What’s going on with The Contemporary A Cappella Society (CASA)?

The Contemporary A Cappella Society has, for more than 20 years, offered the a cappella community a place to find recorded vocal music, useful resources such as arrangements and advice, and most importantly to find others with common interests. In recent years, CASA has also offered a number of annual festivals around the United States devoted entirely to a cappella music.

It has also seemed to disappear at times, periodically failing to follow through on its own promises, express or implied. At a time when a cappella music is more popular and accessible than ever before, there would seem to be a real need for a strong central organization devoted to CASA’s stated goals. In thinking about all of this, I decided to reach out to a representative of the organization. President Greg Rubin was happy to accommodate me and answer some questions.  His responses provide a particularly candid assessment of CASA’s struggles, how the organization hopes to address several obstacles, and where CASA plans to go in the future.

Here is a transcript of that interview. I welcome comments and questions in the space below, and I am sure Greg or another CASA representative would be more than happy to respond where appropriate.

I should note that this interview was conducted in mid-December, and the delay in getting it transcribed and published is entirely my responsibility. If any of his answers are untimely, I welcome any updates from CASA.

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Acatribe: I first joined CASA in the late 90’s, and have watched it go through many iterations, at times struggling with consistency of activity and leadership. What plans do you have to try and solve some of those persistent problems?

Rubin: One of the things we realized recently, and made a commitment to focus on, was that CASA was formed to be a central point for information and activities and news in the a cappella world back when it wasn’t easy to disseminate information. Pre-internet, it was newsletters, it was handed out with paper copies and that sort of thing. That was exactly what people needed at the time. When CASA became more of a formal organization, even though our mission statement may not say it explicitly, the goal of the organization was to provide people on the a cappella community exactly what they needed, and what they needed at the time was a central point for information and a way to disseminate it. And things have gotten markedly different between then and now; we don’t need to be the central point for information. There is still some need for it, but not nearly to the degree there used to be. The needs in the community have changed, the community itself has changed. There are now companies devoted 100% to a cappella music, whereas that didn’t really exist ten years ago, with some exceptions, to the point where there was an a cappella industry, which I would venture to say there is now.

We [the CASA Board] sat down and said to ourselves, the needs of the community have changed, and our mission is the same as it has always been: to provide people in the community things they need that others can’t.

Some of those growing pains have to do with recognizing that too late; when you take a moment to pop up and take a breath and see what you’re doing, you realize you kind of missed the market, things have shifted and you haven’t kept up. What we’re trying to do on a macro level is we’re trying to position CASA again as the place that can provide things that people need.

In more tangible terms, we want to be an enabler to the community, whether that means helping someone find or form a group post-collegiately, or helping a company with promotion or with anything they may need, that we can be a service to, creating programs around these sorts of needs after identifying the current needs of people in the industry.

A lot has changed, we are trying the best we can to recognize what types of people are now in the community and what people need from a non-profit organization. Continue reading…

The Past Is Prologue

Contemporary a cappella in the United States is a fairly recent phenomenon. Heck, even if we didn’t have “contemporary” in the name, it would still be only a few hundred years old. But as we commonly refer to it, we can probably limit things to the last century or less. If we talk about the history and origins of most of today’s aca-groups, the history is even shorter: a group that has been around for 40 years is considered an elder in the genre.

So why don’t some groups know their history better?

This feature was highlighted to me recently after a couple of separate incidents occurred here at Acaville. At the station, we like to play a range of contemporary a cappella, from the earlier days to today, and we played a pretty recent collegiate song (maybe 2010), only to get a tweet from the soloist expressing amazement that we played a song that was so old – something he did four or five LOOOONG years earlier. It seemed like an amusing anomaly.

But as I have been interviewing collegiate and high school a cappella groups for our Competition Countdown show, I often ask them some basic questions about their groups’ history. And I’ve been amazed at how often they stumble on the answers. Sometimes these stammers are on basic points like…when the group was formed!

