Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Swingles Moment

My very first experience with a cappella music came when I was in 9th grade. My choir teacher, Kevin Badanes (the very same Kevin Badanes in the brilliant vocal jazz group Avante) played a recording of the Swingle Singers singing “The Theme From Superman.” That was when my life changed.

I’ve mentioned this story in a previous blog, but chances are you didn’t read that one, so I’m reiterating the point. It was The Swingle Singers who started me on the path I’m on today. Before that moment, all I listened to was Weird Al and Jimi Hendrix. After that moment, it was Weird Al and A cappella (sorry Jimi).

A cappella CD’s were hard to find in 1996. You had to order them from magazines (which seemed sketchy…though I later found out they were just run by Deke and friends of Deke). CD stores (you may not know what those are…) did not have a “contemporary a cappella” section. 

Perhaps if CD stores still existed today…they still wouldn’t have a "contemporary a cappella section."

Anyway, back to the story. So I tried to devour as much a cappella as I could, which was difficult since I didn’t know where to begin or how to find the music. I was able to find “Chameleon” by Vox One and a CD by The Nylons, but not much else. Thanks to the Internet, this problem is now solved…but it’s been eclipsed by a new problem: Now there’s just too much a cappella out there and if you’re new to the a cappella scene, you could be as lost as I was in 1996.

I’ve mentioned that point in a previous blog as well, but chances are you didn’t read that one either. So far, you’re 0 for 2.

I swear, I’m getting to the point.

In 1996, life-changing a cappella music was hard to find. You had to stumble across it accidentally. The same goes for 2017, but now you have too many sources to check and too many opinions to sift through.

In the expanding world of contemporary a cappella, an a cappella nerd like me can be overwhelmed by the amount of new content. When all a cappella starts to sound the same, it can be hard to love the style as much as you once did.

But that’s when I turn to my Swingle Moments.

What is a Swingle moment? Simple. It’s a term I invented just now (yay me!) to describe a personal, life-changing a cappella moment (not necessarily from the Swingle Singers). Hearing or seeing a Swingle moment is like having a nerdy divine intervention where you suddenly know the next step of your a cappella journey. The build-up of fatigue from hearing too much a cappella is released in a glorious puff of smoke, like a big satisfying aca-fart.

Here are my Swingle Moments. (Sorry/Not Sorry for the fart joke):

The moment I realized any song could be arranged a cappella: “Steven’s Last Night In Town” by Pandemonium.

My collegiate a cappella group, Vocal Point, had dug in their heels and refused to sing any music later than 1990. This meant our repertoire consisted of *gasp* “Lion Sleeps Tonight, ” “Day-O,” and “Eleanor Rigby.” And no, we did not sing it well.

For one of our concerts, we invited a group from the University of Maryland, Pandemonium, to sing with us. At the time, I had expanded my listening tastes to Weird Al, Monty Python records, A cappella, and Ben Folds Five. When I heard Pandemonium sing my favorite Ben Folds Five song “Steven’s Last Night In Town,” I suddenly knew that anything was possible. It was at that moment that I realized our tired arrangements of burnt-out oldies were not going to satisfy me as a musician anymore. I wanted to expand our repertoire to include the off-beat songs that no one would think of and original songs that no one would dare to write.

The arrangement that taught me how to write an a cappella original song: “What’s It All About” by Five O’Clock Shadow on Wonders of the World

This song remains my favorite a cappella original of all time, mainly because how it uses so little to rock so hard. When I wrote my first a cappella original “Power A cappella,” I copied the form and style of “What’s It All About,” because I knew if I used the same mechanics that made that song successful, mine would also be successful.

Fun fact: “Power A cappella” was terrible.

The arrangement that taught me how to compose polyphonic a cappella textures: “Everlong” by The Amalgamates on BOCA 2005

That arrangement is still one of the gold standards of polyphonic a cappella arranging (in my opinion). Just listen and try to pick out the numerous intersecting lines within the overall groove. I wish more a cappella groups would create dense, driving textures like this one.

