HomeBlogsjduchan's blogCollegiate A Cappella: Emulation and Originality

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Lets face it: at its core, collegiate a cappella is about emulation. The vast majority of groups sing cover tunes. (This isnt necessarily a bad thing, of course!) Unlike in barbershop or other choral genres, here the musical work is not a score, but a recording. This results in an important shift in medium from one both instrumental and vocal to one purely vocal, which begins with arrangements.

Most important to a successful arrangement is the preservation of key harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic aspects of the songs original recording. The ability of an audience to recognize the song despite its shift in medium is a determining factor in an arrangements success and the groups, too. You dont want your audience asking, what are they singing?

A starting point is transcriptionsimply arrange for voices what you hear played by instruments. Anna Callahan, author of Annas Amazing A Cappella Arranging Advice: The Collegiate A Cappella Arranging Manual, actually specifies three types of arranging: transcribing, what she calls transanging, and true arranging. She places these on a continuum rather than seeing them as distinct categories. One can tell from the use of the word true the value placed true arranging over mere transcription. These values are echoed by some arrangers on a cappellas forums, as well.

By the early-to-mid-90s, merely singing the same melodic or rhythmic figure on a Doo-Wop-inspired doo or ba was no longer enough. Some groups began experimenting with syllables that might more effectively emulate an instruments sound, such as the now-standard jun or its variants with a hard o soft /j/ sound, which, when used in the right context, is thought to approximate a guitar. (The first arrangement with such a /j/-syllable to appear on BOCA was in 1996, on BOCA 2.)

A lead-and-accompaniment texture is also a basic stylistic trait maintained in the shift from a pop recording to an a cappella arrangement. The vast majority of arrangements, performances, and recordings Ive seen use this structure. Along with repertory, this helps to distinguish collegiate a cappella from its predecessors like barbershop and glee clubs, where the musical spotlight tends to fall more often on the group rather than the individual.

This texture is reinforced by the physical configuration many groups assume on stage: soloist out front, the rest of the group behind. This meets practical needs, of course, since in non-amplified situations an audience can better hear the lead if he or she stands out from the group. Visually, the audience also knows who to look at. But deeper than that, these configurations help to emphasize the individual over the group just as ones ear tends to follow the lead singers voice when listening to a song on the radio.

These emulative techniques are counterbalanced by the ways a cappella groups inject originality into their music, making the a cappella version distinct from its pop model. These techniques save a cappella groups from being merely vocal cover bands. Ill mention two.

The first is musical citation, quoting other songs within an arrangement. Sometimes its other material by the same original artist, other times an entirely different musical source is cited with only a few chords in common. For example, in Brandeis VoiceMales recording of Let Me Entertain You (the opening track of BOCA 2004), originally performed by British rocker Robbie Williams, they segue from Williams 1997 tune to Steppenwolfs 1968 classic, Magic Carpet Ride. Other examples of this technique abound, and it even receives a special mention in Callahans arranging manual.

Second, rather than simply mimicking the original recording exactly, some more ambitious arrangers make dramatic changes to a songs form or stylewhat Callahan would call true arranging. For example, an arranger from Amazin Blue at the University of Michigan added a section to the Sting song, If I Ever Lose My Faith In You, featuring the group rather than the soloist. Based on the cyclic chord progression of the songs coda, this new quasi-scat section utilizes a layering technique that allows each voice part to make its own entrance, thereby featuring the background singers for a musical moment before returning to the songs original form at the bridgean important shift in focus that Ill explore in part two of this article.

If these are a few of the techniques used to achieve a cappellas stylistic goals, they beg the question: what is the larger purpose behind those goals? Ill attempt to answer that question in part two of this article. Until then, take a moment to think about how your (groups) arrangements, performances, and recordings strive to emulate a recording while also sounding somehow original. A cappella folks have become masters at balancing these two goals. How do you do it? E-mail me at jduchan@umich.edu
and let me know!

Annas Amazing A Cappella Arranging Advice: The Collegiate A Cappella Arranging Manual was published by Contemporary A Cappella Publishing (1995), and is available for purchase at www.a-cappella.com

{mosimage}Joshua S. Duchan is a Ph.D. Candidate in Ethnomusicology at the University of Michigan.  He is currently writing his dissertation on collegiate a cappella.  But hes not just an academiche also sang with and directed the University of Michigan Amazin Blue and the University of Pennsylvania Counterparts, and his arrangements have been featured on the Best of College A Cappella 2004 and 2005 albums.  He can be reached at jduchan@yahoo.com