History is so critical to a group’s culture. The core of history is, after all, story – the story of how the group developed and came to be. It is a shared experience over time, and it’s an experience unique to the group. In those ways, it’s like a great song, but by only knowing about the last year or two, it’s as though you know the chorus but none of the verses. It might be satisfying to sing in the short term, but it lacks the meaning of the build-up.

Most groups have occasional alumni concerts or feature a list of their alumni on their website. Many even put a brief historical blurb on their site that list occasional accomplishments. But how many of the group members have internalized that history?

And what about the less-impressive times — the years when the group didn’t make it to competition or couldn’t pull it together to do any recording or did only watered-down arrangements? Those are part of history, too, and are as important as the triumphant years. Almost every group (and almost every person) has a journey of peaks and valleys, and without the valleys, the peaks look like mere molehills. It’s context.

History can be a rallying point. Maintain the excellence of the recent past, stem the downward slide, continue the rebuilding process – wherever the group is in their evolution. But how can you do that if nobody sees the bigger picture? If nobody knows the origin story, the early period, the middle years – the path to today?

History can also be a guide to the future. The challenges of maintaining forward momentum in a group are rarely unique, and groups that have been around a while have probably faced them before. So how did they get handled? Are there lessons from the past? And since most groups are still pretty young, you could even reach out to the leadership from that era and find out firsthand.

I’m no Doris Kearns Goodwin. But it seems that if more groups took a greater interest in their history, they could be more confident in their future.

Congratulations to…

Aaron at Acaville Radio, the winner of our first CD giveaway contest, who will receive a signed copy of the new Ball in the House CD. More on why he was selected in a minute, but first let me just say how exciting and rewarding it was for me to take a look at the cross-section of respondents to this contest.

We had pure fans, folks who run a cappella-related websites like Aaron and Trevor (from Popappella), performers like Daniel Alan (from The Edge Effect), and folks who inspired me to start this blog like Chad Bergeron from The Acapodcast.

Thanks to all who submitted responses, and I have to confess I am not surprised it came out fairly even in the PRO and CON camps regarding the use of instruments or backing tracks on The Sing Off.

I chose Aaron as the winner because of the depth and consideration of his responses, even if I don’t necessarily agree with his position.

As Aaron points out, language carries significant meaning. As someone who spends every day writing for my professional career and then spends more free time writing for this blog, I fully appreciate the power of word choices. I acknowledge that “a cappella” conveys something very specific to many people- vocal music performed without instruments. I appreciate that the distinction between unaccompanied and accompanied vocal music seems like it should be a natural line in the sand, one being “a cappella” while the other is not.

The problem from my perspective is that the last time we really truly had all “a cappella” in any kind of traditional popular music context was probably street corner doo wop. In the decades since, we’ve added microphones (which allow for direct manipulation of sound- try making an effective guitar fuzz sound with your mouth and no microphone), and more recently pedals. The last time I saw Arora, when they were still Sonos, Katharine Hoye sang half the basslines with an octavizer pedal. The show was still awesome, but is that the kind of a cappella Aaron suggests? I don’t know. There are no right answers.

It gets even murkier when you talk about what can be and frequently is done in the studio. I listen to well over 100 a cappella albums a year (between my responsibilities at RARB and Voices Only), and it is increasingly rare that I get a sense the group sang much of what I am hearing anywhere close to the way it comes through my speakers. Groups of 5 members are recording songs with 30 different vocal parts. Their parts are being chopped up and tuned, moved around to the point where they barely resemble a single performance.

Does this bother me? Not really. I still enjoy knowing that it derives from a human voice, but it generally doesn’t give me the chills that I get from a beautiful chord ringing in an acoustically pristine room, where overtones are winding their way into my ears. I think this is what Aaron is getting at- we who are especially enamored with or inspired by a cappella music often appreciate it most in a room, with those chords hitting us in just such a way. Does the addition of instruments or backing tracks reduce the enjoyment in that kind of setting? I suspect it does, at least for many of us.

However- Continue reading…

2014- Get Excited!

A few weeks ago, we talked about some of the biggest news stories from the world of a cappella in 2013 (here).  Well, now we’d like to tell you about some things to look forward to in 2014. Sit back, relax, and get excited.

