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.
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The House Jacks: Pollinating the Aca-universe

Last night, The House Jacks announced that founding member Deke Sharon is leaving the group, as is bass Elliott Robinson. Deke formed the group in 1991 and has shepherded it through many iterations while consistently pushingdeke the boundaries of recorded and live a cappella music.

The House Jacks are an iconic group, but not the kind that rests on its laurels and cruises along playing the greatest hits. The band has many exciting plans in store for the future, which will include two “new” yet-to-be announced members. This is why we have decided to go all in on a series of features and interviews, our very own “House Jacks” week here at Acatribe and in conjunction with Acafanbase.

This first piece has been in the works for many months.  When The House Jacks released their album Pollen last fall, I was blown away. A compilation album with some of the best groups from across the globe is exciting, but one where a pillar of the community like The House Jacks collaborates with those groups to write new songs is even better. I sat down with John Pointer in December to discuss the creation of the album, and then decided to go one step further. I reached out to members of all 10 collaborating groups featured on the album. The reason this piece has not gone up sooner is simple: it’s difficult to get in touch with people scattered across five continents. If not for the band’s announcement last night, I might have waited longer to hear back from the four remaining groups.  Instead, I am pushing on to offer you a look inside the making of the first international collaborative album of original a cappella music.

 

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For more than twenty years, The House Jacks have been ahead of the curve. If you listen to their recording of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir today, it sounds pretty cool. If you listened to it in 1997, when it was released on their second album Funkwich, it was mind-blowing.  Layered textures, big booming Bonham-esque drums, and fuzzy distortion are commonplace in recorded a cappella now. In 1997 they were from another galaxy.  

“Studio tricks,” you might say, “big deal- they’ve worked with a brilliant engineer (Bill Hare) for most of their albums.” My response would be this, this, this, and this.  See you in about 30 minutes, or far longer if you search “House Jacks requests” in YouTube.  The group has been performing its patented request improvisation medley for years, and it is fun (though far from perfect) every single time. It’s a bold move from a group of musicians confident enough in their skill and showmanship to allow themselves to be vulnerable onstage.  I have never seen another group even try it.

There’s your proof that the House Jacks have been innovating for quite a while. Last fall, they released Pollen, an album which features 10 songs performed, recorded, and essentially co-written with 10 groups from 5 different continents. This struck me as a brilliant extension of the group’s quest to not only push the boundaries of recorded a cappella music, but also to take a cappella into the future. Online collaborations are not brand-new (Peter Hollens, for example, has been putting out collaborative videos for years) but the idea of a premier band creating music with some of the best international groups is truly revolutionary.

I reached out to John Pointer, baritone/tenor/beatboxer extraordinaire, and he agreed to sit down and discuss the process. What followed was a 2.5-hour discussion about the group’s history, the process of recording Pollen, and some possibilities for the future.

 

I then followed up by emailing each of the collaborating groups, eventually hearing back from members of Cadence, The Idea of North, BR6, Postyr, Maybebop, and MICappella with their thoughts on the process and the album. Continue reading…

Acappella the Musical: A Journey Worth Taking

The world seems to be moving awfully fast these days. News is old almost instantaneously, “friendship” can mean nothing more than the click of a button, and the medium by which we experience simple joys has shifted from our eyes to our screens, from watching, absorbing, and embracing an experience to capturing, tagging, and sharing it.  Acappella, playing now at the New York Music Theater Festival, explores the road back from this rapidly-evolving cyber-immersion, as reflected through the journey of a fictional church and gospel singer turned pop star.  That the show tells its story through just human voices, sung and spoken, is not a gimmick but an endorsement for the power of two people sitting in a room talking or 4 people standing on a stage singing, connecting on the most basic of levels. In fact, it is this mode of musical delivery, a cappella music, which most effectively engages the audience during the 90-minute production.

The vocal music comes in three varieties: solo/duet numbers, dialogue-based or supported ensemble numbers, and the distinguishing point in the show, a vocal band serving as the pit orchestra.  The first two are standard in musical theater, so it is the vocal band-as-orchestra which stands out.  Sometimes, the band is onstage providing context for narrative while backing up a character.  Other times, the band serves a traditional pit orchestra function, providing music while the set pieces are changed or while a character enters or exits.  On Sunday, the band was consistently strong, with arrangements rooted in soul and gospel, but also in doo wop.  Evan Feist, music director and sound designer (more on that in a moment) has crafted simple, effective harmonies from the deep catalog of music produced by The Acappella Company.  His arrangements should please traditionalists with full, accessible chords, but also appeal to those seeking something more intricate with moments like the ringing reverse belltones near the end of the first act.  One of the emotional highpoints of the show, the R&B-flavored “War With Myself,” is a little bit loose with some of the sparse backing parts but the goal, of allowing the powerful lyrics and soloists to connect without distraction, is well-conceived if a little tenuous on Sunday.

