August 31, 2004
Voices Carry: Pop eccentric Bjork vocalizes with NEWSWEEK's Lorraine Ali about her instrument-free album
Sept. 6 issue - Defying expectations has always been Bjork's favorite game. The eccentric musician from Reykjavik has experimented with electronica, show tunes and the sound of crunching snow. Her latest album, "Medulla," is almost entirely a cappella. It embraces Bjork's soaring harmonies, Rahzel the human beat box, an Inuit throat singer and Gregorian chanters. The 38-year-old explains why instruments bore her and defends her newest flight of fancy. Read the interview Here
New York Times
"Medulla" (Latin for marrow) finds nearly all of its contrasts in the spectrum of vocal sounds: percussive, sustained, crystalline, raw. It's not obsessively purist; Bjork does allow herself an occasional synthesizer line or piano chord, and often the voices are sampled and programmed like dance tracks. "Medulla" sidesteps rock's longstanding a cappella style, doo-wop, to reach a sonic realm only Bjork would concoct. She's gone globe-hopping to find very particular extensions of herself.
When there's a beat, it comes from a human beatbox (or one whose sounds have been rearranged by programmers). Classical choirs provide airborne harmonies that suggest composers like Penderecki or Arvo Pärt. Meanwhile, Bjork and guests like Mike Patton (from Faith No More), Robert Wyatt (the British art-rock songwriter) and Tanya Tagaq (an Inuit throat-singer) add mews, moans, counterpoint and guttural grunts.
The album includes vocal fantasias that lean toward chamber music, with many Bjorks looped and echoing, alongside songs that are obviously but distantly connected to hip-hop. There are also glimpses of Bulgarian women's choirs, the hooting polyphony of central African pgymies and the primal vocalisms of Meredith Monk. Throughout the album, the music is transparent, with each component distinctly audible, even when Bjork's melody is strung between a dissonant choir and a growled beat. More
It must be great being a roadie for The Magnets. No guitar amplifiers to lug up endless flights of stairs, no drum kits to assemble, no PA speakers to transport from one town to the next. Yes, life must be pretty laid back for The Magnets’ technical team. All they have to worry about is pressing the band’s suits and making sure their microphones are plugged in - because The Magnets don’t use any instruments - all they need are their voices to produce a cappella singing straight from the gods.
The Magnets’ Edinburgh Fringe Festival show is a celebration of their adventures in the music industry since first coming to Edinburgh as youthful buskers seven years ago. We find out how they became Tony Blair’s favourite band, Geri Halliwell’s backing band and what it takes to be a boy band, albeit an unsuccessful one.
Swaggering on stage, The Magnets are the epitome of cool. Confident, they know they have a rare talent - and they know the audience is going to love it. One by one, the boys reel off an amazing array of vocal sounds and pitched mouth noises that create the illusion of listening to a full, live band. At first it’s hard to take in what’s happening. As one member of the band makes percussive sounds, another provides subsonic bass vibrations. The rest fill any gaps with free-floating harmonies.
Full of great songs and amusing anecdotes, the band’s set is consistently punctuated by video messages of goodwill from their celebrity fans. Barry McGuigan puts in an appearance as do comedy duo Mel and Sue. And following a mind-blowing solo display of tonsil acrobatics by human drum machine Andy (Iceman) Frost, Little Britain comedian Matt Lucas pops up at the end to congratulate him: "With lips like that, imagine what he could do for you," he says. Over the course of an hour, tunes made famous by Elvis (A Little Less Conversation) and The Turtles (Happy Together) go down a treat. As does The Magnets’ "hit" - it charted at No 77 - All The Wrong Reasons.
The highlight of the show, however, comes with a demonstration of the lessons they learned at "boy band school". Here, the lads pull off a series of hilarious poses and dances, while maintaining they’re not bitter at being dumped by a major label. Indeed, if there’s one thing that lets The Magnets down it’s their near constant moaning about how desperately they want to land a No 1. A highly enjoyable, thoroughly entertaining display of the human voice. Just like their name suggests, The Magnets are a powerfully attractive proposition. Check them out.
August 30, 2004
The hubbub on the convention floor in Madison Square Garden subsided for a moment Sunday afternoon when the Gatlin Brothers performed an a cappella version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" during a microphone check. The Gatlins are scheduled to sing the National Anthem when the convention opens Monday. The trio's harmony drowned out the noise from last-minute adjustments to the convention setting. After they concluded the tune, and amid applause, Larry Gatlin yelled, "Play ball!"
Moments later, the brothers appeared to be checking their microphones again. On the floor, though, work resumed to spruce up the red carpet underneath thousands of blue folding chairs. "Do you think we could get a vacuum cleaner in the key of C?" Larry Gatlin asked over his microphone. A chastened cleaning woman retreated a few steps from the stage and turned off her machine. "Oh, ma'am," Gatlin said, taking off his ball cap, "I was just kidding!"
August 26, 2004
New York Post - Editorial Opinion
For nearly half a century, the New York Choral Society has been one of the city's cultural gems. But the group has hit a sour note with its last-minute pullout from a performance at next week's Republican National Convention. Apparently, too many members of the chorus felt that performing at Madison Square Garden would constitute an endorsement of the Republican Party and everything it stands for — and we can't have that, now, can we?
Yet there was nothing remotely political about the group's appearance. According to the New York Sun, the NYCS was hired to perform a four-minute medley of patriotic songs — including "The Halls of Montezuma" and "Anchors Aweigh" — as part of a salute to America's armed forces. In accepting the invitation, the NYCS said it did so because "we take pride in our standing in our cultural community." Any of its members who felt differently, it said via e-mail, could "simply opt out of this performance."
