No. 32 • 2021-04-09

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Above: one moment from Drexel a cappella group 8 To The Bar’s video submission to the ICCA 2021 competition. 

The Other March Madness

The world of a cappella (singing ensembles without any instruments) is a showcase for the human voice and group collaboration. It’s a unique musical subculture requiring a wide range of skills: vocal arranging, live performance and stage direction, choreography and dance, humor, imagination, and of course, great singing. The genre has a particularly strong presence in higher education, where there are over 1000 collegiate a cappella singing groups. 

I’ve been fortunate to sing with several groups. In college, I was particularly drawn in by the ability to present rich musical performances, without having to carry instruments or set up any gear. This makes it easy to perform anywhere and to tour, visiting other schools and venues. In fact, much of what I know about music directing, graphic design, marketing, and studio recording comes from my collegiate a cappella experiences.

There’s a well-established annual multi-stage competition called the International Championship of Collegiate A Capella (ICCA), as featured in the book and movie Pitch Perfect. (There are also annual high school and pro competitions, too, all organized by Varsity Vocals.) Participating in the event can be an incredible experience, and the live performances are truly astounding and have some of the most enthusiastic audiences ever.

But the 2021 ICCA competition is different: it’s all virtual, with groups submitting a 4-minute video performance. I’ve linked to a few examples in recent weeks, but wanted to highlight the creativity that I see emerging to take the genre to new places. Remember, this isn’t what singing groups normally do… most have just learned to make videos this year.

While some are in the standard “Zoom squares” format, you’ll also find a variety of remote and socially distant collaboration, video effects, and high quality musical production. Things I could’ve only dreamed of in college are now within reach for ambitious college groups (and even high school ensembles). From the competition rules: “all audio and video recording, mixing, and editing must be done by group members”, so it’s all the creative work of students. Similar to how a cappella entered popular culture through movies and TV, I believe some of these ICCA submissions will redefine the virtual ensemble video. I’m certain some of these methods will be incorporated into popular music videos.

The regional quarterfinals took place a few weeks ago in March, and you can watch all 250 of the competitors videos and see the results of those advancing. The semifinals are tomorrow (April 10), and those will be live streamed via the Varsity Vocals YouTube channel. I look forward to seeing what happens next!

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • A Native Hill [The Crossing] The trailer for a new album by the Grammy Award-winning Philadelphia ensemble in collaboration with composer Gavin Bryars, featuring a beautiful water color animation by artist Will Kim.
  • Singing will be a vital, national therapy for this miserable year [ClassicalFM] An interview with composer Gareth Malone about his new piece Locus Iste, his latest project in collaboration with the Stay At Home Choir.
  • SonoBus sound test [Royal Academy of Music Aarhus/Aalborg] For the super nerdy… here is video of a test session with remote participants using SonoBus (which I’ve heard good things about) for real-time music collaboration. It shows that some degree of synchronization is possible… within limits. 
  • How the Skagit Valley Chorale Learned to Sing Again Amid Covid [NY Times Magazine] A long, media-rich feature on how a chorus linked to an early superspreader event has put together a virtual video concert. Loads of great info and insight!
  • Live From London Spring Highlights [VOCES 8, English Chamber Orchestra] I still really miss live ensemble music! Here are some lovely excerpts from an exceptional concert. You can still purchase this and other performances from the Live from London Spring series, through April 30

What I’m creating…

Heading deep into the Wayback Machine for this one… I had the incredible fortune of competing in the very first ICCA finals at Lincoln Center (in 1996) as a member (and music director) of the Stanford Fleet Street Singers. I don’t think there’s any video of our performance, but here’s a track (another ’80s throwback!) from our album, which won several Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards in 1995, including Best Male Collegiate Album.

No. 30 • 2021-03-05

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A Year of Social Distancing

One year ago I was preparing to travel to Austin, Texas for the 2020 SXSW conference. I wasn’t quite packed, but I was confirming itineraries and hotel reservations when the conference was cancelled (the first of many). And since then, pretty much everything changed.

Conferences: We’ve now had about 9 months of virtual conferences, and I have to say it’s been pretty good. We’ve learned that much of the content (talks, slides, posters, etc.) translates well to an online format. Of course, the social component (catching up with friends / colleagues and meeting new ones) requires greater intentional effort, but it’s all possible. I think many, if not most, conferences (particularly in academic specialties) will continue as virtual or hybrid virtual/in-person events. The benefits of broader and more equitable participation and lower overall costs (travel and hosting) outweigh the downsides.

Performances: What can you do without a live audience? Streaming (both TV/film and live performance) is bigger than ever, and many arts organizations quickly developed video production expertise. But I’d argue the breakthrough medium of social distancing is the collaborative performance video. The explosion of such content, from elementary school choirs to professional works, is testament to our human desire to create together, no matter the constraints. The format enables a more participatory culture, and although it’s a process, more and more people are finding ways to contribute. I believe some form of this medium will continue, even after it’s permissible to gather in person.

Workplace: In early March 2020, how many people had even heard of Zoom?  Now, we’ve all learned to reflexively mute our microphones and be 100% certain our cameras are really off when we think they are. Dealing with audio issues like background noise, feedback, and delay are part of the daily routine. Only slightly less visible are the tools of collaboration: Slack, Teams, Google Drive, and other platforms that allow groups to work together, remotely. For the most part, the organizations that have maintained a high level of productivity through the pandemic were already familiar with such tools. For many others, it’s been a long process of learning to adapt and playing catch up.

Now, I’ll be one of the first to return to some in-person activities, once it is safe to do so. Hopefully, that time is now within sight. But resilience isn’t about returning to the same state as before; it’s the ability to cope with change, adapt, and identify a path forward. I believe that is what will be needed most in a post-pandemic world. It will be another new normal, and will introduce new challenges and opportunities. Those who solely seek to go back to the way things were will be forever playing catch up to the way things are.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Lift Every Voice and Sing [Berklee College of Music] A beautiful a cappella performance from Berklee’s We Will Rise Summit: Black Artists and the Soul of Our Music.
  • Sons of Liberty Cypher [Ham4Progress] Been a while since we had a Hamilton reference! Check out this original piece by cast members from various productions of the musical. From The Joy In Our Voices, an evening of hope, inspiration, and community celebrating Black art and artists (the whole program is worth watching).
  • Think & Respect [Commonwealth Youth Choirs] As mentioned above, there’s been an explosion of virtual collaborative videos. This Aretha Franklin medley by the combined forces of Keystone State & NJ Boychoirs and PA & Garden State Girlchoirs, is part of GFS’ Virtual A Cappella Fest program, featuring middle, high school, and collegiate groups across the region and beyond (again, the whole program is worth watching)!
  • Star Spangled Banner [QW4RTZ] One more a cappella treatment… Much merriment has emerged from the rendition of our national anthem at CPAC. Here’s Canadian a cappella group QW4RTZ’s heroic international rescue attempt to salvage this, shall we say, tonally ambiguous performance.

What I’m creating…

We’re nearing the end of the Winter academic term at Drexel, so I haven’t had much bandwidth to devote to other projects. So here’s a short video from a series I recorded about a year ago, performing one song from each of my 10 favorite albums. Another tribute to my formative years, the 1980s 🙂