[this is a version of a post which first appeared on my blog From the Front of the Choir]
A while back I was asked if I would like to conduct an interview on my blog with a well-known singing group who had just released a new CD.
I had to be honest and say that I didn’t actually like their singing! I said: “Their a cappella singing does nothing for me, so I don’t think it would make for a good interview”.
Why don’t I like most a cappella singing out there?
A cappella means simply “singing without instrumental accompaniment”, but the term has come to represent a rather limited (in my view) genre of music.
When I think of a cappella I think of barbershop, of small groups singing close harmony, of contemporary songs with lots of ‘doo bas’ and ‘dum de dums’, of doo wop and pop music.
Although I do like the occasional 1950s style R&B, generally I dislike contemporary a cappella singing, especially when the voice is used to emulate musical instruments. I mean, what is the point? Why not just put instruments on the record?
Like a lot of purely skill-based activities (juggling, riding a bicycle, hand stands, photo-realistic painting, etc.) audiences seem to respond to the clever clever impersonation of an instrument.
They applaud the vocal pyrotechnics, but where is the soul of the music, the inner life of the song that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up?
For me, a cappella singing is too clean and smooth. It’s rather like all the other processed food and pap (reality TV?) that we get served up in the modern world.
The aim seems to be to blend the voices perfectly, iron out any individuality and be absolutely perfectly in tune. There is no soul in the singing, no texture, no humanity.
I love it when voices are ever-so-slightly out of tune with each other and you can hear the beats of the harmonics in the air.
I love it when you can hear everyone singing the same note and yet the quality of all the individual voices shines through.
I love it when you can hear the breathing and emotion and humanity behind the voices.
A glance at any of the many websites dedicated to a cappella (e.g. Primarily Acappella, A-cappella.com) gives you an idea of the kind of material that’s covered: vocal jazz, contemporary, collegiate, doo wop, barbershop, with groups such as Take 6, The Swingle Singers, The King’s Singers, The Bobs, Manhattan Transfer.
But the stuff that I like is raw and vital. It almost always involves traditional rather than contemporary songs, and is usually from cultures other than western (see I may not know much about music, but I know what I like!).
The songs have been handed down from generation to generation and singing is done for the love of it, rather than for the performance. In fact many cultures don’t distinguish between ‘performer’ and ‘audience’. These are songs of heartache, of love and loss, of work, of hardship, of dreams and promises, all rooted in everyday life.
I know, I know: here I am dismissing an entire genre of singing with a sweep of my hand. But this is just my opinion and taste, so don’t take it personally!
What kind of harmony singing do you like? And if you like contemporary a cappella, why is that? What effect does it have on you (other than “my, aren’t they clever?!”)?
Chris Rowbury: chrisrowbury.com