Apparently, that wasn't good enough. Enough members felt sufficiently troubled that the group's president, Jay Benzon, decided to cancel, saying his board of managers had decided that the society "should [not] align itself with any political party, either implicitly or explicitly." Frankly, we're not surprised: New York's cultural community has a decidedly leftist tint, and the Choral Society no doubt feared being ostracized if it serenaded a bunch of Republicans. This, despite the fact that the group's Web site offers its availability for private corporate events — apparently, with no fear that its members might be implicitly endorsing a company's business practices. Would the NYCS have turned down a lucrative paid gig with Enron? We doubt it.
By the same token, the group in 2002 undertook an extensive performing tour of China — again, apparently without anyone having any qualms that the society was implicitly or explicitly endorsing either the communist regime or its human-rights practices. As former Mayor Ed Koch has said, hosting the GOP convention "reinforces for the world that among the many things New Yorkers do well is to pull together." Koch, a Democrat, understands that this event is about showing off New York, not about partisan politics. Too bad the New York Choral Society doesn't get it.
Note that the New York Post is considered to be very much a right wing newspaper as this editorial demonstrates
Joanna Forbes, for six years Soprano and Musical Director for the Swingle Singers will be leaving the group to explore other musical opportunities. Under Joanne's stewardship, states the Swinge's web site, "The group has explored new paths - but also got firmly back in touch with its roots; the diversity of members talents and backgrounds has been recognised - but new arrangements and programs have stitched the elements of our unmistakeable sound even closer together"
Under Jo's stewardship the current incarnation of the Swingle Singers has renewed very close ties with its founder, Ward Swingle, as well as other past members of the group. Ward has even gone as far as saying that the group under her musical directorship was sounding better than any other post-1973 line-up. Read more here along with info about the newest member Julie Kench.
August 24, 2004
The Walt Disney Corp went before a South African court today to challenge a lawsuit filed by a local Zulu family for royalties from the hit song The Lion Sleeps Tonight. The family of the late Solomon Linda, who composed the original Zulu tune for the song, is claiming 10 million rand ($A2.1 million) in damages from Disney. Although many productions have used the hit song, Disney has been identified as the "most active user" of the song including in the 1994 blockbuster film The Lion King and spinoff musicals.
Disney brought an urgent application to the Pretoria High Court today requesting the cancellation of a court order stating that Disney trademarks in South Africa can be sold to collect damage money. A total of 240 trademarks, including Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, were cited in the order by a South African court handed down on June 29. For the time being, the order does not have any effect on Disney trading in South Africa, but it does give South African courts jurisdiction over the case.
Disney lawyer Danie Price argued in court today that the executor of Linda's estate – who is suing on behalf of the family – was targeting the wrong company and should have sued a Disney subsidiary, Walt Disney Pictures and Television, which produced the film The Lion King. Price also claimed that Linda's late wife Regina and his daughters had assigned their rights to the song and had received royalties in 1983 and 1992, the SAPA news agency reported. But Cedric Puckrin, counsel for the executor of Linda's estate, maintained that it was correct to sue Walt Disney Corp "as the mother company which controls everything and pulls all of the strings".
Puckrin appealed to the judge to maintain the order, saying that in "a court of law and not Disney World", the case would be over because then a South African court would no longer have jurisdiction over the case. Judge Hekkie Daniels reserved judgement.
Contra Costa Times
The Bay Area vocal group Slammin sings everything from Miles Davis jazz standards and Sly Stone funk to reggae and techno tango. But the six-member band really shows its creative range when the singers have to wing it. Something of a Bay Area supergroup, Slammin combines the vocal pyrotechnics of Kenny Washington, Zoe Ellis, Destani Wolf and Bryan Dyer on vocal bass lines with the body-music rhythm section of Steve Hogan on beatbox and Keith Terry, the group's mastermind, on body percussion, rhythm dance and occasional vocals.
During each Slammin performance, such as Sunday afternoon's concert at the Jazzschool in downtown Berkeley, the group includes at least five spots where a singer, selected at random, must spontaneously create a piece using any personnel deemed necessary.
"The rule is you can do anything you want," said Terry during a recent conversation. "You can do a solo. You can call in anyone from the group if you want to add another part, or you can lead the audience in something." Some of the group's wildest flights take place during these impromptu audience pieces, which often end up as intricate, multilayered improvisations that transform concertgoers into an interactive chorus.
With a multigenerational cast of musicians from twentysomething to fiftysomething, Slammin brings together some of the region's most inventive singers. While the band originally featured Los Angeles-based vocalist Vicki Randle, her commitment to "The Tonight Show" made regular appearances with the band impossible.
In a collection of singular musicians, Terry is the first among equals. The Texas native moved to Berkeley in the mid-1970s to study at the Center for World Music. A founder of the innovative Jazz Tap Ensemble, he began developing his hybrid approach to body percussion and dance with the encouragement of legendary tap dancers such as Honi Coles. He has toured internationally with his Crosspulse percussion quintet, though more recently he's been working with another talent-laden ensemble, Professor Terry's Circus Band Extraordinaire. In Slammin, he's expanded his rhythmic repertoire to encompass new school grooves.
In many ways, the group is built upon the rhythm section's growing cohesion, as Dyer's deep bass lines, Terry's fluid body music and Hogan's dazzling beatboxing combine to create open but propulsive textures that leave plenty of space for the soloists. It's no coincidence that Dyer is also a trumpeter and percussionist, while Hogan, whose parents are longtime members of El Cerrito-based Gamelan Sekar Jaya, is best known for his work as a bassist in O-Maya.