Group Plans

Postyr Project has already gotten off to a busy start in 2014 with more than 20 performances in Denmark and they will be headlining the Berlin A-CA festival with Fork, Rock4, and MuSix. Postyr Project also launched a collaboration this January with the international fashion brand Vero Moda, who selected the band’s song “Run Run Run” for their spring campaign video. Later in the year, the group will be touring Germany, Sweden, the Baltics, and Denmark and they hope to release a new album with original songs for voice and computer and possibly a book about group dynamics and icebreakers. Also, they are planning a Postyr Summer Camp. They are also looking into possible trips back to the U.S. and to Asia for 2015!

The Swingle Singers will continue their Swingle50 project as they work toward a new album. Donors on PledgeMusic have already received early versions of”Piper” and “After the Storm,” which sound terrific. The new album will hopefully be released in late spring early summer.  The group is also working on some exciting collaborations for another album, and they hope to produce some new videos as well. They will also be launching a Summer School in London, with details still to be determined.

The Exchange will be releasing their second album, with all originals and featuring a hybrid vocal/instrumental approach, in early 2014! They will also be headlining the Festival of Voices in Australia.

Honey Whiskey Trio, 2013 Harmony Sweepstakes National Champions will perform at the Los Angeles A Cappella Festival alongside The Sing-Off Season 4 winners, Home Free on Saturday, February 1st. In addition, these fabulous ladies are excited to announce the release of their self-titled EP (available for download via cdbaby.com on 1/25!), featuring ‘Freight Train Blues’.  This track was added to their Harmony Sweeps set just a week before the competition and recorded in just one take! Also included is ‘Nothing But The Water’ by Grace Potter. Their performance of this song at SheSings can be seen here.

The Real Group will be coming to the U.S., with appearances in California in February. Learn more here.

The House Jacks plan to release an album of original music this fall, and get this- each track is/will be recorded alongside a different a cappella group from countries around the world (China, Brazil, etc.).

The King’s Singers will be touring the U.S. and Canada in support of their new album, Great American Songbook, starting in New York this week. Check out the tour schedule here.

Overboard will be returning to the Berklee Vocal Summit, where they work with students to build a small a cappella ensemble that performs on the final day of the festival.

Eh440 is working on an album of mostly originals which they hope to release in May 2014. Rumor has it they’re using some new technology and techniques in the process, so look forward to that!

Fermata Town is working on a new album with Tim Bongiovanni which may include some of their recent singles and are hoping for a late summer album release date. They are aiming to do an east coast CAL tour sometime this year, and also to possibly shoot a video for one of the new songs.

Blue Jupiter has hinted that they may release one or even two albums in 2014. Follow them on Twitter to catch more news.

Arora is working on at least one, and possibly as many as three videos for 2014. They may be appearing at several aca-festivals in 2014 as well.

The Boxettes are in the early stages of exploring sounds for their debut full-length album, which should feature mostly originals and be “a lot more alternative- think James Blake, Little Dragon, Camille…”.  :-)

Ball in the House plan to release a new album sometime in March. Keep an eye out for their Kickstarter campaign set to launch in a week or so to help fund this project.

re:Voiced just announced a list of upcoming February/March tour dates in Arizona and Wisconsin. If you’re in the area, you don’t want to miss them!

Five O’Clock Shadow is writing new music for an all-originals album with a to-be-determined release.

Denver group, Motive (produced by Tony Huerta/Sonic Audio Productions) will be releasing an EP. Members of this group include Zakk Wooten of re:Voiced and Daniel Bailey of UCD Mix.

Duwende and m-pact have joined forces to present “I Wish-For All Time”, a show dedicated to celebrating the work of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. Click the links for locations and ticket information.

Redline is working on the follow-up album to their CARA winning debut, “Inbound.” which they hope to release in 2014, and they will be headlining a winter festival in Cooperstown, New York, and performing at a fundraiser for Symphony NH with the Tufts Beelzebubs.

NYC based group, Blackout will release two songs in the next month or so. We also hear that there may be a VERY exciting announcement coming soon, so keep your eyes peeled!

