September 30, 2005
Funny-bitter songs score for ex-Rockapella front man
Daily Record (NY):
As a college student in the 1980s, Sean Altman always had some music gig going - with his a cappella group, his rock band, his jazz duo, whatever. "All I did at Brown was sing in various groups and put up posters for the performances of those groups," he said. Classmates remember him as the guy with "a handful of posters and a big staple gun."
It's not much different today. Altman, founder and former leader of the popular a cappella group Rockapella, still performs in a bewildering variety of formats. He will appear solo Saturday at the Watchung Arts Center. At other times he can be seen with a full rock band, with an a cappella quartet and in a Jewish comedy duo, but most of his performances these days are solo.
"The economics of it are such that most of the time I can't afford to get anyone else to the gig except for me," he said by phone from California, where he had a couple of dates booked. "There's an intimacy to solo shows that can't really be matched," he said. "It's more about my songs and my voice, and less about the bombastic sound of the big band."
On his solo CDs, "Seandemonium" and "alt.Mania," Altman serves up "happy melodies and sad, bitter lyrics," a combination that gives the songs several layers. A line like "I'm still in love, but more in hate with you," makes you think twice about what at first sounds like just a catchy tune. Yet he's often funny about how miserable he is, which gives the songs yet another twist. Not to mention his virtuoso one-man-vocal-group singing style.
"I'm genetically blessed with a good ear for harmony," he said. Altman's melodic yet muscular pop-rock is reminiscent of the 1980s New Wave era -- the "Elvis Costello/Squeeze/XTC school of pop songwriting," he said. "When I started writing songs more in that style, it didn't necessarily work well with Rockapella," he said. "That's one of the reasons I left the group."
Altman and three fellow Brown graduates formed Rockapella in 1986, graduating from singing for quarters on the streets of New York City to weddings and bar mitzvahs. Members came and went, until an appearance on a TV special hosted by Spike Lee led to an offer from PBS. The group then spent five years performing daily on the children's game show "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?"Altman and a friend also wrote the addictive theme song.
One member's contacts in Japan led to a recording contract. The group toured Japan twice a year and put out eight albums there between 1991 and 1996. "That was an enormous kick in the pants for all of us to start writing songs," he said. "I credit that Japanese record deal with making me into a working songwriter." His sensibility was always a bit darker and more sarcastic than Rockapella's family image called for. A brief, ill-fated marriage apparently gave him plenty of inspiration for his work, which he called "twisted love songs sung with a smile. It's a whole bunch of bitter that goes down really good."
Altman left Rockapella in 1997, reasoning that he was "still young enough to give this a go as a solo act." (The group continues to record and perform with new members.) He hasn't lost his knack for a cappella music, though. He and several other ex-Rockapella members perform occasionally as the GrooveBarbers. "We do only a handful of shows a year," he said. "It's a way for me to keep my love of a cappella going."
In another incarnation, he and and rock journalist Rob Tannenbaum perform as a duo called What I Like About Jew. "We do very raunchy Jewish-themed comedy songs," he said. He's also part of a recurring series of tribute concerts in New York called Losers Lounge. A collective of 30 or 40 musicians gets together every few months to perform the songs of a single composer. They've done Elton John, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Carole King and numerous others. As a result, he said, "I've amassed remarkable collection of good quality live recordings of me singing some of these great songs." They're now available on CD as "Losing Streak." "It highlights me as a singer more than me as a songwriter,"he said. "In that respect it's a pleasant break for me."
But his priority is his own songs. He's working on two solo albums, one of more bittersweet power pop songs, the other of quirky comedy songs. One of his best efforts, "Unhappy Anniversary," was covered by pop singer Vitamin C on her platinum debut album for Elektra. "I find that audiences of most ages can relate to what I'm doing," he said. "I think of myself as a 17-year-old with a 30-year-old's vocabulary. I'm hoping it's a good mixed bag of people that comes out."
The Baker's Dozen annoy neighbours
New Haven Advocate (CT)
The offending house
There's a bunch of college boys around my way
And their parties keep me up 'til the break of day
What's the use of complainin'?
They don't give a darn!
This is how they sing and carry on...
"Collegiate," a hit record by Fred Waring & the Pennsylvanians, 1925
Whoooooooooo! ," scream the guys next door. It's a familiar refrain, the opposite of a lullabye. Something my family and I have been dealing with for over four years, and which our neighbors have been fighting for much longer. We live next door to a party house. Not a non-stop party house, and not "party house" as euphemism for crackhouse or whorehouse, but a house that, according to most of its neighbors, has too many, too loud, too dangerous parties.
Listen, I know parties. My old college fraternity was loud. The college boys next door haven't given a darn. Sometimes they've bothered to warn the neighbors that they were about to have a party. If there were objections, they went unheeded. Any party they bothered to announce to the neighbors was on such a scale that it would always have to be broken up the police.
These are the offending neighbors: The Baker's Dozen of Yale University. Here's how they describe themselves on their website:
One of the nation's oldest and finest all-male a cappella singing groups...has taken its unique blend of traditional and contemporary songs and its spirited camaraderie to audiences across the nation...from school and community auditoriums to private Hollywood parties to the President of the United States.
Some find this cute and ironic.