"Because he's a musician, a bassist who plays a lot of different styles of music, he can beatbox in odd time signatures," Terry said. "He's got the Afro-Cuban thing down, and he just came back from a month in Ghana studying drumming. We can connect on a lot of different levels." More
Mid-Day Mumbai (India)
The railway police have imposed a ban on the singing of bhajans in Mumbai’s local trains. Notices have been issued to 500 bhajan mandalis (bhajan-singing groups) asking them to discontinue their practice immediately. Those flouting the ban will be booked for “creating nuisance in a public place” and slapped with a fine. If caught five times, the person/group can be dragged to the nearest police station.
The railway police had recently shot down a proposal by the Muslim League to allow qawwalis in suburban locals. They have now decided they’ve also had enough of the noise pollution created by bhajan mandalis. Defending the clampdown, railway police commissioner Suresh Khopade said, “A few days ago, some people had sought permission to sing qawwalis in trains. We denied the permission because there is no provision in the Railway Police Act for such sessions.
If people from every religion ask for permission to sing their religious songs, it will lead to controversies. In order to prevent any such controversy, we decided to stop bhajans in locals.” Khopade said he believed in persuasion as the method of enforcement. “I travelled on a Borivali-Churchgate local myself, saw a bhajan-singing group, sang bhajans with them and befriended them. I belong to the Warkari sect and can sing bhajans well.
When everybody got off the train at Churchgate, I called the group to my office and told them politely that though they sung really well, they should not continue their bhajans any more. I handed them the notice enforcing the ban and said that if found violating it, they would face action.” Other railway police officers have also been issuing notices, Khopade said, with the result that 500 notices had been given out so far.
The reaction of bhajan mandalis has been a mixed one. Sunil Shah (25), who heads the Jai Ambe Pravasi Mandal that commutes from Virar to Churchgate every day, said: “Police are very strict. I have been caught at least ten times.Nowadays we sing only when the train is on the move and stop whenever a station approaches. Once we’ve crossed Andheri (when heading southwards), we stop singing altogether.”
According to Shah, the ban is unfair. “We just sing bhajans and are not troubling anyone,” he said. Gopalkrishna Bhajan Mandal’s head Hasmukh Dani (40) said: “We would like to continue with our bhajans but we can’t go against the law. However, we are planning to meet (North Mumbai) MP Govinda regarding this matter.” Dwarka Bhajan Mandal’s head Haresh Shah said: “Railway police are enforcing the law, so even though we disagree with them, we have stopped singing.”
August 20, 2004
St Petersberg Times (Russia)
The light-hearted harmonies of barbershop singing can once again be heard in St. Petersburg this week as the Fifth International Festival "Barbershop Harmony" kicks off on Aug. 19th at the Glazunov Hall of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, featuring performances by American and Russian quartets and choirs. This year's participants hail from a wide area - from the United States to Rostov-on-Don in Southern Russia, and even Yakutia. Traditionally, the festival introduces an array of American choirs and groups. This time, look for "Voices of the South" (Alabama), female quartet "Ms. Behavin" (Colorado), quartet "Vocal Spectrum" (Missouri) and female quartet "Escapade" (Florida).
Joining them will be the female quartet "Summer Time" from Petrozavodsk, the "Chorus Quartet" from Perm, the quartet "The Shining Faces" from Rostov-on-Don, "Nota Bene" from St. Petersburg and "Skai" from Yakutsk.
The Siberian singers all have a classical background in the Yakutsk Opera and Ballet Theater - and count among the newly converted to barbershop singing. "We have been rehearsing for several months only," said the group's leading tenor Stanislav Ivanov. "I fell in love with barbershop on a recent trip to the United States, and upon my return I've infected my colleagues with the barbershop bug."
Why do Russians like barbershop singing? Alexander Nikitin, a professor with the Magnitogorsk Conservatory and artistic director of "Solovushki Magnikti" (The Nightingales of Magnitka) quartet, believes the magnetism of barbershop is in the combination of vocal and performing arts. "The incorporation of spontaneous choreographic elements into the singing performance should, in fact, be very appealing to the Russians: as a Russian popular wisdom has it, a song needs to be played," Nikitin said. "Thinking about that, I always wondered, why on earth do most Russian singers perform with such deadly dull and serious expressions in their faces." No dull faces, certainly, will be expected at the Barbershop Harmony Festival.
Shanghai Daily News (China)
On August 22 this year (the seventh day of the seventh month in the Chinese lunar calendar), Chinese celebrate the Qixi Festival, the Chinese equivalent of Valentines' Day. A Chinese occasion deserves a Chinese celebration, and chocolates and roses are too, well, Western. It was with this in mind that a group of young people in Shanghai started working on different way to celebrate a different Valentine's Day -- with a romantic Kunqu Opera play that they plan to develop into a series, in a bid to promote traditional Chinese culture among young people.
This year marks the 300th death anniversary of Hong Sheng, an eminent Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) playwright who wrote this play. He decided to stage an "unplugged'' performance because of an experience he had performing Kunqu Opera a cappella at a party held in a big warehouse. "My singing transcended that spacious warehouse, and was very unique, without no microphones nor bands,'' he explains. "Since then, I've had a wish to sing a capella in a play.'' A capella, of course, was the only way Kunqu Opera was performed originally, the days before electricity. "It also represents the pureness and elegance of Kunqu Opera,'' Zhang continues. "And the concert hall is an ideal venue to combine modern elements with classical Chinese culture.''
