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Archiv für Dezember, 2012

BigQ #1.1 – Reply to “What exactly is a cappella?”

by Andrea Figallo – as a reply to Florian Städtler‘s post “BigQ #1 – What exactly is a cappella?”

Fascinating post (BigQ #1.0 “What exactly is a cappella?”), full of information.
I find some of it to not be completely correct, IMHO.

RE: what a cappella singers have in common:
1. they are human beings
2. they share a number of very similar experiences through their musical life:
the passion for music, studying music, studying and training their instrument (maybe), learning parts, rehearsing together, traveling, doing soundchecks, performing, etc. Very few compose music/lyrics, some arrange, etc.To me, that’s not enough to automatically turn them into best friends. But it surely is a good starting point.

Then there are musicians. What do thay have in common?
1. they are human beings
2. the passion for music, studying music, studying and mastering one (or more) musical instruments, rehearsing together (in groups with different instruments), traveling, doing soundchecks, performing, etc. Some compose music/lyrics, all of them arrange, etc.

The musicians group is huge. The participants only have “music” in common. Not enough at all to make them best friends.

The a cappella club seems to be very small, autoreferential, and with too strict unwritten rules (i.e. *that* group uses a loop station, it’s not fair, that’s not a cappella… etc).

Another point I feel pretty strongly about:
in jazz and in classical music we are not “required” to compose. Performing and intepreting (in various degrees, of course) is all we’re asked to do.
In all other music genres, composition seems to be a pre-requisite. That’s the only way to bring something new to the world. Tell me a story; use a melody and an arrangement to describe the mood. Make me laugh, make me cry, make me hum your songs in the shower.

The House Jacks did show me a different angle of “So Far Away”, one I hadn’t heard before. But I still think about Carole when I hum it.
I don’t think of HJ as pioneers because of Andrew and his amazing full time job on VP. It’s me humming “The way it makes me feel”, “Unbroken”, “Dive into you”, “Feeling Funky” that makes them the pioneers of rhythmic a cappella music in my head. And because of their huge-risk-taking albums packed with original songs.
Would Take 6 have made it without their original songs? (yes, they probably would have… but do you get my point?)
Would The Real Group? (from Chili Con Carne, to Gøta, to The World For Christmas)

I’d love you people to correct me where you think different than me, and maybe help me change my mind. I’d love to see the bigger picture better.
Because there might not be one truth to find, but there surely are many wrongs to undo.

I think I’ve about digested my Xmas lunch now. Inspiration is over – time for bed.

Here’s a link to the original Facebook thread featuring Andrea Figallo, Indra Tedjasukmana and Florian Städtler.

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BigQ #1: What exactly is a cappella?

by Florian Städtler, Vocal Blog founder – inspired by Andrea Figallo (Wise Guys)

Discussing the questions on the “BigQ list” with peers from all over Europe and the world has proved that we need definitions of the basic terminology to come to good results in future discussions. There are frequently used terms that I would like to explain using sources like Wikipedia and experts who wrote about these basic topics before.


A Cappella 

Of course, we have to look, what Wikipedia has to say about the a cappella. Here comes the short version: “A cappella (Italian for “in the manner of the church” or “in the manner of the chapel”,[1] also see gospel music and choir) music is specifically solo or group singing without instrumental sound, or a piece intended to be performed in this way. It contrasts with cantata, which is accompanied singing. A cappella was originally intended to differentiate between Renaissance polyphony and Baroque concertato style. In the 19th century a renewed interest in Renaissance polyphony coupled with an ignorance of the fact that vocal parts were often doubled by instrumentalists led to the term coming to mean unaccompanied vocal music.[2] Today, a cappella also includes sample/loop “vocal only” productions by producers like Teddy RileyBjörkImogen HeapWyclef Jean and others.”

Wow, that’s a surprise: The Wikipedia summary does not reflect the world of the 2012 a cappella nerd AT ALL. Let’s dig a bit deeper in that Wikipedia article: If you scroll down a bit you find the following table of contents:

  1. Religious Traditions (Christian, Muslim, Jewish)
  2. In the United States (Recording Artists, Musical Theatre, Barbershop Style)
  3. In Europe (List of links to vocal groups)
  4. Collegiate Types
  5. Emulating Instruments
  6. See also, Notes, References, External Links
The most interesting points I found about this Wikipedia article are: What we call contemporary a cappella is just a very small part of the a cappella tradition. Three quarters of  the contemporary part are about the US scene. European a cappella is a list of Wikipedia links – it seems as if nobody has taken the time to write about the European scene in general. Barbershop and Collegiate A Cappella are BIG. There is no complete, detailed and comprehensive definition of what “contemporary vocal music” is all about. Yes, there are some musical elements (beatboxing, emulating instruments, “bands without instruments”), but is that really what defines the thing we call “a cappella”? Isn’t there something more that people think when they talk and create a cappella music today?