The writer goes on and writes a lengthy article about his struggle with the group and quotes the correspondence from the group's business manager Ted Oxholm
September 29, 2005
Steve Zegree is Bobby McFerrin Professor of Jazz
Internationally known vocal jazz educator Dr. Stephen Zegree has been named the Bobby McFerrin Professor of Jazz at Western Michigan University. The announcement was made by WMU President Judith I. Bailey Sept. 27 during her annual State of the University address. She named Zegree the recipient of one of two endowed professorships created this year to honor faculty members for their "passion for the life of the mind and the corresponding commitment to the well-being of our students."
Zegree, a WMU faculty member since 1978, is a conductor, composer, pianist and arranger as well as the driving force behind WMU's Gold Company, a world-renowned vocal ensemble that is routinely invited to perform at top venues around the globe. The professorship is named for Zegree's friend and colleague Bobby McFerrin, a 10-time Grammy Award winner who is an ardent supporter of music education. McFerrin visited WMU earlier this year to appear with Gold Company and has praised both Zegree and the caliber of the students he mentors.
In June, DownBeat magazine reported on the close connection between McFerrin, WMU's vocal jazz program and Zegree. The relationship dates back to the 1980s and, while McFerrin only visits campus at about three-year intervals, he frequently arranges to connect with Zegree and Gold Company at other locations. "I always enjoy it, coming by and hanging out," DownBeat quoted McFerrin as saying. "Steve's bands and his groups are always fantastic. I appreciate their enthusiasm and their energy."
Directing Gold Company, Zegree has brought the ensemble to New York City's Lincoln Center, repeat invitations to the International Association of Jazz Educators conferences, and the prestigious French Polyfolia Festival. Under Zegree's leadership, the group has won more than 40 DownBeat awards, and its performances have firmly established the prominence of WMU's jazz studies program. In addition, Zegree is widely sought as a conductor, clinician and ajudicator. In recent years, he has conducted the World Youth Choir, the World Symposium on Choral Music, and he has been the featured clinician for choral events across the nation. His arrangements have been widely published and performed internationally, and he is the author of the 2002 book and CD "The Complete Guide to Teaching Vocal Jazz."
Zegree earned a bachelor's degree from Miami University in 1975, a master's degree from Indiana University in 1978 and a doctoral degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1989. Named professors at WMU receive an annual stipend of at least $12,500 for the first three years following their appointments. The stipend is derived from the earnings of an endowment from private donations put at the discretion of the president. Up to one-half of the stipend may be used to augment the faculty member's salary. The balance is to be used for expenditures on appropriate professional endeavors.
September 28, 2005
World's Fastest Singing Painter!
On October 3 Quebec artist Pierre Paul Fortin will attempt to surpass the Guinness Book of World Records holder Andre Roger as the fastest painter in the world. In 1986 Mr. Roger created 60 paintings in 57 minutes. Mr. Fortin feels confident he will set a new record by creating 61 paintings in 57 minutes. But Mr. Fortin will go one better: As he paints - dressed to fit the occasion as a race car driver - he will sing nine songs a cappella in double time with the Young People's Chorus of New York City in English, French, Italian, and German.
Mr. Fortin was born in Chicoutimi, in the province of Quebec in 1959. On March 23, 2003, he set a record by creating 31 paintings in 27 minutes and 21 seconds while singing nine songs. The Young People's Chorus of New York City (YPC), the resident choir of both the 92nd Street Y and WNYC, New York public radio, has distinguished itself as one of the finest youth choruses in the city. A portion of the profits from this event will be donated to Young People's Chorus of NYC and to the Sainte Justine Hospital's charitable organization in Montreal.
September 27, 2005
An a cappella anniversary
A milestone of sorts as this blog celebrates its two year anniversary having made my first post in September 2003 while I was residing in England. I was not sure how much interest there would be but figured it would be fun to put together and a way to develop further interest in the genre. By sharing some of the news that, as a principal in the a cappella business, I regularly come across plus articles and such the blog has indeed become a unique source of news and information on vocal harmony music. The readership has grown each and every month since the beginning and now has many thousands of unique readers each month.
Thanks to all of you who send press releases and announcements and please keep them coming. Do remember that group's concert announcements and such should also be posted on the relevant regional newsgroups (links to the right). A special thanks also to sponsors Primarily A Cappella, Shure and Discmakers for their continued support.
One question I am often asked is why the comments feature is turned off. Sadly every time I turn them on within days the site gets deluged with spam which I then have to manually delete which becomes very tedious and takes time I just can't spare, Hopefully the software I use (Movable Type) will one day come up with a way to block the spammers but until then I'll have to leave the comments feature off.
With the recent birth of my son I have been happily distracted but I'm now getting "back in the saddle" again and am brimming with new ideas for helping stimulate further exposure for a cappella music. There are also some very exciting developments on the business side of things and a cappella fans can expect some cool announcements soon.
Meanwhile thanks for taking the time to read my humble postings and I look forward to another year of a cappella news, views, reviews and more.
September 24, 2005
Blue Jupiter takes the cookie!!