But the unplugged version also poses a challenge for performers. "With a microphone, I can take slack off sometimes with my singing,'' Zhang says. "The unplugged version is more demanding,'' adds Shen Yili who plays Lady Yang. "And we'll be in closer touch with the audience, which requires some readjustments for our performance, especially when it comes to facial expressions and eye contact.'' More
August 18, 2004
VH1 has lost its way over the years. It has turned into a dull pageant of entertainment filler about "The Maxim Hot 100" and celebrity workouts and diets -- anything, it seems, but music. And so "Soundtrack to War," which was excerpted in Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," arrives as a welcome exception. The affecting documentary, which premieres tonight at 9, uses music as a way to look at human beings, and not just at their awesomely bad hair.
The best sequences in "Soundtrack to War" are of soldiers singing and rapping their own songs directly to the camera, spontaneously and usually without accompaniment. In their dusty uniforms, under the unobscured sun, facing their loved ones, they personally deliver their fears, their rage, and their sorrow. Their voices are off-key and shaky, mostly, but that only makes them even more poignant. Two guys who call themselves Private Joe sing a Staind-like dirge to friends they've lost in battle. A group of soldiers, clapping for rhythm, sing an a cappella gospel song to God while gunfire cracks in the background. Janel Daniels, a more polished singer with "American Idol"-like vocal flourishes, launches into a downbeat hip-hop song she wrote called "Home of the Brave."
Most of the soldiers sing their grassroots tunes without lyric sheets -- as if they've been reciting them like mantras to themselves during warfare. Without preparation, the ones who rap call out their dense lyrics like old-fashioned rat-a-tat wire services, the beats pounding in their heads. More
The '60s doo-wop sensations,The Four Seasons, are the subject of a new musical "Jersey Boys" that will have its world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse this September, directed by two-time Tony winner Des McAnuff. The musical will feature such Seasons' hits as "Big Girls Don't Cry, "Oh What a Night," and "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You."
"Basically it is the story of the band and it's a great story to tell. Three of the four lived in a very difficult part of Jersey and they managed to miraculously get out of all that and achieve this extraordinary success," said Playhouse artistic director McAnuff. "There was some involvement with the mob, two spent time in jail, yet they created that signature sound and sold 175 million records before they were 30."
The new show, which will be backed by the New York-based Dodgers producing group and may move to Broadway, will follow the rise of these four blue-collar boys (lead singer Frankie Valli, songwriter Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi) from a rough neighborhood to the top of the charts and the heights of rock 'n' roll stardom.
August 13, 2004
Björk performed at the Olympics Opening Ceremony singing "Oceania", a song she wrote for the event, which will appear on her new a cappella album "Medùlla" to be released on August 31th.
37-year-old Björk talks to James McNair about her new a cappella album, Medúlla.
Perhaps the most ambitious work in a solo career festooned with pioneering records, the album relies on the myriad textures and timbres of the human voice. There was a moment of epiphany as regards the record's direction. Picture the scene: Björk, eight months pregnant with Isadora, who is now almost two, is recording her own drum overdubs. Think Meg White with a large bump. Suddenly, it strikes her that what she's doing is superfluous. Beginning a process of aural archaeology, the singer first removes some rhythm tracks, then excavates successive layers of instrumentation until her buried vocal melodies start to glint afresh. At this point, Björk says, she hit on the idea of doing an album almost entirely a cappella. "The only other rule", she adds, "was for it not to sound like Manhattan Transfer or Bobby McFerrin."
Like 2001's Vespertine, Björk's wonderful take on introspection and domestic intimacy, Medúlla's title chimes with its content. "Basically, it means 'marrow' in medical language, in Latin," she says. "Not just your bone marrow, but marrow in the kidneys and marrow in your hair, too. It's about getting to the essence of something, and with this album being all vocals, that made sense.
"Something in me wanted to leave out civilisation," she continues, "to rewind to before it all happened and work out, 'Where is the human soul? What if we do without civilisation and religion and patriotism, without the stuff that has gone wrong?' I was going to call the album Ink, because I wanted it to be like that black, 5,000-year-old blood that's inside us all; an ancient spirit that's passionate and dark and survives."
An entirely a cappella album sounds as if it might outstay its welcome, but Medúlla's eclecticism and cherry-picked guest list helps to make for an absorbing, often thrilling listen. Produced by Björk and recorded in 12 locations, including New York, Iceland, Venice and the Canary Islands, the album has contributions from the Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq Gillis, the Japanese beatbox ace Dokaka, the esteemed Robert Wyatt, Rahzel from The Roots and the former Faith No More front man Mike Patton.
"I liked all of us to make any special noises we could," says Björk, her hybrid accent a wonder of timbre in itself. "Sometimes there's a kind of weave or blend where nobody is more important than anybody else; other times, I wanted each singer to have a sort of solo."
Listen out, then, for angelic and demonic sounds; for erotic, exotic and comedic sounds; for human takes on insects and birds; and drum-loops, whistling, joyous abandon and moments of sublime grace. There is also a typically Björkian blurring of eras: just as Vespertine featured handmade music-boxes and the cutting-edge electronica of the San Francisco duo Matmos, so Medúlla has traditional choral arrangements and box-fresh programming, the latter courtesy of Valgeir Sigurdsson of the Icelandic group Múm, and the established Björk collaborator Mark Bell.
On one of the album's strongest tracks, "Vokuro", Björk and a 20-piece choir reinvent a timeless-sounding composition that the septuagenarian Icelandic composer Jórunn Vidar wrote at the piano. There's a fascinating story behind it. Björk explains: "Jórunn Vidar is a really grand old lady. When she studied composition in Berlin before the Second World War, she knew Hitler and Leni Riefenstahl, but I won't go into that now. When I called her to ask about using her music, she said, 'Oh, it must be lovely having a little girl. She must be such an inspiration to you.'
