I was asked recently if I would like to conduct an interview on my blog with a well-known singing group who have just released a new CD. I had to be honest and say that I didn’t actually like their singing! I said: “Their a cappella singing does nothing for me, so I don’t think it would make for a good interview”.
This brought up for me a thorny old subject which is: why don’t I like most a cappella singing out there? And how do I describe what it is that I do like?
When I think of a cappella I think of barbershop, of small groups singing close harmony, of contemporary songs with lots of ‘doo bas’ and ‘dum de dums’, of doo wop and pop music. Even though a cappella means simply “singing without instrumental accompaniment”, the term has come to represent a rather limited (in my view) genre of music. Although I do like the occasional 1950s style R&B, generally I dislike contemporary a cappella singing, especially when the voice is used to emulate musical instruments. I mean, what is the point??!! Why not just put the instruments on the record?
Like a lot of purely skill-based activities (juggling, riding a bicycle, hand stands, etc.) audiences seem to respond to the clever clever impersonation of an instrument, they applaud the vocal pyrotechnics that are just there to show off. But where is the soul of the music, the inner life of the song which make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up?
So why is it that I don’t like a cappella singing? For me, it is just too clean and smooth. It’s rather like all the other processed food and pap (reality TV?) that we get served up in the modern world. The aim seems to be to blend the voices perfectly, iron out any individuality and be absolutely perfectly in tune. There is no soul in the singing, no texture, no humanity. I love it when voices are ever-so-slightly out of tune with each other and you can hear the beats of the harmonics in the air. I love it when you can hear everyone singing the same note and yet the quality of all the individual voices shines through. I love it when you can hear the breathing and emotion and humanity behind the voices.
A glance at any of the many websites dedicated to a cappella (e.g. Primarily Acappella, A-cappella.com) gives you an idea of the kind of material that’s covered: vocal jazz, contemporary, collegiate, doo wop, barbershop. With groups such as Take 6, The Swingle Singers, The King’s Singers, The Bobs, Manhattan Transfer.
But the stuff that I like is raw and vital. It almost always involves traditional rather than contemporary songs, and is usually from cultures other than western. The songs have been handed down from generation to generation and singing is done for the love of it, rather than for the performance (in fact many cultures don’t distinguish between ‘performer’ and ‘audience’). These are songs of heartache, of love and loss, of work, of hardship, of dreams and promises, all rooted in everyday life.