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Home > Main > A Cappella – A Global Micro-Niche

A Cappella – A Global Micro-Niche

reflections on George Chambers’ blog post at Cham Chowder

Introduction by Florian Städtler, Vocal Blog.

This discussion is far from old, our American aca-friends, twenty years ahead (compared to most EU scenes) in reflecting on the art form, have debated this again and again: As singing a cappella is an art form including styles, compositions and sounds from the Middle Ages to Electro, from the Baroque miracles of Bach to post-modern beatbox urbanism, will this extraordinarily diverse form ever attract more attention by mainstream media and audiences?

(Oh my God, I used the terms “art form” and “mainstream” in the same paragraph!)

So let’s be a bit more precise: We certainly don’t expect Take Six to be on page one of the tabloids, it’s not our goal to see King’s Singers centerfolds in teen magazines and we probably won’t see The Sing-off replacing football, baseball, hockey news.

But what we sure want is (more) media attention. Without media exposure it’s hard to sell anything. So it’s all about getting the music into mass media, which is not exactly easy for three main reasons:

Firstly, everybody wants to be there. Never have there been more pr agencies (with much bigger budgets than yours and mine) and pr departments pushing and shoving to get their message across. Secondly, people simply can’t take more information. You can call it information overload or filter failure – people just can’t consume more bits and bytes and if they try to, they will forget very quickly. The third reason is the basic problem of the a cappella scene already mentioned above: Singing unaccompanied is not a style. It’s a technique. And listeners don’t really care how the music’s made they hear on their radios, iPods etc. – as long as this music makes them feel good.

That’s why despite the difficulties explained above there are huge opportunities for the art form of contemporary vocal, a cappella and choral music. It sounds like bad (business) news, that this music is and will probably always be a micro-niche of the national and international music markets. The good news is: This micro-niche is huge, as today we live in a global village. Also – with beatboxers and studio gurus pushing the limits of a cappella singing further and further – listeners will soon not be able to tell if this is “really a cappella”. Just listen to Naturally 7’s “Vocal Play” and you know exactly what I mean.

Come on, singers, arrangers, conductors, composers, agents, managers, promoters and all the other a cappella activists, I want to see you join forces and go for new ways of communication using the power of the internet, international travel and the growing cross-border a cappella network.

Find below an article written by George Chambers, a member of the English University a cappella group “The Oxford Gargoyles”. The article is George’s premiere as a musical blogger and it reflects nicely some of the aspects that make it difficult even for a well-known vocal group like The Swingle Singers to get their piece of the media action.

(See one of the things, the group did, to show what it can do: The Swingles promo video “Snapshots”.)

And here comes George’s post, thanks for sharing!

George Chambers

George Chambers, singer with The Oxford Gargoyles, first-time VB guest blogger

George Chambers’ blog post, first published November 22, 2010

The Swingle Singers are one of those established musical institutions that the music world seems to have forgotten. And why do I start this first blog on a rather Victor Meldrew-esque statement? Because last week I witnessed what has to be the best concert of my a cappella life… and yet nothing has appeared in the press. In fact, UK a cappella gets hardly any press coverage whatsoever. I suppose part of the problem lies in its placing in the media – where do you list a cappella concerts? They sit awkwardly on the fence between pop, classical and jazz, but surely that is so often their charm.

Personally a couple of numbers really did it for me – Sara Brimer’s haunting solo in Nick Drake’s ‘Riverman’ effortlessly ebbed and flowed its way around a simple but haunting waltz-like accompaniment. From my Gargoyle arrangements I’m always worried of over-arranging… but this proved quite the opposite. I don’t know the arranger, but I know they’re probably prime Swingle stock. In comparison I’m a bit dubious about the Swingles’ and Richard Niles’ new ‘Romeo ♥ Juliet’ project which is a reworking of Bernstein’s ‘West Side Story’. Do we need a reworking of West Side quite yet? Hm, I do wonder. I’m still actually quite enjoying the original. The Swingles performed the two complicated arrangements with vigour, but ‘complicated’ is where I think a problem is brewing. I’m all up for experiment, but I couldn’t help listening thinking ‘that’s Bernstein’, then hearing a flurry of crunchy extended chords thinking ‘that certainly isn’t Bernstein’. It may prove to be a blessing, who knows. At the moment it sounds jilted, and often complex for the sake of adding extra 9ths or 13ths to perfectly acceptable Bernsteinian chords.

