A Capella in the Spotlight

Contemporary a cappella is having ‘a moment’.  From the widespread coverage of such pop culture phenomena as Glee and the Pitch Perfect franchise to increased televised screenings of national a cappella competitions and reality competition shows such as The Sing Off in the USA and The Choir in the UK, there is no denying the resurgence of the genre on our screens and radio waves.  Most recently a cappella has featured prominently in commercials, social media (through the ‘flash mob craze’) and even in the official campaign of a United States presidential candidate.

While many journalists have tried to establish the cause of its current popularity, there can be no simple explanation for a cappella’s enduring appeal.  The term itself has no universal definition, and reflects instead the various generations and eras in our history.  For centuries a cappella simply referred to all music performed “in the style of the chapel/church”, a blanket term that could be used for vocal music – sacred and secular – performed without instrumental accompaniment.  In the first half of the twentieth century the smooth chords of doo-wop and barbershop appeared followed by the experimental jazz, swing, soul, pop, gospel and R&B influenced groups of the later twentieth century.  Closest in proximity on this timeline is the upswing in experimental a cappella, utilizing the digital and virtual possibilities of twenty-first century modern technology with a crossover of emulated and simulated electronic sounds, beat-box and dub-step rhythms and the groundbreaking use of looping technology.  A possible explanation for its popularity is that this music continues to reflect the folk traditions, societies and sounds found in the daily life of its creators.

Participation in a cappella singing has become its own culture, especially in the United States with its monumental collegiate a cappella scene. A musical grassroots movement, it typically does not feature conductors.  The structure of these groups showcases a rare form of egalitarianism and equal leadership that celebrates strong social connections and a feeling of community that extends far beyond the rehearsal room or performance stage.  These groups are traditionally ‘safe spaces’ where all input is valued.   Collegiate a cappella groups in turn reflect the singers’ contemporary culture and interests, oftentimes resulting in exciting performances that strongly resonate with their peers.

An increased emphasis on technical perfection has come to characterize contemporary a cappella, in large part due to improved modern recording technology.  A cappella groups enjoy singing but also work systematically to a goal nearing perfection.  Without the ‘crutch’ of instrumental accompaniment, each singer is required to be mentally attuned to their fellow singers, continuously adapting their own singing for the benefit of the group.  The psychological state and intimacy of these moments not only add a noticeable ‘warmth’ or resonance to the tone, but also exhibits the groups’ interconnectedness in a touching, discernible way.

Some recent a cappella groups have broken new ground in experimental sounds, whether by emulating instruments, creating cross-over ‘mash-ups’ of different songs or genres or through the use of digital and virtual technologies to create enthusiastically received songs that cut through the technologically-saturated soundscape of 21st century music.  These artists have enjoyed unprecedented commercial success, even breaking into several popular music charts.

While the revolving spotlight currently shines brightly on a cappella it is an established genre that has always held special meaning to its listeners and performers.   The repertoire comprising a cappella music further demonstrates its inherent variety as evidenced by the Norton Center performance featuring two giants of the genre, The Manhattan Transfer and Take Six.  Their music and this special collaboration not only celebrates the finest qualities of vocal singing and a cappella culture, but moreover demonstrates the diversity and spirit of exploration and experimentation that has contributed to its enduring appeal.

Johann Van Niekerk
Assistant Professor of Music

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niekerk profileJohann Van Niekerk is assistant professor in music at Centre College where he conducts Centre Singers, College Choir and Concert Choir as well as choirs for special events and ceremonies.  He is the faculty advisor for CommonTime, Centre’s official resident student-led a cappella group.  He hails originally from the Republic of South Africa where he sang in the collegiate competition circuit as a member of the male a cappella group “Zeus.”

To learn more about The Summit: The Manhattan Transfer meets Take 6, performing at the Norton Center on Friday, October 21, Click Here.

Categories: Notes from the Faculty

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