"I was a bit confused at first, because I hadn't realised that the song is actually a lullaby that was written for a little girl with blue eyes. It's so weird, because I've been working with that piece of music for four years now, and four years ago I had no clue that I was going to have a little blue-eyed girl of my own. Things like that kept happening on this album, everything falling into place. I'm learning to trust my instincts with that stuff." More
London Daily Telegraph
Excerpt from another interview about the recording.
"Everybody was going, 'Oh she's making a vocal album, it'll be a horrible Yoko Ono experience.'" She oohs and mmms fiercely, in imitation of Mrs Lennon's challenging output. "But I wanted to show that a vocal album doesn't have to be for the chosen few. It was just about working with the instrument I know best, my voice."
in January 2004 when she flew alone to La Gomera, one of the least visited Canary Islands, to meet up with a Canadian Inuit throat singer who had appeared with her briefly during the Vespertine tour. Tanya Taqwa, in Björk's opinion, is "like the Edith Piaf of throat singing. She makes those abstract noises passionate." They worked on a song, The Pleasure Is all Mine, in which Björk celebrated her newfound independence. After that, she found that the rest of the album came quite easily, thanks to the help she received from two choirs, the English pop maverick Robert Wyatt, and a human beatbox, Rasel, whom she first heard performing a cappella versions of Kraftwerk songs and who can apparently imitate every sound in the known universe. "Ask him to do a soap bubble and he can do it."
The result of all this extraordinary vocal manipulation is another outstandingly original album from a woman who seems incapable of playing by any rules other than her own. For those who love music for its compelling strangeness, Björk is still the boss. And for those who love music to comment meaningfully on the world around us, well, she's trying. "This album was supposed to be a response to 9/11 and all this rubbish and me thinking about a time before religion and patriotism. I wanted to show those gentlemen that there are still insects crawling, people jumping in swimming pools, building houses, having children, making songs and having abstract thought processes or whatever. That's at least 98 per cent of what humans are doing out there." Björk obviously includes herself in this informal census of everyday normality; it seems churlish to disagree. More
The musical groups performing at a benefit concert in Somerville's Davis Square next month won't require the screech of electric guitars, the pounding of drums, or the tickling of ivories. As a cappella groups, they sing without accompaniment. But with their Sept. 18 performance, they plan to help Boston-area music programs that rely on pianos and other instruments to thrive. The 20- and 30-something musicians sing an array of jazz, pop, and soul music in six up and coming groups, including Toxic Audio and Downtown Crossing. In their first joint benefit, they want to shed light on a nationwide problem: the lack of instruments, textbooks, and music classes in public schools.
"This is an issue that hits really close to home for all of us," said Carolyn Schneyer, spokeswoman for Vocal Band Aid, a nonprofit organization that organized the concert. "Music programs have played an important role in our lives as performers," said Schneyer, a singer with Integration By Parts, a six-member Boston group that will perform. "It's pretty much common knowledge, at least among musicians, that music programs in most schools have been severely cut in recent years."
Long viewed as extras and luxuries, music and art classes have been reduced or dropped entirely to help school systems cope with dwindling budgets and preparations for high-stakes tests. School systems nationwide, working to prepare students to meet the standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, have sacrificed chorus and instrument lessons to double up on math and English, say music education advocates.
As a cappella groups work to raise funds for schools at home, a federal official also expressed concern about cuts to the arts. On Tuesday, US Education Secretary Rod Paige wrote a letter to the country's superintendents telling them that the arts are as critical to student success as math and English. "As I travel the country, I often hear that arts programs are endangered because of No Child Left Behind. This message . . . is not only disturbing, but just plain wrong," Paige wrote, pointing to research showing that students involved in music and arts perform better on tests.
Paige asked school leaders to use flexibility in their spending, but educators say that budgets are too tight. "That's easy to say when you don't have enough money to support No Child Left Behind," said Catherine Boudreau, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state's largest teachers' organization. "There are things that students and teachers have to focus on to get a diploma, but arts is not one of them. It's a shame."
To cope with budget cuts over the past three years, the union says, schools had to make tough choices: either increase class sizes or eliminate or scale back health, sports, music, and art programs. In a February report, the teachers' association surveyed nearly 200 school officials about cuts made in the 2002-2003 school year. Music and arts were high on the list for many, with some school systems, like Barnstable, charging students hundreds of dollars in fees for music instruction. Fitchburg eliminated its high school chorus.
The a cappella community is trying to help three cash-strapped school systems that members learned about: Boston, Somerville, and Everett. The concert goal is to raise $5,000 for each school system. While the Josiah Quincy Upper School in Boston has enough resources for some instrumental instruction, the school doesn't have enough for an electric piano to start a choral program, said concert organizers.
In Somerville, the budget for the system's music department was drastically reduced, leaving music programs at the 12 public schools underfunded and trying to raise money for new instruments, concert organizers said. The Everett school system wants to expand its music program, but lacks money for manuals and textbooks. "We're trying to build the best program we can," said Lori Shraut, a music teacher at Everett's Madeline English K-8 school. "Whatever help they are willing to offer, we'll take it."
The concert has been a year in the making, and the singers, who usually perform at coffeehouses and college campuses, come from all walks of life. "In my group, we have someone who works at Harvard in financial aid, another person who does consulting, [and] we even have a chemist in our group," said Erika Tower, a singer with Downtown Crossing.