Blue Jupiter won the Oreo jingle contest today, pocketing the $10,000 prize and will be recording their arrangment of the classic "Oreo and Milk" jingle for a commercial that will be aired nationally. American Idol's Randy Jackson was on hand to hear all of the finalists sing and announce the winning group."The creativity, energy and talent we've seen from these contestants really shows how the 'Oreo and Milk' experience connects people in powerful ways," said Jackson. "It's been really fun seeing how people put their own personal twists on the classic jingle ... and the winning group really deserves this prize." Hundreds of entries were submitted via live local market auditions, and mailed-in from across the country.
September 23, 2005
A Cappella with a Twist
Las Vegas Review Journal (NV):
Toxic Audio is a vocal quintet that marries jazz harmony, street corner doo-wop and the hip-hop school of vocal percussion. But don't be too quick to insert an adjective such as "seamless" or "natural" in front of the word "marriage." Take the time Michelle Mailhot-Valines, the group's serious jazz student, had an idea for an arrangement of "Autumn Leaves." She would sing in English and French and envisioned "a serious, beautiful ..."
"We took that and ran with it," interrupts Paul Sperrazza, the "human beat box" of the group, who says he specializes in "stupid human noises and backflips."
As seen onstage in the group's limited run at the Luxor, the idea morphed into Spike Jones-style musical slapstick. Signs held up by the others prompt Mailhot-Valines to translate the song into Korean, German, Spanish, Japanese and Tagalog."I was really mad for a good six months," the soprano recalls. "Paul and I got along famously the first three years," she says. "It was awful.""Michelle was a riot," Sperrazza agrees.
But Toxic Audio is now in its seventh year. And when the group released the first of its four albums, Mailhot-Valines thanked the others in the acknowledgments "for helping me laugh more."Despite the friction, group founder Rene Ruiz believes the group's "mix of all kinds of different worlds" is what makes it tick. Toxic Audio's stage show reflects some of its singers' backgrounds in improv comedy, while the song choices range from chestnuts such as "Route 66" to the Evanescence hit "Bring Me to Life."Ruiz, Mailhot-Valines and Sperrazza anchor the group, with the other two positions rotated in Las Vegas between Shalisa James and Emily Drennan, and between Jeremy James and Jeff Williams.
The singers' common bond is that most of them met while performing in the theme parks of Orlando, Fla. But Toxic Audio comes to Las Vegas with off-Broadway credentials."I was singing with the a cappella groups and we were a big hit with the audiences and tourists, but I was also doing theater on the side," Ruiz explains. "I would be talking to theater audiences afterward and I realized those theater audiences had never seen an a cappella group at a theme park before. They'd never heard anybody making music with just their voices."
His suspicions were confirmed when he did a stint in "Forever Plaid." "I didn't see them walking around Walt Disney World, but I saw them loving musical theater." Ruiz also realized the potential of the so-called "nonverbal theater" trend by taking in the Blue Man Group and De La Guarda, and shows such as "Blast" and "Stomp." The quintet's 80-minute show at the Luxor is heavy on antics such as pulling an audience member onstage to click a TV remote, spurring the group to deliver a barrage of TV themes.
The group considers sound technician John Valines (who is married to Michelle) to be an official sixth member. With his background in improv comedy, Valines is able to follow the group into unscripted territory and punch up the antics with sound effects. "People say, 'You do so much,' but you'd be surprised at how much I don't do," he says. The one rule of the group, Ruiz explains, is that the sound can be processed, "but it has to come out of these five voices to begin with." There are no prerecorded vocals, rhythm tracks or pitch-correcting machinery.
Luxor president Felix Rappaport caught the group's off-Broadway production "Toxic Audio in Loudmouth" when he was in New York to see former Las Vegas pianist Michael Cavanaugh in the Broadway musical "Movin' Out." The limited engagement is in part to see if a show with theme park credentials can survive on a Strip reveling in its Sin City, adult-playground notoriety. The Luxor's marketing team will have to determine if the fact that Toxic Audio is, as Ruiz notes, "very family friendly" should be treated as a dirty little secret or a welcome find for a neglected market. "We like to be marketed as hip and edgy (but) we are a lot of different things to a lot of different people," Ruiz says. But, just to make it clear, he adds, "You're not going to feel like it's a kid's show."
September 21, 2005
A Cappella develops a sweet tooth
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA):
Marty Gasper says he will eat nothing but Oreos for at least the next week. "We're actually eating them for breakfast right now," he said in a well-before-noon phone interview. "This is not a lie: if you look in our cabinets, we are all well-stocked with Oreos." Gasper, 26, and the three other members of a cappella group Blue Jupiter have renewed affection for the chocolate sandwich cookies: The quartet has been chosen as a finalist in a contest to record a new rendition of the Oreo jingle.
"What attracted us to it most was that Randy Jackson's involved -- we wanted the chance to sing in front of a famous producer like him," Gasper said.
Blue Jupiter was started by Gasper and Aspinwall native Chris Chatham, 25, when the two were students at Berklee College of Music in Boston. "We were broke, and I had an idea to put together a singing group to make some money to get home for Christmas," Gasper said.