Feist also serves as sound designer, a role which undoubtedly involves the difficult task of managing 14 separate wireless microphones.  As I was told in my interview with Executive Producer Greg Cooper and Author Vynnie Meli last week (read it here!), the group was just beginning the sound check process a few days before opening night.  Considering that very short adjustment period, the sound was pretty good on Sunday. A soprano in the vocal band was too loud at times, and a few of the middle voices were occasionally muddled, but the lead characters came through clearly, both in dialogue and in music.

So, as the a cappella writer, I’ve covered the basics of the music. Two more quick points on that topic. First, The Acappella Company is usually a Christian music quartet (otherwise known as “Acappella”), and their inspiration clearly derives from a strong faith-based source.  As Cooper correctly assured me, however, the show does not feel like a “church” or “praise” show, at least not in any exclusive sense.  Harmonies like these are universal, whether the words have religious or secular meaning, and Vynnie Meli’s book manages to broaden the story’s appeal without excising the undertones of faith and hope.  Second, the performers in the show are outstanding.  Tyler Hardwick, as lead Jeremiah, has a bright, soaring tenor which is neither brittle nor strained.  Anthony Chatmon II offers a compelling contrast with his earthy, resolute baritone.  The show’s experienced backbone, featured as both a quartet and as comedy relief, includes the immensely talented Broadway veterans Cheryl Freeman and Virginia Ann Woodruff, former Drama Desk nominee Miche Braden, and the outrageous Darryl Jovan Williams. The group’s performance of “Old Time Gospel” is a rollicking good time and one of the musical high points of the show. Simply put, Acappella is an unconditional success on the musical front.

Now, I don’t claim to be a theater critic but I will do my best to articulate why this could work as a long-running staged production, but not without a little revision and polish.  Despite Meli’s best efforts to take a collection of pre-existing, loosely related music and craft a moving and engaging story, there is still work to be done (as I’m sure she would agree).  To begin with, the story is a little disjointed and even confusing early on. There is not enough time invested in creating the backdrop for Jeremiah’s rise, including his relationship with Simon. The two were, we are later told, “Black-Eyed Peas in a pod” from the time they were young, but the vast majority of this narrative comes after the fact and is largely told through the embittered viewpoint of Simon, who comes across as a bit one-dimensional.  There may well be external factors such as show length and source catalog which will make introduction of additional character development a challenge, but it is a challenge worth tackling in order to give the story a better arc and a more nuanced portrayal of both Jeremiah and Simon.  This is important, particularly since their relationship depicts the dichotomy at the core of the story, with Jeremiah’s wandering and superficial career taking him further every day from the simple acceptance of self which Simon purportedly claims to have achieved.  Despite Simon’s claim, he bristles from the moment he learns Jeremiah is back in town until his final lines walking away from Jeremiah in false triumph, and a little less might go a long way here. Other than that, there are also a few creaky transitions, some attributable to the music and others to the book, which still need to be ironed out.

The story succeeds in the bigger picture with the help of Aunt Leona (Freeman), Mary (Woodruff), and the irascible and hilarious Mrs. Sanders (Braden).  The trio, joined occasionally by the charming Mr. Turner (Williams), bring a light and welcome respite from the heavy drama of Jeremiah’s return to town.   More importantly, the show works because the music is inspired, the performers passionate, and the journey relatable.  The show’s tagline, “A musical about finding your own voice,” is hardly exclusive to the context in which it is portrayed here, and it is one which most audiences will find familiar and accessible.

In our prior interview, Meli conveyed her early hesitation about joining the team for a jukebox musical.  However, she has successfully avoided the potential pitfall of creating a disparate, incoherent story and instead honed in on a narrative which comfortably bridges the gap between the faith-based gospel music and a coming-of-age tale with broader social and personal themes.   There’s no question in my mind that a fully-developed and broadly appealing musical is inside Acappella if she and the rest of the creative team can polish a few of the rough spots, flesh out the characters a little more, and clean up some awkward transitions. Acappella is better than I expected, but with the right development it can be everything an audience looks for in a night at the theater: a relatable story told with drama, humor, and some terrific music.  Here’s to hoping the show continues to find its voice.