August 9, 2004
The Society of Singers, a Los Angeles-based non-profit that helps professional singers cope with financial, medical, family or other crises, is celebrating its 20th anniversary with the release of a benefit CD featuring performances by such top singers as Tony Bennett, Celine Dion, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. The organization was founded in 1984 by Ginny Mancini, a singer who was married to the legendary movie composer Henry Mancini, and Gilda Maiken Anderson, lead singer of The Skylarks. The organization's president and chief executive officer, Jerry Sharell, told United Press International Mancini and Anderson put the Society of Singers together because they knew from personal observation that it was necessary.
"Ginny being an ex-big-band singer and Gilda being a band singer and studio singer, they were discovering all these friends of theirs who had similar backgrounds who were pretty busted, pretty broke," he said. SOS -- as the organization refers to itself -- defines a singer as someone who has earned a living being a singer for at least five years. "He or she could have been doing backups for Bette Midler or Ray Charles," said Sharell, "or continuously employed at the local Holiday Inn."
Sharell said SOS provides emergency financial aid to about 250 professional singers each year and provides vocal scholarships for young, aspiring singers to an array of institutions including the University of Southern California and the University of California-Los Angeles. The group's annual budget is approximately $900,000. Funds are mainly raised through memberships, which are open to singers and non-singers alike. Membership packages range from $50 for the basic, no-frills deal -- what SOS calls the "Sixteenth Note" -- to $10,000 for the top of the line "A Cappella" membership.
The new CD, entitled "Society of Singers Presents: Great Voices/Great Songs," is a 20-song collection that Sharell produced with Shawn Amos, a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter-producer who doubles as a vice president of artists and repertoire at the Los Angeles-based Shout! Factory record label. SOS does not have a projection in mind for sales of the release but officials said they would like to outdo the performance of the two fundraiser CDs they released in 1999. Those two discs sold more than 500,000 units combined. Sharell said he hoped the CD would also raise awareness about the organization, particularly for professional singers who may not know what it does for people in their field.
"I would ask them to take a look at us, some of the people they knew in their careers who aren't around anymore -- or who are around and can't really make a go of it," he said. "When you look at our other friends in the foundation business, their coverage is very generous and they do great work. So is ours, but ours is guaranteed to only be directed at singers."
Surf's up! "Good Vibrations," a new musical using more than 30 Beach Boys songs, will open on Broadway in January. The show, which does not tell the story of the famous '60s singing group, will begin preview performances in early December at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. An opening date will be announced shortly.
"Good Vibrations" has a book by Richard Dresser and concerns a group of small-town teenagers who come to Southern California. It will be directed and choreographed by John Carrafa, who created the dance sequences for "Urinetown" and the Vanessa Williams revival of "Into the Woods." Among the songs expected to be used in the show are such Beach Boys classics as "Good Vibrations," "Fun, Fun, Fun," "California Girls," "Help Me, Rhonda," "Surf City," "Surfer Girl" and "Surfin' Safari." The show had a recent workshop production at New York Stage & Film, a summer festival located on the campus of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Did you ever answer a knock at your door during the Christmas season to find yourself suddenly greeted by a gregarious group of Yuletide carolers? If Waveland businesswoman Kathy Pinn has her way, that city will experience something similar on Dec. 11 during its annual Festival of Lights celebration. Only this holiday "choir" may be bigger. Much bigger.
Pinn hopes to gather more than 520 people on the steps of City Hall to sing in unison for a minimum of 20 minutes of tunes. Why so many merry folks? Well, Ebenezer, to set a Guinness record for world's largest Christmas caroling assembly, of course. "I just happened to be watching TV around Christmas last year," Pinn said, "and saw where 519 people were doing this in front of New York City's main post office. I thought, surely, we in Waveland could do even better than New York."
Thus, an idea was born.
In January, Pinn began a several month process of petitioning the famous Guinness Book of Records for permission to attempt the record, which included completing considerable paperwork and agreeing to specific criteria. "The Guinness people are very thorough," said Pinn, who recently received final approval for December's event.
Carolers must be signed up to be properly counted, and the group must sing the same songs together for at least those 20 minutes to set the record. Pinn is thrilled with the local response to her plan, which is being sponsored by the Coleman Avenue Coalition, a community group seeking to improve Waveland's business district.
"The city recently unanimously approved the idea, and we currently have some 100 people committed to it," she said. Various city and civic associations also are supporting the caroling. Volunteer "captains" have been enlisted as recruiters, Pinn said, although she is still looking for a someone to work with her."We're encouraging anyone from all up and down the Coast to join," she said, adding that individuals, as well as church and choral groups and civic clubs, are invited. Does Pinn think it can be done in time for the Jingle Bells to really rock? "I do, I really do," she said. "I wouldn't have done it otherwise."
Once I read this article it occured to me that this might me a great way for a community choir or chorus to get some local press, attract new singers and have some fun. I would hate to rain on this ladies parade but I'm pretty sure there's some existing singing groups that, with planning, could have a good shot at the record... Editor
August 6, 2004
Super-scary new movie Open Water features a cappella, all indigenous island songs, to help create the atmospheric sound track. "They're primal and native," says director Chris Kentis.
August 5, 2004
Hobart Mercury, Australia
A Cappella singing in Tasmania has grown substantially since the first A Cappella Festival five years ago, and organisers hope this year's festival will be just as successful. Tasmanian A Cappella Association president Lorraine Mars said this year's festival, running statewide from August 13-29, would have a strong focus on local talent and audience participation. "Normally our emphasis has been on the interstate acts, but as we were planning we've uncovered all sorts of fabulous Tasmanian talent," she said.
And with more than 40 artists and groups holding concerts and workshops for the public, Ms Mars said a capella singing -- which is harmonised and unaccompanied -- was not just for the professionals. "We find that every festival newcomers come who've never sung before or have been meaning to get out of the shower and sing," she said. "We like to think it's gotten bigger, we've certainly got more umbrella events this year, lots of concerts and workshops happening and a bit of a regional program, too."