They didn't make any money, but hooked up with bandmates Christopher Price Thomas, 22, of Nashville and Toby Dunnelly, 23, of Edmonton, Canada. Blue Jupiter describes their style as pop-funk a cappella, and list Prince, Michael Jackson and Ben Folds among their influences. Gasper added that Chatham's family puts the group up whenever they're in town. "Pittsburgh has been like a second home to us," he said.
The group originally had five members, which led to the name: blue is the fifth color on the spectrum, and Jupiter is the fifth planet from the sun. "Now that there's only four of us, I guess the name doesn't really make a lot of sense, but we like it," Gasper said. The band heads to Los Angeles later this week to participate in the contest finals. If they win, they'll get a $10,000 prize and record the updated jingle.
Here's a link to another ad hoc a cappella group who is one of the 10 finalists in the contest. Groups do get plane tickets to Los Angeles so what the heck, sounds like a fun few days for sure. I'll post the results.
September 20, 2005
The Coats energize series
Mount Vernon News (OH):
When The Coats arrived on stage at the Memorial Theater on Saturday evening, it turned out there was a size and style to fit everyone. The Coats, in this case, is an outstanding a cappella male quartet out of Seattle. The group consists of Doug Wisness, baritone; Kerry Dahlen, bass; Jamie Dieveney, second tenor; and Keith Michael Anderson, first tenor. They were appearing as the first of six concerts in the Community Concert Association’s 2005-06 series. This season-opening show was sponsored by The Community Foundation of Mount Vernon and Knox County.
The Coats filled the theater with vibrant harmony, humor and seemingly boundless energy, and exhibited a passion that can only come when one truly enjoys what one is doing. Their program featured songs that spanned the ages and ran the gamut of the musical genre — from old barbershop quartet songs like “Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie” to the doo-wop sounds of the 1950s to western to reggae to country to rap to the sounds of bagpipes tuning. The word “varied” doesn’t do justice in describing the group’s wide-ranging program.
While Dieveney and Wisness, who is the founder and manager of the group, often sang lead and interacted with the audience during the patter between songs, Dahlen and Anderson each had several turns “in the spotlight” as well. Mixed with the wonderful blend of music was a great sense of humor which had the audience roaring with laughter on several occasions. It was obvious the members of the group like to get a feel for the local environment when they appear somewhere, and then develop humorous lines to fit. There are three examples of this which stood out — two provided by Dahlen, one by Dieveney.
When describing their tour bus ride to town from Heath, Dahlen noted the bus stopped just outside town. He told the audience he was somewhat hesitant to come into town and get off the bus. “My name is Kerry, you know,” he said. Later, as he was introducing the song “Tennessee Stud,” he said the group had driven around Knox County earlier that day and noted “some of the roads we were on seemed to pre-date cars. This next song is about something that pre-dates cars, too — a horse.” Dieveney’s local humor shot came as the group responded to a standing ovation and came out on stage for an encore. As somewhat of an aside, he noted “there’s not a lot of (other) places to go.”
In its first 45-minute set, The Coats performed eight numbers, including one which featured bass man Dahlen and a history of the bass singer from the 1950s through the 1990s. This included bass lines from “Duke of Earl,” “Blue Moon,” Stayin’ Alive,” and the title song from the old TV series, “Rawhide.” Dahlen’s range is dramatic and his low notes are so low it seems like the bottom dropped out. Dahlen’s low range reminds one of the old Lawrence Welk bass singer Larry Hooper, for those who remember him.
At the other end of the musical spectrum, Anderson gives a whole new meaning to the classification as first tenor. “Incredible” is an understatement of the high end of his vocal range. As Dieveney said during the individual introductions of the members of the group, “Keith is proof that great things can come in small packages.” Anderson, who lists his height as 5-foot 2 and 3/4 inches, (as he puts it, “hey, a guy needs every inch he can get”) proved it on numerous occasions throughout the concert, and especially on the songs “Stand By Me,” an original written by Dieveney titled “Slow Ride,” and “Joy to the World” that were included in the group’s second 45-minute set.
For the encore, The Coats demonstrated the group’s unique vocal styles, remarkable sound effect-creating capabilities and wonderful sense of humor by performing “Old McDonald Had a Farm” in several musical styles. They told the story of finishing a show in North Dakota one evening and driving straight through, all the way home to Seattle. They said they had sung this one song for the entire length of the trip, and when they ran out of animals doing it the normal way, they came up with other ways to sing the song. Saturday night they demonstrated the normal version first, and then followed with reggae, spiritual/Gregorian chant, rap and grunge versions. The theater was filled with both the sounds of music and the laughter of the audience.
The Coats wrapped up the encore performance with a version of John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” and left the audience wanting more as they exited stage left to the cheers and applause of a second standing ovation.
September 19, 2005
Sweet Honey - as timely as ever
Flint Journal (MI):
The idea of a group of black women singing spirituals, freedom songs and protest songs these days must seem quaint to a generation weaned on music more concerned with bling and sex than empowerment and dignity. But in 1973, when Sweet Honey in the Rock started, it was a hip, radical, even a noble notion. Their mission was fueled by the victories, and tragedies, of the Civil Rights movement, but there were parallels to today - namely our country was mired in an unpopular war and our embattled president was a little too secretive for his or our own good.