Contemporary A Cappella

The term “contemporary a cappella” (or: “contemporary vocal music”) was introduced by the founders of the Contemporary A Cappella Society (formerly: of America), CASA. When they started to promote “their kind of music”, they found that most people they talked to about their passion were thinking of two traditional, stylistically narrower and rather “conservative” form of vocal music: Barbershop  singing and Doo-wop.

Distinguishing their new approach to vocal music from the old-school, often a bit corny, square and certainly harmonically and rhythmically limited way of barbershop choirs and quartets was obviously very important to the CASA founders: They included the word “contemporary” in their association’s name. In Europe, a cappella pioneers and revolutionaries faced similar problems: In many countries like England and Norway for example, a cappella singing still is mostly associated with singing sacred music. In Germany, the tradition of the first international vocal super group, the Comedian Harmonists led to the public image of a cappella being some funny guys in tuxedos singing hilarious songs for pure entertainment and as a kind of novelty. Until today, many German groups present themselves rather as singing comedians than musically advanced singers. And if groups decide to create “serious” music (classical or light), they often fail to entertain, unable to act, move or dance without making audiences cringe.

Contemporary vocal music, from my point of view, is vocal music, that is fueled by both the music that people listen to today and that kind of vocal music that innovative artists want to create now and in the future. These singers, composers and arrangers either just want to present music that is currently listened by the regular, “mainstream” listener or (knowingly or accidentally) contribute to the development of the art form of unaccompanied singing by creating something new, something unheard of.

In a nutshell: Contemporary describes a distinction between the rather conservative, look-and-listen-back-approach and the vocal music movement starting with the vocal music pioneers Bobby McFerrin, The Real Group and The House Jacks to the next generation led by Pentatonix, The Boxettes, Postyr Project, Bauchklang, Maybebop, Sonos, The Exchange, Straight No Chaser etc. as well as milestones like The Sing-off, Pitch Perfect and the emerging vocal music festival scene.


Genre, Style, Instrumentation?

Technically, a cappella is an instrumentation. So it is a term defined by something that it does NOT have: Instruments. That’s why open-minded festivals, competitions, schools and teachers started to use the term “vocal music” as an alternative. Or festivals and competitions with a cappella in their names just didn’t care and created more open categories, not defining microphones as instruments anymore, adding categories with choirs that are accompanied by a rhythm section or allowing groups to use loop pedals, samplers and drum machines.

If you listen to the heated discussions between purists and pragmatists about “Is this still a cappella?”, you better move up to another level of perspective: Have you ever had this kind of technical discussion in other areas of music? Yes and no.

There is that fantastic moment in music history when Bob Dylan started to go electric. When he and his band entered the stage with electric guitars and amplifiers, you clearly hear that voice from the audience, shouting “Judas!” on the live recording. However, today, most of the fans don’t care about how their band’s sound is produced – as long as the result is authentic, exciting and entertaining. Categories that are completely and utterly subjective. Pop music audiences are not interested in musicology. Niche audiences and musical niche activists are more into that kind of shop talk, that’s why you have discussions like this in classical music, jazz and a cappella.

STOP! – Here comes another outcry of the expert: “Classical music and jazz are musical styles. A Cappella is NOT.” You got a point, Professor. But you don’t need higher education to see that: There are a cappella groups and recorded music in almost any musical style on this planet. So again and again, the movers and shakers, the thinkers and community organizers are desperately looking for categories to define the common ground of a cappella. What, after all, is the smallest common denominator? What constitutes “contemporary a cappella”? What do we have in mind if we talk about this thing a cappella? Here’s a random collection of  often divergent characteristics I’ve found in earlier conversations, posts, panels and threads:

  • community thinking
  • voices as the most human, soulful instrument
  • singing in groups brings out the best in people
  • general open-mindedness
  • the will to further the development of the art form
  • importance of meeting face-to-face
  • importance of  live performance as opposed to recordings
  • not being as nerdy and square as traditional styles
  • writing original music as a critical element of being real artists
  • exchanging ideas and experiences with peers
  • a new culture of leadership by coaching and authority (role models)
  • systematic usage of the internet to widen your horizon
  • opening up to the real (music) world without losing the community spirit
  • making yourself at home in a cosy niche

This list is by no means complete, but already gives a nice impression of the diversity and the contradictions of a – well, let’s face it – a very, very small part of  world of music. If there’s one thing sociologists don’t argue about a lot it’s the fact, that the world, our society, our culture(s) and thus our musical cosmos has become significantly more complex, atomized. A hundred years ago there was folk music, classical music and popular music (jazz was the pop in the 20s) and you had to listen to it played or sung live. Today there are probably 100+ pop styles and it becomes increasingly harder for music marketing people to find the right labels for their products to make them accessible for their atomized target groups. What does that mean to us now? And for a definition of a cappella.

