March 2012: I was visiting the Savannah Arts Academy, a specialist high school on Washington Avenue in that small Atlantic Coast city. Artists from Sherrill Milnes’ VOICExperience had just finished a demonstration of operatic arias and duets. ‘Who would like to thank our visitors?’ asked the teacher. Up jumped four teenage boys and launched into….No, you probably didn’t guess it: barbershop quartets. David Starkey, General Director of Asheville Lyric Opera, was standing next to me. ‘There’s a real resurgence of a cappella going on in America at the moment,’ he said, ‘especially among young men.’
‘Resurgence’ is kind of an understatement, I was soon to discover. The growth in the area of what you’d specifically call a cappella is nothing less than amazing. There are new groups and new a cappella festivals being announced, it seems, each week. ‘VoiceJam, a new contemporary a cappella competition & festival coming to Northwest Arkansas April 10-11, 2015’, says an ad in a recent issue of one of the a cappella magazines. And if we broaden out the definition of choral singing to include choirs of all kinds, not limiting ourselves to young men, the growth is phenomenal and international. It takes in Asia and Africa. Last year, Britain’s Stylist magazine reported that ‘[t]he number of 30-something women adding chorister to their CV has grown sharply over the last couple of years…. new choir groups are springing up at a startling rate….[there are] now more than 25,000 choirs in the UK.’ The reasons given by the Stylist’s interviewees for ensemble singing ranged from ‘I would be far more stressed if I didn’t sing’ to ‘My job isn’t creative. So I love the challenge…’
‘There is indeed a huge choral movement here now in Australia, mostly at an amateur level’ says Lyn Williams, Artistic Director and Founder of Australia’s youthful Gondwana Choirs, when I contact her. ‘Having said that, I have just accepted hundreds of young people for our national Choral School in January. The young men thing is also catching on around the world. It was led here in Australia by Birralee Blokes. In the UK there are groups like Only Boys Aloud.’
Living in America though, I’m aware of a particularly American slant to this recent history. America has had a long tradition of unaccompanied, or sparsely accompanied, singing. There was the debate over Regular Singing back in the early 18th century. Reformers like Massachusetts’ Cotton Mather (credited with encouraging the use of ‘spectral evidence’ in the Salem witch trials) wanted to get rid of the irregular rhythms, unremittingly loud volume and necessarily extreme slow tempos you have when the lines of a hymn are given out one by one to a non-reading congregation. It was ‘indecent’ said his fellow puritans and, thus, the proponents of ‘Regular Singing’ won out. But the great American symphonist Charles Ives (1874-1954) idolised the degree of heterophonic individuality you got from amateur singers and he quoted from composers of this and later eras in works such as his Fourth Symphony, which makes use of the hymn, ‘Watchman’, by Savannah church musician, Lowell Mason. Of course, American vocal music has also been enlivened from another direction when you have the vocal traditions of African-Americans infusing Gospel, which has kept alive the element of rhythm in American concerted singing for more than two centuries.
I emerge, calm, from a compline service featuring Gregorian Chant at St. James’ in the City on Wilshire Boulevard and marvel at the connection with European traditions in the midst of America’s second-busiest city and the glaring neon of Los Angeles’ Koreatown. But I’m also aware that the rise in contemporary a cappella has a lot to do with its ability to incorporate contemporary pop. Ever since Deke Sharon was inspired by actor John Cusack’s use of a boom box in 1989’s Say Anything and discovered a way to get voices to mimic instruments and percussion, a cappella has had a wide-open repertoire. Contemporary college a cappella has become much more than an extension of the glee clubs that arose on American universities in the 1850s.
And it has become very cool. ‘This is, like, a thing now?’ says Beca (Anna Kendrick) in Universal Pictures’ Pitch Perfect, the 2012 musical film about college a cappella competitions. Beca’s Barden Bellas (an all-girl group) will eventually go voice-to-voice against the all-boy Treblemakers at the national collegiate a cappella championships (Hanna Mae Lee will be the Bellas’ human beatbox). Sure the film is fiction, but it’s based on Mickey Rapkin’s book of the same name, a non-fiction account of real inter-college musical rivalries, rivalries which have swelled to phenomenal levels since the mid-1990s, aided also by reality TV shows like Sing-Off and of course, series like Glee. Is it dorky, still? Maybe, but cool people are involved. Mayim Bialik, Dr Amy Farrah Fowler on Big Bang Theory, started a Jewish a cappella group when she was studying to be a real scientist at UCLA. Thousands of people from all walks of life all over the world take part in Eric Whitacre’s virtual choirs on YouTube; the credits last as long as the musical numbers. And since we’ve moved beyond contemporary a cappella once again, Jimmy Fallon, host of NBC’s The Tonight Show, has his own barbershop quartet.
For young American men, singing has admittedly become – almost equal with football – the best way to pick up girls. ‘I suspect the strength of the Australian movement is as much about community as it is about music,’ says Lyn Williams. ‘The various successful and influential televised programs based on choirs both here and in the UK ( with Gareth Malone) have been centered on choirs as a vehicle for positive social change: Jonathan Welch’s Choir of Hard Knocks [involving homeless and disadvantaged people from Melbourne] and the Outback Choir [Michelle Leonard’s children’s choir, the subject of a documentary screened by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on 20 November about a children’s choir in the most isolated and disadvantaged region of New South Wales, “where sport is king and music education is non-existent”]. Many other choirs have formed in their shadow,’ continues Williams, ‘so people join community choirs because it simply feels good to sing and belong to community. There are also groups such as Kwaya who sing together and then go to Uganda and work with disadvantaged children.’
What significance does any of this ‘flowering’ have for orchestras? Conductor Richard Gill recently told Radio 774’s Red Symons that singing, rather than learning an instrument, was the best way to introduce children to music: ‘If you give them a basis of singing from the beginning, and they learn their musical literacy through singing, then going to the instrument is far less problematic,’ he said. ‘There are many ex-Gondwana and obviously Sydney Children’s Choir choristers who are now working as professional musicians or studying to do so.’ says Williams, who conducts both. ‘Orchestras around the country including the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Australian Chamber Orchestra have ex-Gondwana choristers in their ranks.’
What I couldn’t find out, however, was whether there’s any research on the number of choral participants who also subscribe to orchestras; if they’ve migrated to orchestral attendance from choir; if ‘migration’ has increased as choral singing has become spectacularly popular.
It’s something for me to look deeper into, I guess, because I’d wonder why not. Here is a potted history of orchestral music as I understand it. Harmony is the principal element of music for the period which provides the bulk of the orchestral repertoire. Harmony dominated until Wagner, Debussy and Schoenberg pushed its expressive possibilities to an unsustainable limit. Then Stravinsky turned our attention to rhythm. (Stravinsky went on in the direction of The Rite of Spring, not Zvezdoliki, you might say) After that, the most popular music of the 20th century could often be played with three chords; percussion was king.
But here in modern choral singing are people negotiating the acute dissonances in Eric Whitacre’s music. Here are young guys, like The Tonight Show’s Jimmy Fallon, abiding by the rules of ‘circle-of-fifths resolutions’ as specified by the Barbershop Harmony Society. There must be a way to bring all these lovers of harmony to the orchestral concert hall.
Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2014
All photos courtesy of Gondwana Choirs