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A Cappella and Other Thoughts

Yesterday I attended a concert on campus. There’s a shy girl in one of my writing classes who came to me, ticket in hand, and asked me if I would come and see her sing. She’s a nice kid, and a diligent student, so how could I refuse?

Well, it turned out to be a cappella music concert. You know, where vocal groups sing without instrumental accompaniment (aside from a little beatbox work by some of the guys in the ensembles, and that’s still not really instrumental). Now, it may seem strange to those of you who think of groups like Boyz 2 Men when you hear mention of a cappella music, and I know that there is a long, long tradition in African-American music of singing unaccompanied — but this wasn’t that kind of a cappella music. The closest these kids got to anything not white was the very suburban “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”.

Suburban was really the word of the evening. I’d say about 60% of the songs were in English, and were either old jazz or contemporary pop, by which I mean white popstars’ songs. For those of you who were at all involved in music in high school, you will remember your vocal jazz choir often performed a mix of jazz standards and vocal arrangements of contemporary pop songs. This was like that.

Which made me wonder why it always seems to be the white-American-suburban culture that makes inroads here. I don’t see why singing in the style of Manhattan Transfer would be more of an appeal than, say, singing in the style of Boyz 2 Men or Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Especially the latter seems to have a kind of power to it that manages to blend all kinds of emotions, where groups like Manhattan Transfer have always seemed to me the epitome of the “vocal jazz ensemble” genre — that the songs must be relatively innocuous and inconsequential. To be honest, I always found the whole genre to be rather shallow and, well, somewhat pointless, beside the point of smiling pretty, bobbing to the beat in a group, and making nice little harmonies that don’t add up to much effect. Disposable music as a genre, I suppose.

But this isn’t a criticism of the kids’ singing. They very obviously worked hard for a long time, and they did well. And actually, I did get a few chills down my spine, believe it or not. I think I finally really understand how some of the Broadway songwriters were geniuses… because so many of their little throwaway songs are so innocuous, so inane, and yet they express the poignancy and commonness of so many human emotions that we so often try to hide or keep inside ourselves. And I think that’s what is missing in a lot of the other stuff — the modern popsong arrangements especially. And I think that in all of my serious writing, my attempts at satire have failed mostly because I’ve never been able to pull off that kind of poignant honesty in a way that doesn’t teeter over into fromage.

Anyway, as for my student, I happily got to see her perform in two songs before I had to dash off to class. She even had a short solo, and she performed it admirably, even if I could still see her shyness. Good for her, doubly so when she’s so self-conscious. Very nice kid. I always enjoy seeing my students when they’re outside of my classroom and, in some way or other, in their own element.

Hmmmmmm. I wonder if these kids have heard that all-vocal Bjork album.

UPDATE: Oh, I forgot to mention, there was a guest ensemble, who seem to be some kind of pro- or semi-pro Korean a cappella ensemble. Some of their songs reminded me of Manhattan Transfer, but they did do one very striking piece in which the beatbox guys (2 of them) went back and forth between loping bass lines and simulating the sound of traditional Korean percussion instruments, and the singers slipped back and forth between normal voices and voice-sounds approximating pansori vocalists, and the sounds of solo and duo haegum playing mournful melodies from the old days, as it were. The band goes by the name Maytree, and at least one of their CDs is available at YesAsia.

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