Keeping Things Going

Beware: Some crankiness is on the way…

When you start a new project or initiative, one of the first decisions you make (whether intentional or not) is about how long it’s going to last. That one choice affects so much that comes after: do you act for sustainability, or go for the quick-hit? Do you work to broaden the base, or just plunge ahead solo (or with a small team) to get things done? Tons of decisions large and small will affect how long something can sustain itself.

Even if you DO decide that you want something to go for the long haul, it’s still a constant struggle. Organizations and projects go through lifecycles – exciting new growth, slowing, potentially some stagnation, then new bursts of energy and change, and so on. In less successful cases, that stagnation period goes long-term, and the project or group can stall.

All of these truisms of organizational development were on my mind today, as I went looking for news items for Acaville’s Top Of The Hour news. We try to refresh a couple of the news items every week, so I’m always out looking at websites and blogs, seeing what interesting ideas and events I might mention.

Admittedly, it’s summer, traditionally a slower time for these things (especially when a cappella continues to have a large scholastic and collegiate focus). But what I found was pretty unfortunate. CASA’s slider has items from six months ago, and the “News Room” doesn’t feature anything at all from CASA per se (though at the moment, there’s no spam on there, which hasn’t always been the case). RARB’s newest news is from 2013. AcaGeeks? The same. The A Cappella Embassy? Early 2014. Even Mike Chin’s regularly-updated A Cappella Blog has nothing new for a month or so.

[Acatribe has unfortunately been no exception to this general rule, except for a few recent AcaVids entries. Luckily, and coincidentally to this unplanned post from Aaron, we have a lot of content in the pipeline for July. Not all of it qualifies as “news,” but it is new content. -Ed.]

There are lots of reasons (in addition to the calendar) that this could be true. Blogs aren’t as cool as they once were (although still effective, I think), and some of these folks spend their time on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram instead these days. Some (like RARB) still churn out great output and just don’t pay attention to their news area anymore (although I’d wonder why you’d keep it up there then…).

But at a time when there’s so much great stuff going on – festivals, camps like Camp A Cappella, groups touring, new albums dropping – it seems a little like an information and opinion desert right now. And, lest you levy a “pot calling the kettle” argument against me and Acaville, I freely admit that we don’t maintain a blog. Our news goes up on the air at the top of the hour, and sometimes through social media as well. So although we’re trying to help the situation, we could sure do more.

But taking that on could jeopardize the long-term viability of the station – it just feels like one too many things right now. Sustainability is tough, whether it’s an a cappella group or a nonprofit or a radio station. But we’re planning on being in it for the long haul.

(To that end, if you’ve got great resources for news and opinion on a cappella, let me know in the comments! And if you’ve got news to share, drop us a line over at Acaville – those Top of the Hour segments don’t write themselves…)

Thoughts From The Field

Earlier this year, over at Acaville Radio, we launched a weekly show where I sit down – live and in person – with an aca-group or artist for an hour or so, we talk, they sing, and we edit it down for the air. The absolute best – and most logistically difficult – part of this show is spending time with these artists.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had a chance to sit in a room with nearly two dozen groups, from east coast to west coast, and talk about what they do, how they do it, and where things are in a cappella right now. And while I’ve never felt better about the state of the genre, there were some surprises along the way, too. Here are a handful of things I’ve taken away from it so far:

1. Our community is large and getting larger.

I sat down with high school groups that had only been formed a few months earlier, and pro groups that have been going for decades. The same was true at the collegiate and semi-pro levels, too. In many cases, the conversation was about what new groups were forming, what new performance opportunities were coming along, and how they were going to keep growing and developing.

I think, at least in my head, I too often compare today to ten or fifteen years ago, and marvel at how much has evolved. But we can just as easily compare today to five years ago, and get a similar result! More groups, more festivals and gig chances, more variety within the community. It’s pretty great.

2. Old problems are new problems.

For the show, we sat down for an hour with Deke Sharon, and talked (among other things) about the impetus behind founding CASA back in the day. A key reason? A cappella groups didn’t know about each other. The organization was initially started to help create and distribute a list of groups around the country (think pre-Internet, people!).

Well, that need is back and bigger than ever. Sure, there’s fairly widespread knowledge and understanding of many of the top groups out there. But we sat down with barbershoppers who didn’t know much about other parts of the aca-community, and with contemporary high school groups and directors who didn’t, either! One example: a HS group’s director said they didn’t think there were others like them in that town. And we were in the same town as a high school group that appeared on The Sing-Off!

Some semi-pro groups that are immersed in the Harmony Sweeps don’t know about the ICCA or ICHSAs. There are plenty of high school and collegiate groups that don’t know about some of the great semi-pro and pro groups out there. The schisms are everywhere, and they really prevent a lot of collaboration and learning opportunities for everyone.
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