If you’re a long-time a cappella fan like me, you probably have a handful of groups whose recordings you love, but whom you never think you’ll get to see in concert. I’ve been very fortunate to actually check off a few of those groups from my list (took in a Cadence concert last summer in Canada, caught Basix at Sojam 2010). On April 13, I added another group to the roster – The Idea of North.
Based in Sydney, Australia, The Idea of North has been at the forefront of the international vocal jazz scene for almost twenty years. As a teenager I was enchanted by their smooth harmony on tracks like “Isn’t She Lovely” and “Rachel.” Alas, I lived quite literally on the wrong side of the world to ever see them perform. Almost 10 years later, here I am Downunder, and their sound remains as smooth and beautiful as ever.
I went to the show with my CASA hat on, expected to deliver some sort of write-up about what I saw. I struggled in planning just what approach to take to this assignment. On the one hand I could try to describe to you all what the show was like, but I think you would find it lacking. On the other hand I could “review” the group and their performance, but I don’t think anyone is interested in hearing me gush for a page and a half. Suffice to say, the show was excellent.
Then I realized, perhaps a better use of this digital space is to explore just why it was so good. After all, we can all learn from the pros. To this end, I present you with my list of “five great things I learned from The Idea of North” (subtitled: there’s more going on down here than just kangaroos hopping about).
1) Simplicity can be amazing
Especially coming from the collegiate world, I think many arrangers (myself included) have a tendency to overcomplicate their work in an attempt to harness the full textural possibilities of a 10-20 person ensemble. When we see smaller groups perform, the typical compliment is “wow, that sounded like way more than X number of voices.” The Idea of North is only 4 members strong, and I’m not going to sit here and tell you they sound any larger than they are. Rather, I wish to impress that the relative simplicity of their sound is actually far more strength for them than a weakness.
One of the coolest tricks that they employ regularly is silence. This group knows how to use space and the absence of sound to create moments. Epitomized in their pizzicato, Latin flavored arrangement of Charlie Chalplin’s Smile, there were in fact numerous moments in which a little space between the notes allowed the arrangement to breathe. Furthermore, with the proper stage poise, silence can actually draw an audience into your music – creating a sensation of curiosity, of “what’s coming next?” The Idea of North’s approach is a great reminder than keeping it simple can sometimes be more effective than complicating an arrangement with endless layers and counter-rhythms.
2) Hide the pitch
This is something small, but it’s a major factor in taking your group’s show from amateur to professional. In the course of a 2 hour show, I was only aware of the pitch being given twice. Deke preaches this all the time, and he’s absolutely right. Having a moment where the group takes the pitch together really takes the audience out of the flow of the show.
The key is to only give the pitch to those singers who actually need it to start the song. If the bass starts alone, he can play it himself quietly while another member introduces the song. The same goes for any other background parts. The Idea of North does this exceedingly well, and it makes for a much smoother, more professional looking performance.
3) Soft dynamics work
Especially if you’re on mic, softer dynamics (and I mean even softer than you think) are incredibly effective. The singers of ION know this, and they used it to bring a great level of intimacy to their cover of ABBA’s “When All Is Said And Done.” You could feel the energy in the room shift from the previous uptempo jazz tunes into a sort of collective stillness. Then, when they brought the dynamics up at key points in the song, it had that much more emotional heft.
4) Introduce yourselves
When I went to talk to the group after the show, I already knew exactly who they were. Why? Because both at the beginning and end of the show they introduced themselves all by name, and did it in a way that was personable, funny, and memorable. I left feeling like I actually knew a bit about who these performers were as people. That sort of personal investment translates over time into a fan base. No matter how large your group, let your personality shine, and let your audience know who you are.
5) Steal, and credit
During their set, ION pulled out Mr.Tim’s (of Moosebutter fame) “John Williams Medley” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lk5_OSsawz4) to great comedic effect. Then, in classy form, they told the audience all about Tim, Moosebutter, and encouraged everyone to check them out as well. Supporting each other by singing one another’s music is one of the best things we can do to keep a cappella music growing worldwide. Take a page from ION and cite your sources for your audience so that they can go find even more great music!
6) (Bonus) How to make a great sounding pounding 8th/16th bass line.
Hum the note, and tap your chest in rhythm. I’m sure others have done it, but I’d never seen it before, and it sounded really cool (better than dm dm dm dm).
So there you have it – good lessons learned from the best in the business. My thanks again to Idea of North for having me at the show! I hope all you readers can have the pleasure of seeing them someday as well. Can’t wait for the next gig!
About the author:
Robert Dietz is a recent graduate of Ithaca College in upstate New York where he received a dual degree in music and business. He began singing in high school when he founded the Contemporary A Cappella Recording Award (CARA) winning male quintet, Ascending Height. During his time at Ithaca College, Robert had the pleasure of performing with and conducting Ithaca College’s only all male a cappella group, Ithacappella. Along with Ithacappella, Robert had the honor of twice advancing to the finals of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCAs), as well as sharing the stage with the internationally renowned rock band, Incubus. In addition to his CARA awards and nominations, Robert also holds three ICCA awards for outstanding vocal percussion, and his 100th arrangement received the award for outstanding arrangement at the ICCA semifinals at Rutgers in 2009. He currently lives in Sydney, Australia and is pursuing a graduate diploma in Music Composition and Production at the Australian Institute of Music.