The women of Sweet Honey didn't sound dated or out of touch during their Saturday performance at The Whiting, the opening concert of its 2005-06 Spotlight Series. They sounded timely, they sounded at times happy, inspired, angry and weary, whatever the songs called for, and, as you might expect from a six-woman a cappella group, they sounded rich, full and in sweet harmony.
The seven women of Sweet Honey (including a sign interpreter) sought to empower as well as educate with their songs. It's a concept that never seems to run out of time. The turnout was fairly sparse - about 900, a little less than half-capacity - which tells you what a hard sell the concept is these days.
But the message wasn't lost on the enthusiastic audience, which eagerly sang along, clapped time and applauded a particularly inspired vocal from one of the women. Their messages - raise your voice, speak out, question authority, love your fellow man - always need to be heard. They're reassuring if nothing else. Groups like Sweet Honey come along to remind us of these things.
With a repertoire stretching from West African traditionals to topical originals about the ravages of drug addiction and the human cost of tragedies like the school shootings at Columbine, the women of Sweet Honey sing beautifully about everything from hopelessness to unabiding faith.
They sang about the despair of slavery on standards like "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," using a slow, deliberate delivery at first, then building to a powerful, sudden finish. They offered deliverance with a rousing version of the spiritual "By and By" and opened the second half of the program with a beautifully understated version of "Precious Memories."
They also let their politics be known, praising Flint's Michael Moore for his willingness to speak out before launching into "Change," and turning Donnie Hathaway's "Trying Times" into an indictment of the current administration's policies while engaging the crowd in gospel-style call-and-response vocals. You don't have to agree with their message to appreciate their gift. Stressing subtle arrangements over clutter, the women of Sweet Honey in the Rock let their soaring voices and their obvious conviction remind us that matters of the heart and spirit will always reign over the material world.
September 16, 2005
Bird Sings Complex Harmonies
Possibly the most complex vocalizing by any creature aside from humans has been heard by scientists standing in an Ecuadorian bamboo forest listening to plain-tailed wrens. The sheer number of singers and their impressive synchronicity put the birds at the top of the world pops, according to a recent press release from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.
"It's already known that some birds duet and that others sing in choruses, but these wrens do both and, furthermore, the choruses are extraordinarily precise and well coordinated," said Peter Slater, a St. Andrews biology professor who led the study. Slater explained to Discovery News that up to seven birds sing "choruses," with males and females contributing different parts. The song consists of a series of four repeated phrases that follow the pattern ABCDABCD. Males sing A and C, while females sing B and D.
All of the birds sing around 20 sets of phrases for up to two minutes at a time. He said "it is a major feat of coordination, especially when you consider (their) speed." Both males and females hit their notes right on cue so that the ABCD phrasing flows along as though only one bird were singing.
Male and female plain-tailed wrens all have their own repertoires of various song phrasings, but prefer to sing in coordinated groups. "Sometimes one sex will sing a series of phrases without the other joining in," Slater said. "This was most striking in our group of seven, where there were only two males, and we often got B-D-B-D-B ... Apparently the poor guys couldn't keep up!"
Slater and his colleagues believe the synchronized singing is probably a form of defense against members of their own species. "If you play a song from a speaker on their territory, the group will gather round singing like mad," he explained. "I imagine this is likely to be very intimidating to an intruding bird." The singing might also help to synchronize breeding, he theorized. Most birds in temperate regions breed when day length increases in the spring.
On the equator, where these birds are, day length does not vary much. Instead of breeding all of the time, the birds seem to stay in synch with each other and "stimulate their reproductive systems" with the songs, not entirely unlike humans singing along to some sexy music on a hot date. Daniel Mennill, a biologist at Canada's University of Windsor, studies a similar bird, the rufous-and-white wren. This species mostly sings duets, but the songs also are highly coordinated and seem to play an important role in territory defense and reproduction. He told Discovery News, "The choruses of plain-tailed wrens astonish me."
Mennill added, "I agree that plain-tailed wren choruses may be the most highly coordinated and complex group vocalizations sung by any animal. As to whether they are more complex than human group vocalizations: I expect that the degree of coordination within plain-tailed wren choruses would be the envy of any choral conductor or orchestra leader." Slater and his team next hope to analyze DNA from the wrens to determine how group members are related to one another.
September 15, 2005
National Youth Choir of Scotland
The Herald (Scotland):
If you were impressed by the National Youth Choir of Scotland's contribution to the BBC's Last Night of the Proms from Glasgow Green, the important news is that you heard not a scintilla of the capabilities of Christopher Bell's young charges.
The bad news is that you have also missed your opportunity, as this was the last concert by the current line-up. The NYCoS method being the highly efficient machine it has become, I doubt there is a better-drilled choir of this size in the country, so the Henry Wood arrangement of the Skye Boat Song, which they reprised here, was a piece of cake. Stuart Hope's tricky treatment of O Whistle And I'll Come Tae Ye was the meatiest of a trio of Scots songs, but these were just the tiramisu after the piatti principali. Bernstein, Faure, Rachmaninov and Kodaly's rarely heard Missa Brevis – the "unfeasibly high" soprano part despatched with aplomb, and range to spare I'd guess, by the girls in this outfit – were the published attractions, but it was a late addition to the programme that was the sensation.