There will probably never be ONE A CAPPELLA. Instead, you can choose whatever you like to create your own customized version of a music that is based on the power the human voice. Some relatively successful vocal groups have deliberately chosen not to use the term a cappella or at least to not use it for their marketing, among them Naturally 7 (USA), Wise Guys (GER), Bauchklang (AUT), The Boxettes (ENG) and Postyr Project (DEN). Naturally 7 has simply renamed it “VocalPlay”, The House Jacks invented the slogan “Rock band without instruments” and have decided against using effects and pedals live. Both basically describe the fact that they use their voices like instruments.  While this “novelty concept” made The Mills Brothers an exceptional success in the 1920s, today’s groups and trendsetters (like The House Jacks, see article linked above) more and more try to avoid the novelty image of vocal music. Danish Electro-vocal group Postyr Project decline all imitations of instruments except some human beatboxing: “If we need a sound of an instrument, we use a computer sample or other digital sources”.

One of the most fascinating and eye-opening examples of there being more than one definition of contemporary vocal music is a project that is going to turn 50 in 2013: When the very first generation of The Swingle Singers became a smashing success in 1963 by giving Bach’s “Wohltemperiertes Klavier” a backbeat plus a swing, the sheer idea of doing the unthinkable (using Bach’s holy harmonies for lighthearted entertainment and with 8 singers + double bass and a mini drum set) was enough to thrill the masses.  For 5 decades the group’s generations have developed their concept: Going fully a cappella in the early 80s, making beatboxing an indispensable part of their sound musical concept with the album “Beauty and the Beatbox” in 2007 and releasing more and more original pop and jazz material since 2011.

How boring would this journey have been, if the group hadn’t changed course every decade and adapted their art to new influences and – more importantly – to the particular talents of their members. New people mean a new group. A new group means new musical ideas. New ideas that are still based on the close-mic technique called Swingle Singing mean their new definition of a cappella.

So what’s your personal or group concept of a cappella? I’m really interested to learn about the 1001 unique definitions out there. Bring them on and at the same time explore those which seem the most different from yours.


The A Cappella Community

If there is not one a cappella definition, there’s probably not one a cappella community. A community is a group of people who share common values, goals and visions. The larger a community gets, the more open-minded their members have to be, the more pragmatic the formerly idealistic values and visions will be treated. I personally like this idea: Sharing a common basic interest while at the same time widening each other’s horizons by exchanging ideas, concepts, opinions. And those ideas, concepts and opinions cannot be diverse enough. Open-minded people love to be confronted with other people challenging the status quo. A valuable community is not streamlined. There is no unified opinion. People look for external feedback. They even look for disconfirming evidence to what has long been accepted truth. Collective growth and mutual inspiration beat competition, intolerance, ignorance, laziness, narrow-mindedness and arrogance.

Many of us have experienced this at a regional, national and international cappella events. They found “people like me” on the internet, as the web’s social media features automatically connect fans, followers and activists of special interests like a cappella, trainspotting, vegan food etc. So the process of finding like-minded people has become much easier. The process of forming a practically and spiritually valuable community has not become easier. Remember, we live in an atomized society. What we call the a cappella community – surprise, surprise – is everything but uniform. And the more it grows, the more diverse and inhomogeneous it gets. Here are some players:

  • amateur a cappella singers, arrangers, composers
  • amateur choir directors and singers
  • professional a cappella singers, arrangers, composers
  • (semi-)professional producers, agents, managers, promoters
  • the mainstream media (“a cappella cherry pickers”)
  • amateur and professional critics, experts, judges
  • the die-hard fan and a cappella volunteer (“aca-nerds”)
  • the regular music and occasional a cappella listener
  • non-profit or semi-professional community organizers (“the aca-hubs”)
This reminds me of our first family meeting after the German Reunification. In 1991 about 100 people from all over East and West German gathered in the small town of Bad Brückenau. Those people had different professional, political and educational backgrounds, more than 50% met for the first time in their lives. A German Post-WWII special interest group, that had only one thing in common: All of these people were relatives of my grandmother and her two siblings. Can there be anything more exciting and eye-opening than this? Our “Großfamilie”, a clan as diverse as a German group can be, has since then met in different places all across the country. And of course this group includes people with very different perspectives on the world: People who vote differently, people who educate their children differently, people who support “the wrong” football team and people who simply get on your nerves sometimes. Still these family meetings have become  wonderful opportunities to learn, exchange opinions and create…yes, a community. With all its weaknesses and imperfections, but with all the inspiration and learnings that human beings need to make life good.