I’m excited to see what the Swingles pull out of the bag for the next few instalments of  ’Romeo ♥ Juliet’. What cannot be argued is that no other a cappella group can claim to have such vivacious variety as the Swingles, or so I believe, anyhow. From traditional folksong arrangements to Corea with some well programmed Beatles pit stops along the way, the group provided the audience with a good two hours of toe-tapping tunes. This is there the Swingles really excel – they give the audience exactly what they want: highs of Glee-esque a cappella in the tour de force numbers such as Alexander L’Estrange’s arrangement of Quincy Jones’ ‘Soul Bossa Nova’ and ‘A Fifth of Beethoven’, followed by a few blissfully serene (with, of course, wonderful mood lighting to accompany) homophonic ballads to balance it all out.

The Swingles show how a cappella should be done, and to add to it all they are lovely people as everyone found out post-gig… We should be proud of our Swingles – I may have not seen any reviews, but for a performance like I saw, i’d be happy to give them five gleaming stars any day.

You can reach George Chambers via http://chamchowder.blogspot.com/ or follow him on Twitter: @geocham. And – as always – I would be delighted about you commenting here at Vocal Blog, thanks for joining the conversation!

  1. 27. November 2010, 09:28 | #1

    I think a big problem with the a cappella genre or technique is that it’s way to often performed as a sensation. A circus act where singers show the audience how good they are with their voices. Or as I wrote in my TRC blog about a year ago:

    “Why put all that hard work into signing a cappella, when you can do advanced
    harmonies, complex grooves & precise intonation much easier with a band?…
    …I find that a lot of a cappella groups still uses the sensation card, when they try to
    describe themselves. “Only Voices”, “No Instrument allowed” or like this clip I found
    on the Tube:
    Insanely difficult!
    In the middle of the video this pops up: “Do you realize how insanely difficult this is to
    sing?” It seems that the a cappella group Visa Rösta is working professionally with the
    music & wants to be taken serious as singers & performers. Although they are singing
    old computer melodies at a Commodore 64 convention, they probably still feel that their
    music means something & has a bit more quality than 6 grown-ups trying something
    “Insanely difficult”. So why do Visa Rösta do it?”

    And there are a lot of examples much like this one out there!
    I think that if more groups and choirs focused on making music with meaning and soul, the media and the world would gradually acknowledge a cappella as a serious and meaningful way of expressing feelings and stories.
    Coming from Vocal Line, I’ve seen what our concerts do to people and I strongly believe that it has more to do with the choice of music and the way we interprets the songs than because we’re “only” singers and “only” uses our voices.
    I like to see more a cappella groups do their own things and writing their own music. Music with a message. Bobby McFerrin, Take 6, Real Group, Cosmos, Bauchklang and some others do it, but for me it’s not enough. And some of these groups are still using the “look-how-fabulous-we-are-singing-only-with-our-voices”-card… Come on! A cappella singing has existed for centuries, well millenniums, and I think we’re ready to concentrate on taking it one step closer to “real” serious, grown-up, music. Music without any excuses!

  2. 27. November 2010, 17:19 | #2

    For years I have attempted to find meaning behind the “look what we can do with our voices” card and have concluded that it is much less about the music and much more about marketing. When a group says, “Do you realize how insanely difficult this is to sing?”, they are really saying, “please come pay $5 to see our concert”. Whether it is a high school, collegiate, or professional group the general public appeal to a cappella is through covers of existing songs. “Look what we can do! We take a popular song and make it voices only!” Just this week “Teenage Dream” by the Bubs hit #1 on iTunes! Now in no way am I detracting from what Bobby McFerrin does, but he sings covers as well. For us vocalists and music aficionados, groups like Vocal Line, Take 6, and Cosmos are appreciated for their musicianship and originality.. But what about the general public? Where’s the appeal?

    Groups use the “sensation” card to draw attention to their talents. As immature as it is, “look what I can do” works every time (as long as you can actually do what you say). Even in a song such as “Teenage Dream” by the Bubs there is tremendous musicianship within. Yes it’s been autotuned and single track recorded, but the arrangement was very well written. My point is that the excuse of “can you pull that off live?” is juxtaposed with maintaining a high level of musicianship (not just in the performance, but also in the arrangement and direction of the group).

    In a nutshell, I believe that the “sensation” card is a means of advertising. I believe that it advertises for only a specific sub-genre of a cappella. And I believe that moving away from “look what we can do” is less about growing up and more about expanding our genre’s horizon. Let contemporary a cappella and “serious, grown-up music” coexist. After all, don’t we all want to see each other succeed in this realm we call “a cappella”?

  3. Kyle
    1. Mai 2011, 22:37 | #3

    This group is one of the Top 20 competing acappella groups in the country. This mash-up they do is especially beautiful!! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=StdoKoxSFLY&feature=relmfu

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