Five Latin hymns from the Gloria Patri by Estonian composer Urmas Sisask (nope, me neither) were a building delight, the staccato Benedicamus followed by the wordless, oscillating Oremus, and then a sensational finale, Confitemini Domino, more recognisably in the Baltic choral tradition and featuring call and response between a small choir within the ranks and the rest of the singers.
Katrina drives convention north
Detroit Free Press (MI):
About 8,000 to 10,000 members of the Sweet Adelines International women's singing group have switched their Oct. 4-8 annual convention from New Orleans to Detroit's Cobo Center in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It's the first big New Orleans show that Detroit has snared since Katrina devastated the Big Easy a little over two weeks ago. New Orleans' Ernest N. Morial Convention Center has canceled all conventions and trade shows through March 31, sending meeting planners across the country into scramble mode to line up replacement venues.
Kelly Kirchhoff, a spokeswoman for the Tulsa, Okla.-based Sweet Adelines, said the group considered about 35 alternative sites and narrowed it down to Detroit and Atlanta. Detroit offered a better hotel package, so the group of women's barbershop quartets and choral groups will visit the home of Motown and Eminem next month. The group will reserve up to 2,400 hotel rooms a night at 14 area hotels. The Detroit Marriott Renaissance Center will serve as the group's headquarters hotel. Other hotels housing visitors will be elsewhere in downtown, in Windsor, Dearborn and Southfield.
September 14, 2005
Jingle All The Way
Flint Journal (MI):
A last-minute, quickly produced song arrangement and video by Flint's vocal group Peaceful Authority has won the group the opportunity to compete this month in Los Angeles for the chance to sing a nationally known jingle for Oreo cookies in radio commercials. "We Fed Ex-ed it in," says Alfino Donastorg of Flint, a member of the group, about the entry into the Oreo jingle contest in mid-July. "We were close to the deadline when we heard about it. We didn't think we had enough time, but then we decided, ah, we'll try it."
Donastorg, 40, a Flint police officer, is in the group with his friends and fellow officers Michael West, 41; Tyrone Booth, 33; and GM worker Alghandi Phillips, 33. They were notified late in August that they were one of 10 groups, bands or individuals who were chosen to be finalists in the jingle contest. "I heard about the contest on the radio," says Booth, "and by the time we checked it out, there were only a few days left."
With a group composed of guys who have jobs, families and assorted responsibilities, it's not always easy for Peaceful Authority to get together to perform and rehearse, let alone create a video-taped audition for this jingle contest, Donastorg says. They perform a wide variety of music, from gospel to pop, in a harmonious vocal style, and have appeared around the area in performances ranging from police memorial services and fund-raisers for churches to a Detroit Lions game. On Sunday, Peaceful Authority participated in "Cliostock," a concert that raised thousands of dollars for the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.
But in July, they created a simple, brief, yet effective, entry in the Oreo jingle contest that won one of 10 finalists positions in the competition. Judges for the cookie manufacturer chose five from entries like theirs, that were mailed in, and another five from live auditions that were held in cities in different regions around the country. The winner will be chosen Sept. 22 in Los Angeles at Universal Studios. Peaceful Authority got its place among the finalists with Billy Joel's a cappella 1984 hit, "The Longest Time," but adapted with the Oreo jingle lyrics.
About two weeks after overnighting their entry to the judges, they heard they had been chosen to be in the contest's finals - something that won the group $1,000 and a trip to the West Coast. The winning performer or performers will get $10,000 and record the jingle for Oreo radio commercials. This will be done at the studio of recording producer Randy "The Dawg" Jackson, music producer and former rock bass player who's familiar to millions of "American Idol" viewers. Whatever happens in L.A., the men say it's been exciting to be in the finals of the contest. It's been nearly 20 years since West and Donastorg first sang together back in junior high school and met again in 1994 at the Flint Police Academy. They formed Peaceful Authority in 2001.
I've heard of these jingle contests in the past and know several singers who make money performing them. One of the most successful is in quite a small market but still does very well. Cleverly arranged and sung a cappella jingles are the staple of many commercial radio stations. Why we even have our own jingle sung and arranged by Naturally Seven. I'll post info on the next contest I hear about. (A cappella trivia - Richard Greene of the Bobs was that deep bass that sung the ubiquitous Gap's jingle "Fall Into The Gap" for many, many years.)
September 12, 2005
An A Cappella Star Is Born!
I am so very, very happy to announce that my lovely wife Tess gave birth on Friday evening to our son Sean, an 8lbs 5 oz healthy bundle of joy and happiness. Seen here with his sister Emma he has plenty of time to decide whether he will be the next President of the United States, discover the cure for cancer or compose and perform a string of a cappella number one hits. But who knows - maybe he will take over from his dad and be writing this blog 20 years from now. Regardless we will of course be proud of them both but rest assured, with my singing voice, there will be no Neal Family Singers..
September 9, 2005
A special world at the Trapp Family Lodge
The Herald (VT)
There's a scene in Thorton Wilder's play "Our Town" in which a woman fantasizes about seeing Paris, then comments, "Only it seems to me that once in your life before you die you ought to see a country where they don't talk in English and don't even want to." Well, visiting the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe doesn't necessitate going overseas or learning a new language, but it does provide the distinctive experience that Julia Gibbs was longing for. That comes in large part from visiting a place where a strong sense of history and an abiding appreciation for the land, landscape and people combine with old-world European charm to provide an unforgettable experience.
