A cappella, in a nutshell
In an era rife with EDM, autotune, “whisperpop,” and other musical paraphernalia, where does a cappella find itself amidst all this cacophony? Literally meaning “without musical accompaniment,” a cappella is music stripped down to its bare bones, piercing through all the technological accessories we have today and manipulating humanity’s most primitive and immemorial instrument — the voice. Singers of a cappella learn to understand this part of themselves with great intimacy, and, eventually, with a deft mastery that appears effortless to onlookers. The timbre, the resonance, the melody, the harmony, the pitch … a cappella requires an acute awareness of all of these elements, along with cohesiveness with other singers.
What about it?
Skeptics and detractors question the relevancy of a cappella and its ability to captivate its viewers, especially at a time where glamor and elaborate effects tend to sweep audiences off their feet. They mock the concept of imitating instruments, claiming it as futile and “inherently lame.” Aspersions are cast left and right, as stereotypes spread like wildfire, and the truth is often the ember that is neglected in favor of its fiery nemesis. For many, a cappella is synonymous with dull and stationary, perhaps even geeky, bringing in mind someone who scorns those who must enlist instruments and flaunts their voice at the slightest provocation. Indeed, even in high school there are “the theater nerds,” “the band geeks,” etc.
However, there’s no denying that a cappella, like so many forms of art and culture, is highly adaptable and has carved its own space into today’s world. With the TV show Glee attracting millions of viewers, the premier in 2012 of Pitch Perfect, and the soaring popularity of Pentatonix (perhaps the only a cappella music group to truly reach stardom), a cappella is no longer an obscure term. The rise of YouTube has trebled this expansion, encouraging novices to upload their own a cappella creations and covers — which technology, such as editing software, ironically facilitates.
My personal experiences
My entry into a cappella occurred during my middle school years, with a music teacher who was fanatical about it. Pentatonix’s collaboration with Todrick Hall in “Wizard of Ahhhs” was the very first one she showed us, and I was enraptured. My reasons were inexplicable, perhaps I was captivated by the theatricality and the nostalgia of remembering the giddiness of watching Wizard of Oz. But it wasn’t just the tribute to a famed film that made me replay the video time and time again afterwards, it was the group itself, which had a hypnotizing effect. I was fascinated by the clarity of their voices, and how they melded together seamlessly. There was clear direction and purpose in their solos, but there were also layers, complexity, where I could hardly decipher which voice was whose in the depth of sounds.
That astonishment seems, to me, the embodiment of a cappella. Ever since then, I’ve always felt undercurrents of intrigue towards this musical genre, but the extent of my knowledge of a cappella ends abruptly after my feelings of it. This is probably the case for most people. Surely, though, there must be more than snapping and vocal runs involved? To gain more insight into this widely exposed yet narrowly explored world, I enlisted the help of my high school’s own a cappella group, Forte, and interviewed its director, Ben Spalding.
Forte is — excuse my school spirit — a rather decorated a cappella group, especially in the context of high school, having been a national champion and national runner-ups in ICHSA global tournaments (The International Championship of High School A Cappella). Like many a cappella groups, they have their own youtube channel where they post music videos of their covers, and they even once collaborated with Pentatonix’s Kirstin Maldonado, garnering over 700,000 views.
Ben Bran, a Grammy-award winning arranger for Pitch Perfect, Pentatonix, and The Sing-off, titled Forte as an “a cappella dynasty … a consistently high-performing, inspiring, and viciously talented high school group.” Moreover, Deke Sharon, who also contributed to Pitch Perfect and known as the “Godfather of Contemporary A Cappella,” claimed that “it’s almost unthinkable that a high school a cappella group could be termed ‘pioneering’ and yet that’s exactly what Forte is.” Spalding and Sharon even wrote a book together centered around a cappella. Needless to say, he possessed the exact kind of acumen I needed to understand the workings of modern a cappella.
The dynamics of a cappella
First, we discussed the fundamentals of a cappella: its organization. “I would say, if you go past eighteen members, you’re getting more into choir. I try to keep Forte capped around sixteen, and in some years, twelve,” Spalding said. “But, that’s the nice thing — it can be very dependent on the people that you have. If you only have four guys that are strong enough, then you can go to four guys. That beauty of it is that you can arrange the music to fit the needs of the group.”
