Reinhard Pongratz (director vokal.total) interviewed by Florian Städtler (Vocal Blog)
The heat is almost on: From July 26 to 29 the best newcomers of Europe will compete at vokal.total 2011. This is an exclusive interview with the co-founder and director of Europe’s to talent showcase for vocal groups, Reinhard Pongratz.
Reinhard, the vokal.total festival has been around for quite a while. Tell our readers how it all began.
The Festival was founded by the Steirischer Sängerbund (Styrian Singers Association) in 1999 as a choir festival. The decision to become the first European competition event in the vocal music genre has made it as well-known and successful as it is today. Well, to be the first in a certain domain certainly helps.
As of today, the vocal.total competition is still working from the Styrian Singers Association headquarters building, but is an independent organisation with a unique profile and separate administration.
The competition is one of Europe’s most renowned vocal, a cappella and beatbox events. Where exactly does it take place?
vokal total’s home is the city of Graz, Austria. The venue and central location of the festival is a cathredal built into a mountain. This “cave” of 20m x 12m x 28m garantuees both a fascinating atmosphere and an extraordinary acoustic situation.
The festival has grown throughout the years. Who are the people behind vokal.total?
Actually, there are still no full-time employees working for the festival. I’ve been working for vokal.total since 2000, when the actual competition was founded and I’m still working as a an IT teacher and part-time for the festival. And I’m still singing in a vocal group, vocal music is my love and my hobby.
But you are right, the workload is growing with every year of the festival. And in the weeks before the festival I’m working with a team that includes up to 20 colleagues when the festival goes ahead. And none of us is in it for the money, believe me!
Who had the idea of focussing on an all-competition event – did the Association ask you to do that?
No, it was mainly the idea of my predecessor, the late Baldur Heckel. I took over the organisation of vokal.total one year later, in 2001. In 2000 it was really small with just 8 groups taking part. But even then there were some great groups, for example the German maybebop, who were just starting their career back then.
Today the number of high-quality vocal groups is growing steadily. Are there groups who have won the competition and are still doing great?
Some groups have prevailed, other do not exist anymore. For those who are interested, you can look up the winners at our website www.vokal.at.
Tell us more about the competition itself – how does it work?
In the beginning there was only one category, but this was changed very soon. Currently the competition consists of four categories: jazz, pop, classical and comedy. The jury evaluates the performances according to clear rules and the three best groups are awarded with money and other prizes.
The contemporary vocal, a cappella and choral scene prides itself for being open and communicative, the singers love to share their music and their experience. How does this go with the character of a competition?
Our experience of more than ten years shows that a competitive event can be characterized by a friendly, cooperative and open atmosphere. In fact I found the event itself rather relaxed without any animosity. I think the very unusual venue, the hall in the Grazer Schlossberg, plays an important role in creating this harmonic and positive mood.
The winners are given the “Ward Swingle Award”, a tribute to the founder of the legendary Swingle Singers – how did that come about?
My former boss, the late Baldur Heckel came to know Ward when he was giving a workshop in Graz and took part in another workshop with his own group. From that time on, Baldur and Ward were in touch on a regular basis and when the competition took off in 2000, Baldur Heckel asked Ward Swingle to give his name to the prize of the competition – and the maestro said yes.
Now that more and more contemporary jazz & pop groups are looking for opportunities to present themselves to the public – what are the prerequisites to enter the vokal.total competition?
Many people think, only amateur groups can participate, which is not the case: Pro groups are allowed to enter the competition, too. However, there’s a limit to the numbers of singers in one group, which is 12. We decided so, because we want vokal.total to be a competition for vocal groups, not for jazz and pop choirs.
Of course, the quality of the musical performance is a criterion, when we choose the participants. And sometimes it’s difficult to assign a group to a certain category as not every style in vocal music and music in general is easily and clearly identifiable. It often turned out that it often were exactly these groups, that are very special. So we will probably never solve the “category problem” completely.
So we’re all looking forward to vokal.total 2011 – it’s an event worth attending for both singers and lovers of great music. Is there anything else, Reinhard, you want our readers to know?
Maybe it’s interesting that on the last day of the event, every participating group will get a free “feedback workshop” by a member of the jury, which most of the groups really appreciate.
For all vocal percussionists there’s one event , that’s a real must-attend: The “Emperor of the Mic” beatbox battle. For this event, our host Ivory Parker, invites the best European beatboxers to show their skills. Those artists receive personal invitations, the competition is not public.
One last little vokal.total story?
There are many wonderful stories, it’s hard to pick one out of more than a decade. Well, there’s actually one moment that has shivers running down my spine every time it happens: At the final party the participants gather at an elevator lifting hole that runs all through the mountain and sing together “spontaneously”. That’s a real highlight on the final day of the competition and an open-ended party.
You haven’t been to Graz yet? So it’s time to book your tickets now for a trip to the wonderful Steiermark region. You’re going to see the most talented young a cappella groups from all over Europe and meet the movers and shakers of the European a cappella scene. Well, yes, OK…most of them are very important. (I’m going to be there, too… ;-)
If you want to tell the readers of Vocal Blog about your experiences with vokal.total or other competitions or want to write a blog post of your own, make your comment or send your article to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for joining the conversation!