The arrangement that changed my mind about medleys: “Super Mario” by Vocal Point on BOCA 2009

Normally, I hate medleys. The medleys I’ve heard are usually clumsily-arranged song cycles that give you the “greatest hits” without any substance. Plus, they’re sooooooooooooooo long.

My attitude about medleys changed after hearing “Super Mario.” Besides the fact that I was thrilled Vocal Point (different Vocal Point) had dedicated an entire medley to a video game, I loved the concept (moving from level to level), the inclusion of sound effects, the adaptations that added new lyrics, and the seamless change from the “invincibility star” song to “Shining Star” by Earth, Wind, and Fire. If you ever write a medley, please listen to this one first and follow their lead.

The album that shaped my current arranging style: Hold That Thought by Fermata Town.

For a brief few years, a cappella music didn’t thrill me. I felt like the BOCA compilations were churning out the same types of arrangements, and I hadn’t heard anything that I truly “loved.” By complete accident, I found Hold That Thought on iTunes. And then the light bulb turned on.

The group’s merging of radio hits with extremely complicated (and often surprising) jazz harmonies threw me for a loop. And let’s be clear…this is not a jazz album. They can rock as hard as Pentatonix, but with harmonies that are much more complex. Ever since hearing this album, I’ve been trying to model their style and substance. I’ve rekindled my interest in learning jazz theory and I’m constantly trying to shock the audience with interesting chords and dense harmonies.

The performance that set my career in motion: Mister Tim at the Amplify A cappella Festival, 2012

No live a cappella performance has ever had a greater impact on me than seeing Mister Tim perform in 2012. In that performance, I learned how to operate a live looper, I learned that you can be silly in a cappella, and I learned that there was now a way for me to make the a cappella music I had always wanted to make, without interference.

I’m not a professional live looper yet (nor will I probably ever be), but I owe much of my silly Docacappella persona to Mister Tim.

The arrangement that expanded my concept of harmony: “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” performed by The Swingle Singers with Peter Hollens, written by Tom Anderson.

There’s a reason I believe Tom Anderson is the greatest a cappella arranger living today: he sees music, writes music, and hears music in a “Beautiful Mind” like way. Despite his endless portfolio of arrangements, the immediate proof is in “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” where he utilizes chord combinations I haven’t even heard of (and I’m getting a doctorate!) and creates a rich tapestry of sound I didn’t even know was possible.

It’s been 3 years since I bought the arrangement from him, and I’m still combing through it, trying to decipher what the hell he was thinking when he wrote it.

The performances that changed the way I visualize live a cappella: “Titanium” by Voices In Your Head, 2013 and “Mad Hatter” by LARK, 2016

Both of these groups demonstrated what I feared I would never see again in a live a cappella performance: innovation.

Personally, I’m tired of watching the “hey-we’re-trying-to-be-really-cool-and-hip-by-standing-in-a-double-arc-or-adding-sexy-dance-moves-to-our-set” kind of choreography that plagues many inexperienced groups at ICCA and ICHSA competitions. When I wanted someone to show me something new, both of these performances did just that: Voices in Your Head manipulated the position of the microphones to create a sonic pulse and LARK added costumes, makeup, and staging to their performance, enhancing what could have been a tired power ballad into a spectacle.

This is one of the goals of my group, Satellite Lane: To create a show out of a cappella, not a set of songs with individual choreography. We’ve achieved this by writing 10-minute short plays, making “faux a cappella commercials,” or adding thematic dance moves that re-appear throughout all three songs.

For the theatre geek inside of me, I will always prefer “innovative and wacky” over “cool.”

The album that blew my mind:  Bioluminescence by ARORA.

Sure, Pentatonix is credited with bringing a cappella to a current mainstream audience (as they should be). But within the a cappella bubble, the album that essentially "changed the game" was ARORA's masterpiece, Bioluminescence. What makes this album great isn't necessarily the songs themselves (all originals, all incredible), but the way ARORA uses so little to create so much. A group of only five singers, ARORA layers harmonies over harmonies to produce a "wall of sound" set to a tight, rhythmic groove.

My very first thought after listening to this album was that I need to work harder so that I could one day create an album like this one.

Those are my Swingle Moments. What are yours?

Marc Silverberg

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