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12:00 am: On college a cappella

I’m now safely past the 10 year anniversary of the last time I took the stage with a college a cappella group. In honor of that, I figure it’s time to share some of the thoughts that were incubating way back when and have now come to fruition.

First off, I love you guys. No offense here if I ever sang with you, if you were ever (or still are) a fan, or whatever. However, it’s well past time to be blunt. I’m not talking to any particular year of any particular group here. As usual, I’m just talking to myself.

First off: 1) No single performance style has any sort of a lock on ‘awesome.’ Not a cappella, not spoken word, not steel drum. Nothing. Therefore: 2) Just doing a song using only your voices does not make it awesome.

It blows my mind the extent to which we believed that we could do a song better than the original artist by dint of taking away the drums and bass, and forcing a baritone to squeak out a tenor solo. It double blows my mind that I objected so strenuously to the use of amplification – that I objected to structured choreography and the basics of showmanship – and that I whinged about allocating solos to anyone but the empirically best voice for a given part. Musical groups formed exclusively for the mutual pleasure of those involved are called “chamber,” ensembles. They should meet weekly in someone’s living room to sing for each other, and have a glass of wine afterwards. However, if you choose to take your friend’s money for tickets to your show – you owe them the empirically best show you can put on. That means that the clever and well meaning bass doesn’t get a solo. Sorry, dude.

In that light, to the extent that I exercised a leadership role in my singing groups – I (seemingly) thought that I was in a chamber ensemble, and that our concerts were extensions of the chamber music to a small community of close friends. I really wanted everyone in the group to have a good time – and I pushed some really dumb musical ideas while tilting at that particular windmill. Most of the conflict that I encountered in those years of music can be traced to this unacknowledged bias. That, or the fact that I was sort of a self-involved dick. One or the other.

To my credit, I knew this at the time. I had glimmerings – and I was starting to talk about how there is value to art made for each other in a small group, rather than pablum sold to the masses for profit. Value to the ability to make our own entertainment rather than being spoon fed. Value to finding a way to contribute to your community rather than just finding a job. Value to art and passion. I didn’t know what to do with that, back then. Now I do: Small venues for donations – if you feel like it. We wanted to be rock stars – and we gimped ourselves along the way.

To the point: 3) A cappella is not a great voicing for rock.

From time to time I hear a song on the internet and think ‘that would be good a cappella.’ Far more often, I hear one and think ‘dear god, we would have mangled that.’

Hm, thought there was more to that thought. Oh well.

Originally published at chris.dwan.org. You can comment here or there.



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