pop music structure. These components have been consistently present throughout the group’s development.

    I will be writing more about the album very soon, but I don’t think it is necessarily accurate to say they lack authenticity. These kids (in Pentatonix) have always been drawn to catchy, cutting edge pop music- look at nearly all of their covers, going back to their time on and shortly after The Sing Off. Look at their social media references and displays. They have always tended towards pop or dance(ish) music, and their originals reflect that influence.

    Also, as I know Deke would point out, Pentatonix doesn’t care about us. They are marketing to the mainstream pop culture, which has a very different aesthetic than our community does. We look at ARORA’s “Bioluminescence” and think it is a perfect piece of art, but there’s no way it charts on Billboard. “People” (the mainstream) don’t want dense, nuanced, challenging, haunting music- they want accessible, repeatable music. So Pentatonix is giving them that- it doesn’t make the group any less authentic or transparent, especially if Pentatonix themselves enjoy that kind of music.

    As far as the broader argument goes, I completely agree that we need transparency and authenticity in music if we want to foster more meaningful connections with artists. The albums you referenced are excellent examples of what more vocal groups should be doing, but I don’t think Pentatonix deserves criticism in this context.

  2. Aaron from Acaville   •  

    Yeah, I figured I’d get some pushback on the PTX assertion in particular. And perhaps rightly so.

    I totally agree (and probably should have pointed out) that we are completely beside the point for the chart-topping group. Frankly, it has been many moons since my tastes jived perfectly with pop charts (and perhaps they never did, although there certainly was more overlap at some earlier time). So to be clear, I wasn’t intending to be pejorative with the poppy descriptor. In many circles, poppy can equal success.

    Your description of who they are through their music is persuasive. It still seems hollow to me, though. Catchy? Cutting edge? Pop/dance? I totally buy all of that. It also seems like the descriptors you’d use if you were walking into a record company executive’s office to pitch a new group – but it still wouldn’t tell me who they are. Are they the Talking Heads or the Pixies or the Beatles? Each of those groups could be described that way when they were in their early prime – but they are awfully different from each other, and it was Stop Making Sense or Abbey Road that helped define them. Will Pentatonix (the album) do that for Pentatonix (the group)? I dunno.

    To your point, it’s probably an excellent step in that direction. I’m unconvinced it’s a defining step, though.

    (And just to avoid any whiff of flamebait, note that I think it’s a strong album, and a brave step to use an originals album to make your wide-release bones as a pop artist.)

  3. Miranda Boyink   •  

    I agree with Mr. Bernstein on the topic of Pentatonix. They’ve already shown who they are as a group. Although they might not be what some people like to hear, they are certainly popular in the a cappella world.
    Ever since I really got into a cappella (which starting watching Pentatonix on the Sing-Off) I was amazed that they could do that with only five voices. When, they won, I was excited to see where they were going to go next, and what they were going to do. I was a bit disappointed when they began using effects on their voices and doubling tracks to get the same voice singing two different parts at the same time. To me, this is not ‘real a cappella’. Then, the music tools got even crazier, and it was easy to pick out what exactly they were doing to their voices. This is more easily recognizable in Home Free, as you can hear the deep bass line as well as Tim Foust singing the lead.
    So for me, I feel more satisfied with seeing a live performance rather then dissatisfied. That’s my take on it, and always has been.
    You didn’t exactly say where you stood on the topic of new musical effects, and that was probably purposeful, but, if I may ask, what do you think about it? Do you like the fuller sounds groups make with the effects, or do you prefer the authenticy of the live shows with one track per member?

  4. Aaron from Acaville   •  

    Miranda, I think we had really similar experiences with the ascent of Pentatonix. I remember when they sharpened their sound for Video Killed The Radio Star on the Sing-Off, and for me, it was all over. I mean, sure, there were some other outstanding groups on that season – Urban Method stands out as another that could’ve gone pro and big-time, too – but Pentatonix was gaining confidence and adding to their sound “arsenal” every episode. Given the grueling nature of the taping schedule of the show, it’s really quite amazing.

    I am not averse to the use of tools per se, when they’re used to deepen the intrinsic nature of the group. For instance, Home Free has a killer bass in Rob Lundquist (and if you review their early years, had a succession of amazing basses along the way, too). So if and when they add an Octavizer, I’m OK. (And with good sound engineering, they can even replicate that pretty easily live.)

    My Spidey senses start to tingle, though, when it sounds like the effects are the end in and of themselves. That’s not necessarily all of Pentatonix, although I feel it sometimes flirts with that line a bit.

    I suspect our sensibilities are fairly similar, although I might draw the line in a slightly different place. I appreciate your thoughts!

    • Miranda Boyink   •  

      Yes, Pentatonix did really start to shine in ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’.
      Actually, Home Free’s killer bass is Tim Foust. Rob Lundquist is the high tenor. But yes, I have traced their bass history, and it is pretty amazing how many inhumanly low voices have come their way.

  5. Aaron from Acaville   •  

    Of course, I meant Tim Foust as the bass. In my defense, I was at the end of a long festival weekend and on a late-night trip home. Oops – no offense meant to Rob or Tim. (If I was going to screw it up, I managed to do it with complete opposites! :-) )

    • Miranda Boyink   •  

      Haha! I’ve always wondered if Rob wished he could sing as low as Tim, or the other way around from Tim’s end.

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