The Funx plan to release a new video sometime in February. They are also one of several groups performing at SingStrong in DC. (See link below in TEN’s update for more info.)

Low Key, a male group in New York City, has developed a niche market, singing for proposals and weddings in the area. with a bunch already planned for 2014. The group also plans to compete once again in the Harmony Sweepstakes competition.

Sunday Afternoon is gearing up for a BIG year! Their recently released EP, ‘Turn Up’, is available for download on Loudr and iTunes. They will be releasing three new videos, one a month for the next three months starting in February, with more information forthcoming. Also, they are excited for their first ever summer tour! They kick things off in Cedar Rapids on May 10th and then hit the road. They hope to join up with other a cappella groups and put on joint concerts in various cities. Be sure to like them on facebook and follow them on twitter for further updates.

MICappella are in the planning stages for their second full-length album which they hope to feature even more originals and to release in late 2014. They also plan to release more videos in 2014, following up their recent video cover of Lorde’s “Royals.”

Traces have a few gigs coming up this spring and are working on a new single.

UPDATE: Street Corner Symphony will be joining The Sing Off Tour from March 11-14 in OH, TN, and IN. Rumor has it they may also be involved with another television reality show later this year.

The Sing Off Contestants

The Sing Off Tour will be hitting cities across the country throughout February and March, featuring Home Free, VoicePlay, and The Filharmonic, as well as occasional local guests. Find out more here.

Home Free,  TSO Season 4 winners, hit #1 on the iTunes country chart and #3 overall with their release of ‘Crazy Life’.  They will be the headlining performers at the Los Angeles A Cappella Festival on 2/1/14 before kicking off The Sing-Off Tour in mid-February. Inside sources also reveal that they *may* be working on developing a southern tour of their own to complement TSO Tour later in the year. Southerners, keep your eyes peeled!

TEN is dropping a new single next month! We hear it promises to provide listeners with TEN in its ‘true form’, a bit different from TSO. Get ready to party and dance with this one! TEN will also perform at SingStrong in DC, the 3 day a cappella festival all for charity February 21-23. Check out the full schedule here!

Element  hit their indiegogo campaign and will be releasing their first album soon. They will be performing with The Sing-Off Tour on February 21st (Red Bank, NJ) and 23rd (Westbury, NY).  They are also working with the folks at Project Philly on March 1st. Stay tuned for more details about this event.

The Princeton Footnotes leave for a week-long tour of Israel on January 25th. They will be singing  at an army base in Tel Aviv, giving a concert in Karmiel, and performing with the Jerusalem Youth Choir at the International YMCA of Jerusalem. In February, they will be releasing “The Orange Album”, featuring their newest songs, hoping to wow fans with new techniques they employed. They, too, will be joining The Sing-Off Tour shows on February 21-23.

VoicePlay has released “Collide,” a collection of the 8 tracks on which the group collaborated with other contestants from The Sing Off Season 4. You can find it on their website here and it is also on Spotify.

General A Cappella News

Pitch Perfect 2 begins filming this spring for a 2015 release.

Camp A Cappella returns, and as I mentioned in the 2013 summary, there is a separate week for non-scholastic singers!

Mouth Off is going to be returning, this time it’s for sure, and it will involve a new(ish) format and rotating hosts.

Voices Only is celebrating its 10th anniversary and recently announced that the scholastic compilation has been expanded to include the best high school submissions. Check out more (including the February 15 submission deadline) here.

2013- The Year in A Cappella

2013. The first full year with a cappella submersed in the mainstream.

There were a lot of terrific stories about a cappella in 2013, but I suspect the two biggest have to be related to Pentatonix and Season 4 of The Sing Off.

Pentatonix continued their whirlwind rise through pop music with appearances on dozens of mainstream media outlets including The Tonight Show, ABC World News, Sesame Street, Ellen,  Conan O’Brien, and many other networks and programs.  More importantly, the group actually hit number 10 on the prestigious Billboard Top 200 album chart.  At various points, they were also on the top of Billboard’s Independent Artists chart, hit number 2 on Billboard’s Digital Albums chart, and appeared on Billboard’s Holiday 100 songs chart, the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the Billboard Social 50 chart, the Adult Contemporary chart, and the top of the iTunes albums chart (with their deluxe holiday release PTXMAS). Oh, and their YouTube channel has more than 4 million subscribers and has racked up more than 300 million views. Also, they’re still good! PTX Vol 2 is a terrific step forward from their debut EP.