What makes this resort extra special is its distinctive Austrian ambiance and keen sense of history, which is shared with visitors via photographs displayed throughout the lodge and the documentary "The Real Maria," which is shown daily. By experiencing the family's history in this intimate way, guests gain a greater sense of the people who began life over in a new land and greater appreciation for the enduring human spirit. As most people know from having seen Julie Andrews in "The Sound of Music," the Austrian widower Capt. Georg von Trapp married Maria, one of his children's tutors. The family performed as a famed singing group, but faced with Nazi occupation of their beloved Austria, fled to America in 1938.
What is less well known today is that upon arrival in the United States, they toured as the Trapp Family Singers, traveling all over the country in a bus for four years. The family settled in a Stowe farmhouse in 1942, choosing the area for its topography and climate, which were reminiscent of their homeland. They started life over again, farming and offering the Trapp Family Music Camp as well as continuing to go on musical tours until 1956.
It was while they were touring that the farmhouse's rooms were first rented out to visitors. By 1948, Trapp's was so popular that an addition had to be put on, leading to what became the nationally renowned Trapp Family Lodge. Over time, the children grew up and went their individual ways, but some stayed to help (the late) Maria operate the guest business, expanding the original lodge and then replacing it after a fire destroyed it in 1980. The youngest son Johannes became the general manager and also developed the Trapp Family Cross-Country Ski Touring Center in 1968, the first commercial touring center in North America. Today, the resort includes a village of 100 guest houses — developed as timeshares in the1980s — and new luxury villas — fractional ownership real estate — and continues to be owned and operated by Johannes von Trapp. The land is still being farmed and much of the acreage is in conservation.
The Singers usually sang a cappella and there is a group of great grandchildren, The von Trapp Children, who continue their a cappella singing tradition.
September 7, 2005
Singing is about more than perfect pitch
Yale Daily News
Understanding perfect pitch may be difficult for those without the ability to instantaneously name a note upon first hearing it. Imagine a classroom full of children. All are colorblind, save one, and they all get palettes and paint. "Just imagine what that [one] child will experience with the color in comparison to the other kids," Dr. David A. Ross said. "It's the same way with people with absolute perfect pitch."
A team of researchers at the Yale School of Medicine in conjunction with the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine have set out to find the mechanisms behind perfect, or absolute, pitch. Ross MED '99 GRD '05 and Lawrence Marks teamed up to delve into the mechanics behind perfect pitch, and their conclusion is almost simple -- perfect pitch is not a direct decoding tool, nor is it a musical skill. Ross said the study suggests a difference in the brain stem, which is believed to be the region where pitch is encoded.
What their research has suggested is that the uncanny ability results from a difference in the way an individual's brain codes musical tones, allowing some to develop a mental "template" of notes to be able to name that tune. It just so happens, according to the research team, that those with perfect pitch are usually drawn to music.
Most musicians would agree that perfect pitch is not necessary to be a successful musician, nor is it something that makes one musician better than the next. "It's really just a cool parlor trick," said Eric Kubo '07, a member of the a cappella group The Society of Orpheus and Bacchus. He said perfect pitch is something striking, and that he is impressed by those who can hear a melody or tune and instantly name the notes. "It's cool to be able to hear someone say 'Oh, that's an E flat,' but I would say it is definitely not necessary to able to do that," Kubo said.
Some musicians, such as Danielle LaRocco '08, a singer in Out of the Blue, cited the importance of perfect pitch as a tool for arranging music. While some people may have to sit at the piano and play a key in order to arrange a piece, she said, those with perfect pitch are simply able to arrange it directly on paper. However, both college students and professors who have perfect pitch assert that the talent can be a nuisance at times.
Eric Trudel, lecturer at the Yale School of Music, was trained as a pianist and now dedicates most of his time to vocal music, including coaching at the Yale Opera. As a result, he says, his idea of perfect pitch has changed throughout the years. "At the beginning of my career, pitch was black and white, like the colors of the piano keys, but as I began to work with singers and vocalists, my perception of pitch has changed and evolved," Trudel said. "Now, it is a matter of the color of the sound, the vibrations and the harmonies, and that is how I can tell you exactly what note I am hearing."
But, Trudel said oftentimes, at least in operatic music, the ability to be able to hear a tune and name it right away can be frustrating and counterproductive. There are instances when singers become so wrapped up in whether or not the key and note are correct that it interferes with their singing, he said. Trudel added that relative pitch, or the ability to mentally recognize a note based on notes previously heard, is usually a more valuable tool for a singer.
Not all vocalists are in tune with Trudel's idea that perfect pitch usually gets in the way. Rebecca Blum '07, pitch for the a cappella group Out of the Blue, said that when it comes to arranging music, perfect pitch is a great tool. "It just makes it easier," said Blum, who has perfect pitch. "You can write the notes down right away."
