June 29, 2006
Flattered by the BBC
Well I was most pleased (or chuffed as we would say in England) today as BBC Radio presenter Russell Davies and his producer flew to San Francisco to interview me for an upcoming BBC documentary series on a cappella. We have been helping them meet up with some a cappella artists while they are in the US this week to gather material for the programs. They were not originally planning to come to San Francisco but called yesterday to say they would like to fly up here for the afternoon from Los Angeles to talk with me in person, which of course I found to be very flattering. We had a most enjoyable visit and, if I may humbly say, they seemed to find me most informative. I have after all been living and breathing (but not singing!) a cappella for well over a decade now and having done dozens of interviews over the years I try to give the media the kind of information I hope they will find helpful. I also gave buddy Joe Jennings, director of Chanticleer, a call and he joined us for dinner and also taped an interview. Lots of fun and I will certainly let you know when the series airs.
The oldest member of the Backstreet Boys, 33-year-old Kevin Richardson, has left the once-swooned-over quintet. In a statement on the band's website, Richardson explained that the decision was made so that he could be free to pursue other interests. "After 13 years of what can only be described as a dream come true, I have decided that it is time to leave the Backstreet Boys," he said. "It was a very tough decision for me but one that was necessary in order to move on with the next chapter of my life."
Richardson and his cousin, Backstreet Boy Brian Littrell, began singing together as children and later performed doo wop material at local fairs and festivals. He moved to Orlando, where he met the other Boys, in the early '90s. The group have sold more than 30 million albums since then.
Richardson won't be replaced, according to a statement from the remaining group members. "Earlier this year, after much soul searching, Kevin Richardson came to us and told us that he had decided to leave the group to pursue other interests. He gave his blessing to continue the music without him.
"We have no intention of replacing Kevin, and the door will always be open for him to return to the Backstreet Boys. We wish him all the best in his future endeavors."
The Backstreet Boys just entered the studio to begin work on the follow-up to 2005's Never Gone, which didn't sell nearly as well as their earlier efforts. They hope to have a new album ready for Jive Records before the end of the year.
Dylan, baseball and a cappella
I never thought I would write the words Bob Dylan, Baseball Hall of Fame and a cappella in the same posting but sure enough the baseball episode of Dylan's "Theme Time Radio Hour" on XM radio has been added to the Baseball Hall of Fame's archives. The episode includes Dylan singing "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" a cappella.
June 27, 2006
The Pope wants it a cappella!
VATICAN CITY, June 27 (UPI) -- Pope Benedict XVI has demanded an end to electric guitars and modern music in church and a return to traditional choirs.
The Catholic Church has been experimenting with new ways of holding Mass to try to attract more people. The recital of Mass set to guitars has grown in popularity in Italy; in Spain it has been set to flamenco music; and in the United States the Electric Prunes produced a "psychedelic" album called Mass in F Minor.
However, the use of guitars and tambourines has irritated the Pope, who loves classical music. "It is possible to modernise holy music," the Pope said, at a concert conducted by Domenico Bartolucci the director of music at the Sistine Chapel. "But it should not happen outside the traditional path of Gregorian chants or sacred polyphonic choral music."
His comments prompted the newspaper La Stampa to compare him with Pope Pius X, who denounced faddish classical and baroque compositions and reinstated Gregorian chants in 1903.
The Pope's supporters argue that the music played during Mass is a vital part of the communion between worshippers and God, and that medieval church music, with the liturgy, creates the correct ambience for perceiving God's mystery.
Cardinal Ersilio Tonini, the Archbishop of Ravenna, said:"Mass is the presence of Christ and the music adds so much more when the harmony allows the mind to transcend the concrete to the divine."
But Cardinal Carlo Furno, grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, said it was "better to have guitars on the altar and rock and roll Masses than empty churches". The use of modern music was a "sign of the vitality of the faith".
The argument is part of a wider debate about the Latin Mass, restricted in the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s because it was seen to be putting worshippers off going to Church. The Pope believes that if Latin Masses are reintroduced, more Catholics will learn the words to the Gregorian chants that he advocates.
June 21, 2006
Acoustix sings anthem at NBA Finals
International barbershop champions Acoustix got to sing the national anthem at the 7th and final game of the NBA Playoffs last night with their performance being televised worldwide. This fabulous quartet is actually no stranger to the arena as they have been singing the anthem for the Mavericks for the past 16 years including performing most all recent home games of the team. They are in fact considered to be somewhat of a lucky mascot and apparently the powers-that-be at the Mavericks made a special call to the NBA to ask that Acoustix be allowed to sing as usually only big celebrity artists gets to sing at such a prestigious event. The group has actually sung the anthem for over 20 professional sports teams (they sang at the 49'er game when I flew them here one year for the Summit) and Todd Wilson tells me they have secured all kinds of engagements from these performances including some nice juicy corporate gigs. So polish up your arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner and send it off to your local sports team!!