The Sing Off Season 4 debuted strong with 8.4 million viewers before slipping to 5.2 million for the finale. Though the season was strong substantively, with a lot of talented groups and a fun new battle elimination, I do think NBC did the show a disservice by cramming all 7 episodes into 14 days, inconsistently airing at 8, 9, and even 10 pm EST. Home Free were crowned the champions on December 23, and their new album (Crazy Life) was released on iTunes this week and will be in stores February 18.

The A Cappella Education Association was created by J.D. Frizzell, Brody McDonald, and Ben Spalding, who have successfully directed high school groups Briarcrest Christian High School’s OneVoice, Kettering Fairmont’s Eleventh Hour, and Centerville High School’s Forte, respectively.  The organization is devoted to supporting and developing high school a cappella programs, including curricula, resources, and networking opportunities for all members. Membership is free, so check it out!

RARB, the best resource for reviews of a cappella recordings, celebrated its 20th anniversary with a long-overdue (and particularly snazzy) overhaul. The organization also began new segments including DVD reviews, interviews, single reviews, and an ongoing fundraising campaign (please donate here).

Straight No Chaser released an album, Under the Influence, which featured collaborations with Phil Collins, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Jason Mraz, Seal, and more and which hit number 28 on Billboard’s Top 200 albums chart, number 19 on the Digital Albums chart, and appeared on numerous other Billboard album and singles charts. They also appeared on The Today Show and many other national and local television programs.

Pitch Perfect 2 is confirmed for a 2015 release; also, Anna Kendrick’s Cups from the original Pitch Perfect hit 100 million views, blew up on Billboard, and there was talk of a Pitch Perfect holiday album. Also, the soundtrack from the movie won an American Music Award for Best Soundtrack.

Dreamworks has optioned a movie about Straight No Chaser, which you can learn more about here.

In early 2013, Sled Dog Studios joined forces with The Vocal Company, but that’s just the beginning of their prolific 2013. The new combined organization has become a repository for many of the best and brightest in a cappella music today. Better still, they are doing more for a cappella music than anyone since Deke Sharon in the early nineties with new projects such as acappellaEd, the a cappella survey, expansion of Next Level workshops to arranging, songwriting, and high school groups, and much more. Keep watching them- I suspect they’re going to lead us all into a new age for a cappella music.

CASA’s A Cappella Community Awards (ACAs) returned- and we were nominated!

Clear Harmonies Productions started a concert series which included U.S. booking for international acts such as Cluster and MICappella, and their own education program called The A Cappella School.

Pentatonix, Peter Hollens, and Sam Tsui recorded songs for the Disney Channel movie “Teen Beach Movie.”

Acappella Academy was formed by Ben Bram, Avi Kaplan, and Rob Deitz. Learn more here.

Noteworthy

Deke Sharon appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” which you can find here.

Deke was also involved with the formation of Camp A cappella, which premiered for teenagers in 2013 and will return in 2014 with sessions for teenagers and high school directors, and a separate session for pros/adults.

The Women’s A Cappella Association held its first “SheSings” festival in Eugene, Oregon, and accepted submissions for a future Best of Women’s A cappella compilation album.

Voices Only released its second Forte non-scholastic compilation and its ninth collegiate edition.

Caroline Shaw won a Pulitzer Prize for her a cappella composition Partita for 8 Voices, performed by Roomful of Teeth, about which she was interviewed here.

The FSU AcaBelles made a huge splash with their cover of Lorde’s Royals, which passed 7 million views in a few short months and featured on CNN, Huffington Post, Elle, local news affiliates, and many other media outlets. The Vocal Company was involved in the prep and publicity for the video.

SingStrong introduced a new, second annual festival in Chicago. This edition featured performances from Swingle Singers, Nota, Traces, Blue Jupiter, Ball in the House, and others.