But, how exactly does one acquire perfect pitch and more importantly, where does it come from? Marks said the theoretical position behind perfect pitch is twofold -- some people develop perfect pitch by creating a mental template of notes in their head as they are exposed to music, usually at a very early age, while others, for unknown reasons, have an innate ability to instantly recognize notes. Marks said that it could in fact be genetic. In fact, Trudel said that his father has perfect pitch and has very little musical background. "He can always sing a tune right on key, every single time," Trudel said.
The experiments performed by Marks and Ross divided subjects into several groups. One tested whether or not the amount of exposure to music actually determines one's ability to name a note. Ross said most people in the music field are adept at naming notes because of so much exposure, but that this is not what he would classify as absolute perfect pitch. "Many people can name notes. Because I can sit there and tell you that the opening trumpet of the Star Wars theme is a B flat does not mean that I have perfect pitch, rather that I have been exposed to it many times," Ross said.
The idea for the research came when Ross was an undergraduate at Yale singing in the a cappella group Red, Hot and Blue and had the opportunity to work with someone who had perfect pitch. "Something I think is really interesting, which we will have to be studying in the future, is why it was so easy to find people with absolute pitch here at Yale, while it was harder to find it elsewhere," Marks said.
September 3, 2005
Choirboys sign £500k record deal
We’ve had boy bands – now here is the world’s first choirboy band. CJ Porter-Thaw, 11, and his 12-year-old bandmates Patrick Aspbury and Ben Inman are a mini version of The Three Tenors. The trio were discovered singing in their school choirs. Now they are set for stardom after being signed by record giant Universal Classics, the label behind Jamie Cullum and Luciano Pavarotti.
The Choirboys, as they are known, have just recorded their debut album. Universal are investing £500,000 in turning the trio into chart stars. The boys are being guided by their manager – the original choirboy, Aled Jones. CJ, Patrick and Ben have ditched traditional cassocks in favour of trendy designer suits. And their ultimate aim is to make choirboys cool.
Universal Classics general manager Dickon Stainer said: “Choir schools are a special world and they have been struggling to keep boys coming through the doors in the age of the PlayStation. “We think this group will have a huge impact on people’s perceptions of choristers and choir schools. We think they will reach the pop charts.”
He added: “We auditioned hundreds of boys and these are the three best singers we could find in the whole country. “Unlike a pop group, where looks, style and personality are given as much priority as musical ability, these boys have been picked on one criterion alone - their voices.”
Talent scouts scoured 50 cathedrals and churches across the country. CJ and Patrick were both discovered singing in the famous choir at the King’s School in Ely, Cambs. Ben is a pupil at state-run Minster School in Southwell, Notts, and is one of only 10 choristers out of its 2,000 pupils.
He admitted: “We get a little bit bullied because we wear these dresses. People pull our ties because of it. So it’s a mission of faith for us to get choirboys jazzed up. “We’ve been given our own personal hair stylist and clothes stylist and we’ve all got new haircuts. Mine was really choirboyish before but now it’s ruffled up and it looks cool.” The boys are all into rock music, with Green Day a particular favourite, and are keen football fans. They have spent their summer holidays recording their debut album with the English Chamber Ensemble under the direction of Martin Neary, former choirmaster of Westminster Abbey.
The album will be made up mostly of traditional choral music such as Allegri’s Miserere and Bach’s Ave Maria. Popular favourites such as Eric Clapton’s Tears In Heaven and the theme tunes to Mr Bean and The Vicar of Dibley are included too. The Hollies classic He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother is also on the album – but has been changed to He Isn’t Heavy, He’s My Brother in the interests of good grammar.
Sweet Adelines convention relocates
Sweet Adelines International announces today that the annual convention and competition will be relocated to Detroit, Michigan, October 4-8, 2005.
"The Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, along with our hospitality community, is grateful to be able to offer assistance to your organization and membership by hosting your Sweet Adelines International Convention and Competition and honoring your 60th Anniversary," stated Larry Alexander, President and CEO. "While our hearts are in the south with the victims of this terrible tragedy, our staff and community are committed to providing Sweet Adelines with a remarkable and memorable experience in Detroit, a city world renowned for our musical heritage," Alexander continued.
September 1, 2005
Lights out for Backstreet Boys
San Francisco Chronicle (CA):
A Backstreet Boys concert in full swing at the Chronicle Pavilion on Tuesday night was shut down after an electrical transformer blew and cut off power to the outdoor amphitheater and the surrounding area in Concord. The band had been playing for more than an hour when the lights went out, said Aaron Siuda, spokesman for Bill Graham Presents.
"The band was nice enough after the power went out to get back onstage and sing a cappella through a megaphone,'' Siuda said. "It actually sounded pretty good. All the fans sang along." The show, however, a one-night stopover at the Pavilion, had to be cut short.
Siuda said that as a result of Tuesday's power outage, Bill Graham Presents is offering all ticketholders of the Pavilion show admission to the Backstreet Boys' concert tonight at the Sleeptrain Amphitheater in Sacramento. "All they have to do is bring their ticket'' to get into the Sacramento concert, Siuda said. He said the transformer blew along Highway 4 around 10 p.m. PG&E could not be reached for comment. The Pavilion, at 2000 Kirker Pass Road, accommodates an audience of 12,500.
They might just be on to something with the megaphone concept. Saves a fortune on all that PA gear...