Spalding emphasized, “I think one of the biggest things that I always try to figure out is, do I have the soloist? Because the soloist is a big part of it … if someone is like, ‘You should cover this song!’ and I’m like, ‘Well we don’t really have anybody that sings that style ….’ I wouldn’t do it.” A cappella offers the diversity of genres across the musical board, but not every song will suit the singers, or vice versa. “You need to play to your strengths.”
However, this gave rise to a pesky little question: What exactly are the differences between choir and a cappella? “With choral music — I love choral music as well as a cappella — what is most intriguing and interesting to me is that, with contemporary a cappella, you have more leniency to be creative and new and fresh with it,” Spalding said. “You can make it your own, and you can even put a twist on that song. You can take a faster song and make it a ballad. With choral music, seventy percent of [it] is at least based in the church. It’s mostly classical, although there are a lot more choral arrangements getting in the pop realm.”
Spalding continued, “The traditional type of singing is stylistically different. With the choral music, the arrangements or compositions are done already. You’re trying to conform or learn that piece how it was meant to be sung. It can be creative, and the teaching through traditional choirs is unbelievably important, but it does keep you more in a box.” Capitalizing on the more spontaneous nature of a cappella, Spalding also touched on the uncertainty that a cappella can induce. “It scares a lot of people. There’s no roadmap … but for me, that’s exciting, because I’m like, ‘We can create this brand new piece of art or version of somebody else’s art.'”
However, when it comes to translating a song, each arranger has their own preferences — a cappella is versatile, allowing for creative license. “There are arrangers that will take a contemporary piece, and they will want to more emulate what those instruments are in the backgrounds,” Spalding said. “And there’s another approach that’s like, you know what, I’m not really going to try to emulate these. I think a lot of times what we do is, I’ll create different patterns … look at the bass part, and then the solo part, you plug the chords in … you start messing with the texture or the rhythms.”
How accurate is the public’s perception of a cappella?
As a contemporary a cappella group, Forte, similarly to Pentatonix, focuses especially on pop music. “A lot of people think ‘oh, pop music, that’s just three or four chords in the song.’ Well, if you look at the arrangements we’re doing, we’ll change the harmonies of it, we’ll re-harmonize it. We’ll make it way more complex … one of the things that’s most interesting about this technological world we’re in now is that actually, people can make things more complex, easier,” Spalding debunked the widespread perception of a cappella as the easier path, and as pop music as a low-brow musical genre. In reality, pop music offers an abundance of possibilities and creates a channel through which a cappella, a seemingly obsolete concept, can resonate with a modern audience.
Spalding also addressed the media’s delivery of a cappella regarding the aforementioned Pitch Perfect and Glee. “Anytime that a cappella is in the media and new for the most part, I think it’s something that we, in many ways, want to celebrate,” he posited. “Pitch Perfect is an overstimulated version of the world of contemporary a cappella. It’s an exaggerated world. Some people that are really serious don’t like it … but I think that they’re missing the point. There are real a cappella people behind it that are helping make those songs … this is a great thing. This is a win for a cappella.”
Diving deeper, he described how the mentality of today results in such abrasive judgement of a cappella. “We need to, as a culture, not always take ourselves so seriously … everything we do all has elements of humanity that just need to be looked at,” he said. “I think we’ve learned as a culture and society, that we have to take a side. And I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think we have to take a side with everything. You can always still like the other person that you’re up against, or appreciate where they’re coming from.”
If someone has a genuine repulsion towards a cappella, no one can change that opinion. Likewise, no one can change the mind of someone who reveres a cappella. To attempt to do so in a single article would be futile. What’s crucial is to ensure that our views are based off of truth untainted by hearsay or stereotypes, and while a cappella is probably last on our priority list, this principle goes for every trend or issue — for matters on all levels of exigency. “It’s all at the end of the day about this community of people that are coming together to try to make something beautiful,” he said. Surely, we can all relate to that on some level.
Photo Courtesy of Spotify