Bobby McFerrin participated in a “Talks at Google” session in which he performed music from his new “SpiritYouAll” album and answered questions, made sounds, and generally entertained.  He also invited SLIXS, formerly known as the Stouxingers, to perform with him on tour.

CASA offered its first southwest festival with the Texas A Cappella Celebration, which will return in March, 2014.

The Festival of Voices in Australia received a lot of local press and included Americans Deke Sharon (workshops) and Take 6 (performing), among many other talented folks (like beatboxer Tom Thum).

Competitions

Here’s a quick list of competition winners from 2013-

LAAF– OSA Vocal Rush

BOSS– UCD Mix

Harmony Sweepstakes– Honey Whiskey Trio

Barbershop Harmony Society– Masterpiece Quartet

ICCAs– NU Nor’easters

ICHSA– OSA’s Vocal Rush

SoJam– UCD Mix

Groups

The Exchange spent a significant amount of time in Australia, Asia, and Europe.

Blue Jupiter showed up in Oreo’s Wonderfilled campaign and on College Humor.

Postyr toured Europe and Asia, including a performance in front of 20,000 at the Taichung Jazz Festival in Taiwan.

Australian group The Idea of North won an ARIA (the Australian Grammy) for Best Jazz Album.

MICappella won the Best Local Artist at the Singapore Hit Awards.

Northeastern’s Nor’easters got a chance to perform at the White House for the President and Mrs. Obama, and even got to pet Bo the First Dog!

Take 6 celebrated its 25 anniversary with appearances on Good Day NY and numerous other local shows, as well as a weeklong stint at the famous Blue Note in New York City and a recording session with Stevie Wonder, and later livestreamed a concert from Japan.

The Tufts Beelzebubs and The Swingle Singers each celebrated their silver (50th!) anniversary.

MO5AIC began a 12-month residency at the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino (formerly the Las Vegas Hilton) which involves a 70-minute show in the 350-seat Shimmer Auditorium.

Duwende appeared on NBC’s “The Winner Is…”, hosted by a cappella familiar face Nick Lachey.

Video

This year brought us the Inside A cappella weekly news(ish) program, produced by Deke Sharon and Dave Longo, and hosted by Rachel Chaloub. You can watch them all on the YouTube channel here.

Jimmy Fallon and the Roots got into the a cappella game right here.

Face made some national news when they decided to serenade their fellow stranded travelers at the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport: http://youtu.be/7Nq-zoOIyfg

New to the Web

Acaville radio

The A Cappella Sound Tech Facebook page

The Acalist

Album Releases

This is a partial list, in no particular order, of noteworthy non-scholastic album releases in 2013- it’s the best I could pull together and I’m sure I left more than a few out- if you want to add a non-scholastic release, leave it in the comments or email me at dave@acatribe.com.

Pentatonix– PTX Vol. II

Arora– Bioluminescence

MICappella– Here We Go

Street Corner Symphony– Southern Autumn Nostalgia

Breath of Soul– 4 The Record

Boxettes (who also appeared on District MTV)- No Strings

Swingle Singers– Weather to Fly

Duwende– Versus

The Magnets– All This Time

Six Appeal– Plan A

The Ex-Boyfriends– Happy Ending

Maybebop– Winger sind Mehr

The Exchange– Get Ready

Sweet Honey in the Rock– Live! Jazz at Lincoln Center

Five O’Clock Shadow– Six

MO5AIC– RE5ET

Rockapella– Motown & More

GQ– GQ

The Bobs– Biographies

Groove for Thought– Songs of Good Cheer

Vox Pop– Mandate

Fork– ElectroVocal Circus

Idea of North– Smile

Postyr Project– My Future Self

Hyannis Sound– Over the Bridge

The Capital Hearings– Opening Statement

Vocal Line– Precious Things

Misc

Not sure exactly what to do with this, but…enjoy-http://www.collegehumor.com/post/6822314/college-a-capella-beating-the-system

So, what did I miss? Lots, I’m sure. Feel free to add other notable a cappella moments from 2013 in the comments below!