Sunday, 11 March 2012

Vocal exploration - a capella

Next Saturday afternoon, the vocal group I sing with is performing at an a capella festival.  I've been letting people know about it and discovered that not everyone knows what the term "a capella" means and not everyone has discovered its beauty, joy and versatility.  It means singing that is unaccompanied by any instrument and I have loved it for as long as I can remember.

I've performed all sorts of vocal music in choirs of various configurations.  I was first introduced to madrigals as part of the small choral group at high school.  The fun and fluff of lots of fa-la-la's was very exciting when everyone in the group arrived at the right place at the same time - especially in the ones with a fast tempo!  My favourite madrigal of all time is "All Creatures are Merry Minded", written in the 1500's by John Bennett.

I was hooked on the idea of people being able to come together and make music with nothing more than their bodies:  voices providing melody and hands, fingers and feet often providing rhythm.

For a while I sang in a small professional a capella group which specialised in early church music.  There were only 16 of us and we sang some sublime music.  One of  my favourites from that time was the "Miserere" by Allegri.  Written in the early 1600's, it would have originally been sung only by male voices.  The Company of Voices sang in cathedrals to take advantage of the glorious acoustics.

I remember performing a piece by Palestrina (I think) that was quite complex and in about 12 parts.  We knew the piece very well and so also knew very quickly that something had gone terribly wrong.  It was sounding different and it felt like we were somehow all in different places.  Fear can easily take hold in this situation but we managed to find a resting point within the music.  The conductor mouthed the page number and we took off again, made it through to the end intact and managed to smile in relief as the fear left our eyes.  There was power in the energy of the group and our ability to communicate through eye contact that saved us.  Still, I wouldn't want to be in that position again!

We also sang music by twentieth century composers in that group.  Things like "Hymn to St Cecilia" by Benjamin Britten.  The tonality is completely different from the older music and it is thrilling to sing for the different feeling it evokes.

Since that time, I've explored black gospel music and African music in various groups.  Listening to many of the old recordings of quartets and bigger groups, I love the energy and precision they bring to their singing.  Every word can be heard and their rhythm is tight!  Even many of the slower songs can suddenly pick up pace and go from solemn to joyous!

I learnt about black South African music not long after the end of apartheid when people were coming out to tell their stories of suppression.  Their songs held their history.  One particular artist with whom I worked in Brisbane had been in prison and suffered a lot.  Despite this, there was always singing.  In his culture singing was done by anyone who had a voice, not just musicians.

Many modern songs have also benefited from a capella arrangements.  Check out "Call your Girlfriend" by a female vocal trio called Erato.  The harmonies are bliss and I love their funky rhythms played on the kitchen table with empty margarine containers!

Paul Kelly's song "Come and Meet Me in the Middle of the Air" is sung a capella by Melbourne comic vocal trio Tripod and Eddie Perfect in this version.

I believe that human beings have a need to make and appreciate music and there is nothing better than the human voice joining with other human voices - the possibilities are endless.  Have a look and a listen to the Voca People - 8 people who sound like everything from an orchestra to a rock band!

These days you don't even need to be in the same place as other singers.  Eric Whitacre has created the ultimate virtual a capella choir.  Singers from around the world record their parts at home and submit the file digitally.  It's all then mixed to create a masterpiece like "Sleep".

If you're yet to experience the spine tingling joy of hearing the human voice singing with other human voices, the Get Vocal Festival is a great place to begin.  Tripod is performing at the opening night concert this Tuesday.  My group, Living Out Loud, is performing at the Saturday Matinee Showcase along with Mint 26, The Ice haloes, Key Change and Corisande.

Why not sample something different next weekend and support local music!

*Quote promotional code "Sue Johnson/Living Out Loud" when booking tickets to any event.*

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