Listen to The Star Spangled Banner from their "Stars and Stripes Forever" recording
VocalEssence saves best for last
Pioneer Press (MN):
At first glance, the season finale for local choral ensemble VocalEssence looked to be its most uncomplicated undertaking of the year. After presenting a fully staged version of Grieg's "Peer Gynt" with the Norwegian National Opera, a ballet for Black History Month and a Handel oratorio with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, an a cappella choral concert in the company of acclaimed Swedish baritone Hakan Hagegard looked to be simplicity itself.
Ah, but the music chosen for the occasion was anything but simple, and what was designed as a showcase for Hagegard — and billed as his last American concert, though he recently has confessed to some flexibility about that — instead stood out as the season's best example of the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers' superior skills. And, if that weren't enough, Tuesday's season-closing concert at Bethel University's acoustically splendid Benson Great Hall also featured a world premiere commissioned for the occasion that should stand the test of time.
The program was gleaned entirely from the works of Swedish and Norwegian composers, from the "Fire Salmer" of Edvard Grieg to the new work, Sven-David Sandstrom's "Five Pictures from the Bible." One might be surprised to find such proudly Protestant countries producing music deeply rooted in the Catholic tradition of Latin chant. But such was the case with works by Otto Olsson, Ola Gjello and much of the Grieg, on which Hagegard acted as something of a cantor to the choir's congregation.
The Sandstrom piece, which comprised the second half of the program, presented a reminder that Hagegard is at his best when allowed to treat a work with gentleness. His soft, wistful approach proved deeply absorbing on the geographically appropriate story of "Jacob's Dream at Bethel" and the words of the prodigal son's forgiving father.
Sandstrom's "Five Pictures" were distinctly different in style, displaying the versatility of VocalEssence's singers, be they weaving a fine fugue on "Daniel in the Lion's Den" or creating a splash with an aural Pollack painting on the prodigal son's story. It's a piece that deserves to be heard frequently in the future, but requires a choir as talented as VocalEssence to meet its demands.
June 19, 2006
Native American singing group harnesses spirit
Billings Gazette :
The Ulali singers coo crisp, clean, a capella harmonies where single words seem destined to live in a world of timeless melodies, where songs evoke beauty and emotion. "What I admire most is the soul," said Michelle St. John, a Toronto-based actor and singer. "They're instantly recognizable even if it's just an opening note. They're so distinctive. There's this magic that happens. "I still get goose bumps even after all these years," said St. John, who has performed and recorded with the group. "They're masters at what they do."
For nearly 20 years, Pura Fe, Soni Moreno and Jennifer Kreisberg have developed the sounds of Ulali (pronounced you-la-lee).
The group was born from Pura Fe, a Tuscarora who started a singing group through the American Indian Community House in New York. The once rock-jazz fusion group developed the sound it has today after Pura Fe decided to do a show without the entire band. She took the performance down to a single drum and only a few voices. She asked Moreno, who is Apache and Mayan, to be a part of that show. When Pura Fe's younger cousin, Kreisberg, joined the duo a few years later, Ulali was born.
Today, the group borrows traditional and contemporary sounds from tribes throughout the Western Hemisphere. "Their work is brilliant," said St. John. "It's their arrangements. The way they use their voices. The way they construct their songs. The notes they choose tap into an emotional plane. "I go, 'Oww! I feel that right here.' I'm a bit of a geeky fan."
But St. John isn't alone with the accolades. Ulali's creative a capella harmonies have made them favored performers around the country. They've shared performance bills with world-class artists, including Sting, Jackson Browne, the B-52's, Bonnie Raitt, Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Neville Brothers.
Ulali, which means the sound of the wood thrush, had several songs featured on the movie soundtrack "Smoke Signals," which garnered top Sundance Film Festival awards, including an Audience Choice Award and Filmmaker's Trophy. The women made their national television debut when performing with Robbie Robertson, formerly of The Band, on the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno."
Ulali women write and sing songs of love, politics and broken hearts, words written to reflect each of their female beings. "I believe sometimes, it's not just us singing," Moreno said. "There's a lot of spirit behind it. We all walk with our ancestors."
