A Cappella Hit Machines, Adrenaline & a Lonely Jogger
by Florian Städtler
this time I wanted to write a little tour report about a trip to Graz.
If you have never heard about this medium-sized Austrian (Styrian) town, you are probably not alone. Especially if you’re based outside Europe. But on planet a cappella, big things are not always happening in metropolitan areas.
OK, we have Los Angeles A Cappella, London A Cappella, Vocal Nation in New York, Festival für Vokalmusik Leipzig, Voice Mania in Vienna and the Hongkong A Cappella Festival to name a few of the big city festivals.
But who of us would ever have heard of places like Raleigh/USA (SoJam), Aarhus/DK (Aarhus Vocal Festival), Lörrach/GER (Stimmen Festival) or Varese/ITA (Solevoci Festival)? And where the hell is Graz?
Graz (293.ooo inhabitants) is the second-largest Austrian town, situated in Styria, the region next to Slovenia. It was given the title of World Cultural Heritage, has an opera house and many small and medium-sized cultural venues and events. With it’s beautiful surroundings, its old city center and the Schlossberg mountain that offers a wonderful overview over Styria (die Steiermark) it’s also a European tourist attraction.
If you arrive in Graz and see all the restaurants serving these tasty Austrian dishes (pork leg soup, Tafelspitz, Kaiserschmarrn and other specialties), see the architecture which is partly ugly 60s post-war style, partly neo-classicist pomp, you would expect everything there but a vocal music festival.
But that’s what Graz has: One of the leading European vocal music events.
And it’s not a line-up of stars that makes “vokal.total” one of the hidden champions of a cappella and beatboxing. It’s the fact that for more than a decade, the vokal.total a cappella competition (founded by the late Baldur Heckel, a long-time chairman of the Styrian Choral Association) presents the future of international a cappella by giving golden, silver and bronze diplomas to the most promising newcomers taking part in the competition.
As I might have written here before: I have my doubts regarding making music “against each other”. Our beatboxer friends, who always kick off vokal.total with a four-hour beatboxing marathon entitled “Emperor of the Mic”, are even “battling” each other. Although most reasonable (and grown-up) people would question martial rhetoric when making music, this all is surely not as dangerous as it sounds. When you see those youngster producing the most incredible beats and sounds, it turns out to be more like a battle of testosterone than a real fight.
Talking of hormones brings me back to the three competitions, classical, jazz and pop (The “comedy” category had to be cancelled because of a lack of applicants): There are good things about competitions and one very important thing is the adrenaline involved. This hormone makes people get into a state of complete concentration and helps to bring out the best out of each and every group or individual singer. The 20 minutes before a highly interested and knowledgeable audience and four internationally renowned judges are the ultimate test for all of the participating groups. And both things that don’t work as planned and things that are performed perfectly help the groups to learn and get a new perspective on their music. The judges, Kim Nazarian (The New York Voices), Anders Jalkeus (The Real Group), Andrea Figallo (The Flying Pickets, The Ghost Files) and German choral and arranging guru Matthias Becker not only listened carefully to all the vocal groups but coached each of them individually. For many of the participants, this was probably the most valuable part of the Graz trip.
Music-wise, I have to add. Because – as in most of these a cappella events – there is this unbelievable spirit of community and communication, this high level of positive energy despite of a growing sleep deficit and despite the 1,2,3, many beers at the legendary after-competition party on Wednesday.
If you come to Graz and plan to see the whole (!) competition, you face an a cappella marathon. Just check out the list of all the participating ensembles:
Emperor of The Mic
Alem (FRA), Babell (GER), Ball-Zee (UK), Dharni (SNG), Heartgray (CAN), KrnFx (CRO), Primitiv (BEL) and Slizzer (LUX); WINNER: Dharni (SNG)
Vocalica (LAT), Jazz & Gospel Company (ITA), Latvian Voices (LAT), Octavians (GER), Himmelstöchter (GER), Cuesta Chamber Singers (USA); WINNER: Latvian Voices (LAT)
Jazz & Gospel Community (ITA), HiFive (NED), Cuesta Voce (USA), Rave Vocal Band (NED), MayTree (KOR), Juicy Blue, BIT (SLO), Singer Street (HUN), Moment Singers (TWN); WINNER: Singer Street (HUN); AUDIENCE PRIZE: MayTree (KOR)
Non Stop Vokal (HUN), Latvian Voices (LAT), audio quattro (AUT), Hartmuth und die Hitmaschine (GER), Rave Vocal Band (NED), Quattro Pro (AUT), HiFive (NED), MayTree (KOR), Sonic Suite (GER), muSix (GER), The Boxettes (UK), MICappella (SNG); WINNER: Sonic Suite (GER); AUDIENCE PRIZES: Hartmuth und die Hitmaschine (GER), The Boxettes (UK)
Highlights? A great many, I can only name a few: The Latvian Voices, winners of the jazz category teamed up with two beatboxers at the winners’ concert +++ Anders Jalkeus multi-lingual (“Wie sagt man, Matthias?”) co-mceeing with Matthias Becker +++ Reinhard Pongratz‘ (the heart and soul and co-founder of the festival) last time on stage as head of the festival +++ meeting Ray Yl Chu and Christine Liu, the movers and shakers of Asian a cappella +++ two unbelievably groovy, though completely different German vocal acts: loopmachine duo Hartmuth und die Hitmaschine (feat. Berlin sandbox friends Lukas/maybebop and Patrick/muSix) and the phenomenal pop category winners Sonic Suite.
Sonic Suite certainly deserve a special mention: The winner of the pop category made the biggest progress of any a cappella group I’ve ever heard, since I had seen them a few months ago. Congratulations to Tilo Beckmann, the man behind Sonic Suite! Promoters call him now, if you want a top-notch international class, innovative and super-listenable pop a cappella act on your stage. (Go to www.leading-voices.com to book the group).
Servus, Graz. Servus, Reinhard. Danke, vokal.total.
Needless to say that nobody joined me when doing the Vocal Jogs no. 3 & 4…unfortunately I didn’t know that HiFive member Pablo is also a runner, I put him on the list like Sofie (HiFive), Peter Martin Jacob (Magenta), Kate Brown (the new Boxette), Sander Gieling (Rave Vocal Band & Vocal Jazz and Pop Days) and the other potential Vocal Joggers not present in Graz (Tine Fris and Line Groth Riis/Postyr Project), Paul & Barney Smith (VOCES8), Tobias Hug (The Swingle Singers)
I won’t lose faith in you, my friends, I’m looking forward to the day of the first collective singing, drinking AND running event. You won’t disappoint me.
Have you been attending vokal.total? Do you like or dislike competitions? What do you think about competitive music events in general? Do you know other competitions you can recommend? And why that?
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