BigQ #1: What exactly is a cappella?
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.
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”, 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. Today, a cappella also includes sample/loop “vocal only” productions by producers like Teddy Riley, Björk, Imogen Heap, Wyclef 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:
- Religious Traditions (Christian, Muslim, Jewish)
- In the United States (Recording Artists, Musical Theatre, Barbershop Style)
- In Europe (List of links to vocal groups)
- Collegiate Types
- Emulating Instruments
- See also, Notes, References, External Links
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”)