Launching the festival yesterday, Arts Minister Lara Giddings said there was an amazing breadth of talented singers in Tasmania. "The Tasmanian A Capella Festival provides us all with an opportunity to hear great music, or to sing through the different events during the festival," she said. "I encourage everyone to read this exciting program and become involved."
Ms Mars said a cappella singing was not just about performing, it was a social event as well. "It's that joy about coming together in a big group to sing, it's very uplifting," she said. The festival's grand finale is the Big Sing Concert at St Mary's Cathedral in Hobart, featuring a massed choir performing the festival theme and audience participation.
Janis Siegel is not going to complain about working too hard these days. "It's like the summer camp for jazz musicians," the singer says about the pace summer festivals add to the schedule for her and the other three members of the Manhattan Transfer. When they appear tonight at Heinz Hall, it will be their first gig in the United States for more than a month. The band spent all of July making visits in Italy, Austria, Spain and Finland.
Siegel, one of the signature members of the band, says the quartet is eminently suited for the fun of festival stages. "We are the epitome of that," she says. "We're not specifically a jazz band. We're a party band." Such has been the story for the 33 years of the Manhattan Transfer. It's been a band that has been a guest at many jazz festivals because of its vocal versions of tunes such as the Joe Zawinul classic, "Birdland." But it also has been able to reach pop audiences with hits "Route 66," "Twilight Zone" and "The Boy from New York City."
The Manhattan Transfer has tried to do that variety of tunes and have fun, too, she says. "We have always tried to have energy and give something back to the audience," Siegel says. But, she points out, the Transfer is a band that explores the breadth of American musical harmony. The band has had the vitality to do that, she hints, partly because of the liveliness of its members. Siegel, Cheryl Bentyne, Alan Paul and Tim Hauser have been able to keep the ensemble constantly looking for new material, working steadily and winning awards, but all the while keeping their individual careers going.
The band, for instance, has a new album coming out in September, but soon is going to start work on an a cappella Christmas album to be distributed in Japan. It also is considering what to do with its next recording for wider release. Siegel, meantime, has done eight solo projects from the moody "Short Stories" with pianist Fred Hersch to her current "Sketches of Broadway," a jazzy look at show tunes. "It's great to go back and forth between the two sides," she says. "I love doing solo stuff, but I think I offer a different set of skills to the Transfer."
Siegel suggests she and Bentyne do the most work of the four as solo performers, but points out Paul and Hauser keep busy as producers and choral group leaders. They all bring clear-cut differences of thought to the Transfer. That is a strength of the band, she says, but it can heat up the relationships. "Many, many times have we gotten into arguments about what we're doing," she says. "But it always ends in a compromise or, for one reason or another, just deciding to go with one idea or another." She admits the "process of democracy is a bit time-consuming," but believes "it has led to the longevity of the group."
August 4, 2004
New York Times
When Francisco J. Núñez founded the Young People's Chorus of New York City in 1988, he had several passionate convictions. First, that if he could just coax urban children of different racial, economic and religious backgrounds into working together, barriers would fall and the youngsters would realize how much they had in common. He was also convinced that with proper training children could be excellent and enthusiastic musicians, and that singing choral music, of all things, could be cool.
That he has met his goals was clear Thursday when some three dozen of his choristers met in the basement of Manhattan Church of Christ on the East Side to prepare a performance for the reopening ceremony this morning of the Statue of Liberty, which has been closed to the public since 9/11. African-American choristers from Harlem, Dominicans from Washington Heights, Jewish youngsters from the Upper East Side, Roman Catholics from Greenwich Village and other diverse young New Yorkers all greeted one another with uncommonly ardent squeals and hugs, since they typically do not meet during the midsummer weeks.
In 15 years the Young People's Chorus of New York City, the resident choir of the 92nd Street Y, has grown from a small group of musically untrained children in a fledgling after-school program to a skilled ensemble of some 250 choristers ranging in age from 12 to 18 in five divisions that have won international prizes, the respect of critics and the gratitude of the many commissioned composers who have written challenging works for them. More
The Age, Australia
One of the most mesmerising songs in Coco's Lunch's repertoire is a composition by Sue Johnson called Sister, My Sister. It's an exquisitely simple, hymn-like piece - a prayer for compassion, support and understanding - that is also an apt metaphor for the way these five women relate to one another on stage. Satisfying as Coco's Lunch's recordings are, there's something about this band live that cannot be captured on CD. Watching their faces as they work together, and their bodies moving subtly to shape each story and underline each emotion, is like watching a delicate spider's web swaying in the wind: a web held together by interconnecting strands that make it surprisingly strong and flexible.
Last Friday's concert opened with a set by Natalia Mann (on harp) and Aurora Kurth (vocals), which helped create a mood of quiet intimacy. By the time Coco's Lunch arrived on stage, the capacity audience at Surrey Hills' Music Cafe had settled into an expectant silence, ready to be swept into these five women's warm embrace.
The group has been together for 10 years, and their natural camaraderie allowed the songs to breathe freely, even when pinned to intricate harmonies and overlapping rhythms. Sometimes these rhythms were implied as much as stated (there's even a song in the group's repertoire, Invisible Rhythm, that hints at the subtle, unconscious pulse inherent within all music - and all life). Elsewhere, the rhythms pushed themselves forwards eagerly, either via the deft use of various percussion instruments, or simply through the layering and interlocking of five perfectly controlled voices.
