Sing A Cappella!

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Jonathan Rathbone working his arrangement in the plenary sessionJonathan Rathbone working his arrangement in the plenary sessionSunday 29th March saw hordes of a cappella singers congregating in Hounslow for a day that was billed as the inaugural event of a new British Contemporary A Cappella Society. Eight different groups participated in a day that involved coaching from ex-Swingle singers Jonathan Rathbone, Joanna Forbes, Wendy Nieper and Mark Williams, framed by plenary warm-up sessions, performances and workshopping one of Jonathan’s arrangements. I went along to observe and network (and being there without an ensemble earned me privilege of a badge that labelled me as ‘Individual Liz’ – something I shall treasure for all time), and came away with a notebook full of thoughts that will feed this blog for some posts to come.

The thing that most immediately begs for comment about the day is how the term ‘contemporary a cappella’ is operating in a much looser sense here than in the US. There is a very clearly-defined contemporary a cappella scene in North America, much of it centred on university campuses, but spreading beyond too – as people keep singing after they graduate. The genre is self-aware, with its own organisations and competitions and blogs and its own set of shared values and practices. While it does not define itself prescriptively in the way that contest barbershop does, there are certain common assumptions about what you’d expect to find in contemporary a cappella, and these include:

  • Repertoire with a strong focus on rock and pop
  • Arrangements which feature a soloist singing lead, with 3-7 parts (with 1-3 voices per part) singing the backing in a varied texture
  • Extensive use of ‘vocables’ – varied nonsense word sounds designed to evoke the instrumental textures of the original recordings (often including vocal percussion)
  • An aesthetic that values both the reference point of the original version and the creative possibilities available in transforming it to a new medium
  • Arrangements typically developed in-house by members of the group for the specific singers involved

Of the groups participating on Sunday, only Kitsch in Sync came close to matching these generic expectations (they also had the best name – though I bet they have some fun times when trying to promote the group over the phone rather than in print media). They didn’t do vocal percussion – but then, singing without amplification inhibits those possibilities – but otherwise ticked all these boxes, and left me singing Madness’s ‘It Must be Love’ all the way home.

The other groups showed a bewildering variety of formats and styles, commensurate with the very broad definition of the new society’s remit to serve ‘more modern types’ of a cappella. There were substantial choirs as well as one-to-a-part ensembles; there were groups that learned everything by rote as well as groups that performed from the sheet music on stands. There were several groups with members primarily drawn from past and present participants in the barbershop movement, but who were interested in developing beyond the typical barbershop repertories and arrangement styles and/or interested in mixed voice singing. There were also groups with a classical background who had moved across to explore new repertories. So, ‘contemporary’ seemed to imply both a general ‘not classical’ and a more specific ‘not barbershop’.

The references in terms of style were somewhat more jazz-oriented than drawing on pop and rock – possibly reflecting a degree of self-selection for participation in response to the Swingle line-up of educators. (Indeed, there was a certain amount of Swingle repertoire in evidence.) There was also a smattering of world music, notably a South African anthem performed by the Swindon Scratch Choir. Interestingly, many of the groups did have in-house arrangers – more than one would typically find in either a classical choir or a barbershop chorus – so this is one area where there was a significant overlap with the American scene.

Otherwise, though, I’m pretty sure that the people Joshua S. Duchan writes about in his article on contemporary collegiate a cappella would not recognise much of what went on in Hounslow as belonging to the same genre. It will be interesting to see whether the new society maintains this breadth and variety as it develops a more self-aware genre community in the UK. And in the meantime, the opportunity to compare different styles and working methods has given me plenty to think about for future's's official...

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