Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A cappella for Soloists

If I had to estimate how many members of collegiate a cappella groups were actually music majors, I would guess about thirty to forty percent. If I were to estimate how many of those people were vocal majors, I would estimate about fifty to sixty percent.
Even if the numbers are off, one detail that keeps staring me in the face is that some, even many, a cappella singers are also vocal majors. I mean, I was one in college, and there’s no way I could be the only one. So we know there’s at least two.
This blog post is for those people. The rest of you can go back to watching Game of Thrones.
Hey vocal majors! Ever wonder how you can translate your love of a cappella music into your classical studies? Ever get that burning desire to bring a cappella music to your next senior recital, even though your voice teacher would rather die than let you perform a popular song?
Well I’ve got good news. There happens to be a small, practically unknown subset of classical arias that are….wait for it…A CAPPELLA!!! YAY!!!
When I mean a cappella, I'm talking about classical arias written for one unaccompanied voice. They use a combination of traditionally sung notes, extended vocal techniques, vocal sounds, scat singing, overtone singing, and spoken word to create musical paintings that actually force the audience to consider what the true definition of music is.
Here is the history.
Before a cappella arias were written, early 20th century composers like Arnold Schoenberg were using one specific vocal technique called Sprechstimme, or singing with an approximate pitch. In his masterwork "Pierrot Lunaire" (which is NOT a cappella), the singer is encouraged to recite the text around the notated pitch, but not exactly on the pitch. Listen to a part of it here:
The first composer to write a classical aria for unaccompanied voice was the highly controversial, but also highly revered composer, John Cage (Yes…he’s the "4’33" guy). Cage composed a piece called "Experiences: No. 2 for Solo Voice." It was traditionally notated, like you would see in any other type of music. Take a listen:
I posit that all of the unaccompanied vocal arias I could find can be categorized into three groups: Art music, Theatrical Music, and Popular Music. Art music, like Cage’s "Experiences No. 2," is composed with a message in mind. While it can be freely interpreted and it contains a lot of extended technique, the philosophy behind the piece, the moral of the story, and/or the message of the lyrics takes precedence over the flash of performing as an unaccompanied soloist. Here are a couple of examples:
Theatrical music is what I call the “bang for your buck” music. Composers of unaccompanied theatrical music try to include more visual elements, to keep the audience entertained. The scores of these types of pieces are more graphically notated, and there are usually written instructions on what to do as a performer and how to interpret the score. Here are a few examples:
Cathy Berberian’s "Stripsody"
Dennis Bathory-Kitsz’s "The Moon"
Popular music is exactly what it sounds like: Interpreting popular radio music, like jazz and rock-and-roll into solo unaccompanied vocal works. The most famous (and most experienced) performer of these works is the great Bobby McFerrin. Just listen to his one man "Blackbird:"
I would also categorize a cappella live loopers in the popular music group. I believe that if a live looper is looping his or her own sounds, and the only sound source is coming from the singer, then the piece can still be considered an unaccompanied solo aria. Julia Easterlin is a very good example of this:
However, if a live looper uses voice modulation boxes or electronic effects, I would NOT consider the work to be an unaccompanied solo aria, because the electronic device is adding a new sound source.
Here are some references to help you find solo a cappella literature for your next recital:
Edgerton, M. (2004). The 21st century voice. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press
Mabry, S. (2002). Exploring twentieth-century vocal music. New York: Oxford University Press
Marc Silverberg
Follow The Quest For The A cappella major:


  1. Thanks for pointing me toward these pieces! Looking for something aria-like for unaccompanied soprano...this gets me started. TY!

    1. I very much enjoyed singing Michael Head's The Singer.