In fact, it's in the purely a cappella pieces and passages that the sophistication of Coco's Lunch's music reveals itself most clearly. In Friday's rendition of Sweep My Feet, Johnson's voice became a pert, walking bass, while Nicola Eveleigh conjured up a wah-wah trumpet, swaggering trombone and swinging hi-hat accents. On Thanga, Lisa Young's striking konnakol (vocal percussion) pulled against the deft pulse articulated by the other four. And, on Sister, My Sister - the evening's final tune - all five voices sank into the gloriously rich harmonies, creating a piece that was part lullaby, part prayer, part celebration of the human voice.
Later this month, when 5,000 Republicans and their families descend on the city for their national convention, they will likely be greeted by tenfold their number of Bronx cheers. Scores of theatrical productions, festivals, and street actions are planned in response to the RNC's four-day invasion. In keeping with its ancient beginnings, theatrical satire will play a leading role in the symbolic dethroning of the powerful. And while authorities scurry around to prepare for 1,000 arrests a day, they might just be missing the point: The most lethal force to emerge from the RNC protests this summer could well be ridicule.
During the week or so of activism, look for groups like Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (a gaggle of men in nuns' habits), and the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (a squadron of George Bushes in "mission accomplished" flight suits). Meanwhile, so-called "people's acoustic orchestras" like the Hungry March Band, the Infernal Noise Brigade, and the Rude Mechanicals Orchestra will provide a rousing soundtrack, as will the Radical Cheerleaders, who shake their pom-poms to an anti-Bush-Cheney refrain. In a class of their own are the Missile Dick Chicks - an a cappella singing group purporting to be from Crawford, Texas, who wear missile-shaped phalluses and sing songs like "Shop! In the Name of War." More
Hellenic News of America
Cappella Romana's next recording (its sixth) represents a signficant leap forward for the ensemble. From August 6 through 11, Dr. Alexander Lingas will conduct Cappella Romana to record a new CD called "Music for the Fall of Constantinople."
Producing will be Steve Barnett, Grammy-award winning producer of recordings by such ensembles as Anonymous 4, The Swingle Singers, Washington Bach Consort, and the Newberry Consort. He has also produced many recordings for Chanticleer (including their Grammy-award winning recordings "Colors of Love" and John Tavener's "Lamentations and Praises"), the Dale Warland Singers (including their two-time Grammy-nominated recordings), and the Peabody-award winning chamber music program "Saint Paul's Sunday," distributed by Public Radio International.
"Music for the Fall of Constantinople" is a virtuosic program of 14th- and 15th-century musical works that bears witness to the co-existence and conflict between Greek and Western cultures in the Eastern Mediterranean during the twilight years of Byzantium. This is the same program presented on tour in 2004 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Yale University, Princeton University, the Bloomington Early Music Festival (Indiana), and the Holy Trinity Cultural Series in Indianapolis. The program will be presented again in November at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Major support for this recording comes from the A. G. Leventis Foundation (London, UK) as the first part of a project called "Musical Relations Between the Orthodox East and the Latin West." (The second part of this grant will fund a CD of medieval Byzantine chant to be recorded in January 2005). Additional major support for this project comes from the National Forum of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians as a part of their educational initiatives to provide quality resources on the history and development of Byzantine music, and from individual donors.
August 2, 2004
McFerrin's antics with orchestra fail to amuse
Jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin has never been an unwelcome guest conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra, but on Thursday at the Mann Center he crossed a line that polarized the audience more than usual and made me hope that he's not asked back. Even among couples, you saw one cheering and another grimacing at intermission. Stirring up a medium as obsessed with past centuries as classical music can be healthy, but the position you took on McFerrin may depend on why you were there.
If you were there for McFerrin, you were apt to enjoy his cheap-shot jokes and aren't-I-cool? affectations in this final concert of the orchestra's Mann Center season, which, incidentally, featured Prokofiev's Classical Symphony, Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, and Ravel's Bolero. If you were there for the orchestra, you were more likely to see McFerrin as one of those talented nonclassical musicians who have a mind to do their own unfortunate version of the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera.
McFerrin has long made his name with one-man-band improvisations, often consisting of him humming in an ethereal high voice with percussive effects achieved by slapping parts of his body. He did some of that Thursday with much wit and invention in the old Charlie Chaplin ballad "Smile." However, even at his most congenial, McFerrin lacks any emotional urgency. Yep, he's cool, even cold and self-absorbed. That reduces his musicmaking to a series of stunts. And stunts aren't what I prize about classical music.
During a series of choral improvisations, his call-and-response with the Philadelphia Singers Chorale at times lapsed into the greatest hits from The Wizard of Oz, which are always good to hear. But McFerrin's playfulness had an adversarial edge, as if to say, "I can do this and you can't."
Then there's his humor. Breaking into a thick Texas accent, he wondered aloud why you never hear conductors talk like that. Contrasting the earthy with the elevated is a tired laugh, and the joke is inaccurate. Though Texas drawls are few among conductors, some of the best Europeans (Franz Welser-Möst and the late Rudolf Kempe) have spoken in comparably provincial accents.
Purely as a conductor, McFerrin still displays self-serving stage affectations, but he took a well-considered view of Prokofiev's Classical Symphony. Tempos were slow-ish, textures heavy, and the usual effervescence downplayed in lieu of often-buried inner voices that give the piece more substance. Unfortunately, the orchestra's playing was ragged.Bernstein got the rambunctious Carmina Burana treatment, though the performance was memorable for boy soprano Juan Carlos Hernandez, who phrased with natural artistry and had a singularly full-bodied tone quality.Bolero marched by with lots of nice incidental moments but needing more long-term tension.