The A Cappella Community is this to me: A place of opportunity, exchange and openness. A combination of face-to-face meetings (still the best way of communication!) and a global network of people interested in taking that age-old tradition of singing together in groups into the 21st century. The diversity of the list above, the different personal interests, tastes, philosophies and goals of the a cappella community stakeholders are not obstacles. They are the indispensable ingredients if we want to make the community prosper: The pros need the amateurs and vice versa. The regular listener needs the expert and vice versa. The pioneers need the mainstream and vice versa.


Let’s dive into the vocal music diversity and make cross-border, cross-style, cross-ideology exchange happen. Make all community information available, make better education available and make the community’s networking more efficient and user-friendly. If we focus on making these things happen, there will be so much added value that each and everyone of us will profit from his individual version of the a cappella community.




BigQ #0: The Ultimate A Cappella Life, The Universe and Everything Project

24. Dezember 2012 2 Kommentare

by Florian Städtler, Vocal Blog founder – inspired by Andrea Figallo (Wise Guys)

Andrea Figallo

Andrea Figallo is one of the most active, communicative, polyglot and sometimes provocative vocal music pros in Europe. His singing and beatboxing with The Flying Pickets and the German vocal supergroup Wise Guys (to name only a very few of his activities) has made him travel the world. His having Japanese in-laws even more opened up his eyes for different mindsets, habits and intercultural differences. No wonder, he reacted promptly when I tweeted about his new group’s relationship (or should I say non-relationship?) to the so-called a cappella community. It only took minutes and we were in the middle of discussing the ever-present “Big Questions” that always come up when we try to reflect on “vocal music”.

Andrea took the question of the relevance of original music to Facebook and in a few minutes again, nerds and “normal people” from Italy, Germany, Hungary and elsewhere started to add interesting points and opinions on multiple topics. I personally find the real time thread technique on Facebook fascinating, on the other hand, sometimes confusing and unefficient. So, having the luxury of a blog of my own, I decided to dig the nugget topics (“BigQs”) out of the mud of spontaneous interaction, reflect on them in order to create a starting point for a discussion and then invite both experts and the “John & Jane Doe” music listener to give their opinions on clearly defined questions.

I’ve gathered 9 basic questions as of today and would be delighted if you would add more or more specific questions to complete the debate. I hope to end up with something fascinating and priceless as “The Great A Cappella Debate” two years ago, when a Facebook post by Californian aca-fan Nate George about the wrong impression The Sing-off (season 1) gave about US vocal music caused one of most insightful discussions about a cappella I’ve yet come to see. We had people from more than 15 countries and members of Take Six, The Swingle Singers, The King’s Singers, The House Jacks as well as Deke Sharon and other people involved in The Sing-off giving their opinions and thoughts. Let’s hope this draft list will trigger something similar – it’s up to you!

How about a proper crowdsourcing project (bring on your opinions, your thoughts and theories!) combined with a serious attempt to research what has been said/blogged about these matters before and then summing it up in the first white paper/ebook? This digital summary will present the possible answers to the BigQs of a cappella and could be updated annually.So here is a first BigQ list of what from my experience most of us have discussed with different people and different outcomes more than once:

  1. What exactly is a cappella?
  2. How important are originals for vocal music?
  3. What makes (a cappella music) innovative?
  4. Does being innovative say anything about quality?
  5. Is there any connection between being innovative and being a mainstream success?
  6. What is mainstream success from the a cappella point of view?
  7. What would mainstream success mean for the a cappella community?
  8. Does the community want this kind of success (and its consequences) after all?
  9. Do vocal music nerds suffer from an a cappella reality distortion field?

Those who have read Douglas Adams’ clever, extremely funny and thoughtful book(s) “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” remember that the adventures of his heroes are closely connected to the hilarious quest for the answer to “The Ultimate Question – The Question of Life, the Universe and Everything”. The people who desperately wanted to know this answer waited 7.5 million years until a supercomputer their ancestors had programmed came up with the answer, which went like this: 42. That’s when they had to build another, even bigger computer to figure out what the actual question was.

So please, before I’m going to start the discussion with presenting the results of my research and some humble thoughts by myself, give me more, better, more precise and more inspiring questions. Questions which, once being answered, give you more certainty, energy and time to concentrate on what really counts: Doing things, implementing plans, writing music, composing originals, pushing your act, getting things done.

Good work and a better life starts with clear thinking. Let’s clarify a few things here during the next two weeks.

I’m Florian Städtler, age 42 (!) and passionate about a cappella. Being founder of my own artist booking agency SpielPlanVier, of my global vocal music conversation baby Vocal Blog and the first professional special interest online shop for all things a cappella, Acappellazone as well as Chairman of the Board of The European Voices Association (EVA), I have decided not be satisfied with my current status quo of half-knowledge. And so 2013 is the first of probably many years on the way to true mastery and insight in that peculiar music business niche we call a cappella, vocal or rhythmic choral music. Looking forward to an exciting journey, come on board!



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