Some of those ancestors were singers, too. Kreisberg and Pura Fe -- first cousins through their mothers -- come from a family where the last four generations consisted of seven singing sisters. Kreisberg recently wrote "The Deer Song," a commemoration to her Deer Clan people and the women's voices before her. The song will be featured on the group's upcoming live album.
"Our nation, the Tuscarora Nation, we've lost a lot, but the one thing we haven't lost is the singing," Kreisberg said. "Everybody, just about everybody sings. It's like the whole community sings." Ulali embodies that spirit, which continues to grow and change. Fans can expect new artistic development from each woman.
A good example of how much a cappella permeates every corner of popular culture, and sometimes in the most unexpected places, is the featuring of the music of Chanticleer in the just released Nacho Libre movie with Jack Black. Chanticleer's recordings of "Te Deum: Aerterna fac cum sanctis tuis", "Hieremiae Prophetae Lamentations" and "Te Deum: Aerterna fac cum sanctis tuis" are included in the sound track. Jack Black's character Friar Ignacio, a much-put-upon cook, lives in a monastery hence the use of a cappella chants.
June 15, 2006
After 26 wonderful years with The Nylons Arnold Robinson has decided to move on to the next stage of his life and retire as the bass singer for the group. His career with The Nylons has taken him to all corners of the earth and enriched his life with a world of experience and fond memories.
Arnold will have an ongoing interest in the group and will be supportive as The Nylons continue their legacy in performance and on record.
Arnold can be reached at email@example.com regarding his activities in stage presentation and consulting.
The group has always been greater than the sum of its parts and The Nylons will continue as a premier force in the world of vocal music
The Nylons are just sheer fun
Toronto Star (Canada):
Statistically-speaking, The Nylons are only half as gay as they were when four fey actor/singer/dancer types started singing a capella back in 1979.Nearly three decades later, after numerous cast changes, high and lows, the Nylons have struck a new balance among its four members, two gay, two straight, two black, two white, all of which makes for a nice balance and harmony.
For the first time in almost a decade, the Nylons will be bringing their harmonies to Pride Week celebrations next Saturday, June 24. "It's been a long and wild ride, with lots of twists and turns and curves and lots of things thrown at you," said Claude Morrison, the last of the group's original fab four. Morrison remembers well the group's unlikely start back in 1979 when members, to earn some extra money to support their irregular earnings in the entertainment business, started performing "at fashion shows, parties ... anybody who would have us really."
The group's choice of a name, the Nylons, was both an inside joke and warm tribute to the groups from the late 1950's and early 1960's that were named after fabrics like the Chiffons, the Orlons and the Hollywood Argyles, whose music the Nylons often performed. "We just did it very tongue in cheek ... and the name caught on," Morrison said. "It was back in the days of New Wave and people used to say, `Are you New Wave?' and we'd say, `No, we're permanent wave,' he added with a chuckle.
Garth Mosbaugh, who is second to Morrison in terms of longevity, acknowledged the group's momentum has flagged in recent years. They're only doing only about 50 gigs a year, down from the heyday of about 250 annually. After 15 albums, they haven't recorded since 2002 (though a future album is in the works).
The major factor in keeping them going is performing live, Mosbaugh said. "In terms of recordings and stuff like that, it's been a little harder for the Nylons to stay relevant to current music trends. It's that live show — we just put on a great show, if I do say so myself," he said. "It's still heaps of fun. It's like the best job I could ever imagine having. "Once we get up there on stage and start singing and laughing and having a good time, the audience is with us and it all starts to flow, it's just great," Mosbaugh said.
Morrison agreed. "That has always been our lifeblood, the live show. Some of the recordings have done better than others but the show is always a pay-off for everybody, performers and the audience alike. If the show stopped being fun to do, that would be the time to pack it in," Morrison said.
"I look forward to shows. Hell, who wouldn't enjoy it? You get up and make a monkey of yourself and people applaud you for it. We have a good time and ... people go away feeling empowered, feeling positive and feeling energized," he added. Mosbaugh said while the group has occasionally brought in a drummer and even performed with a full orchestra, it is the a cappella sound — the human voice — that continues to appeal.
"The voice is really the eternal instrument. People are always drawn to the voice. There are all kinds of sonic treatments you can do with a voice. You can do rhythm sounds, you can change the texture so much in a voice, whereas you can't (with) instruments quite so much," he said.
Morrison said it was also time to come back to perform at Pride Week after being so long away, especially at a time when the issue of same-sex marriage has been resurrected by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, with a fall vote looming as to whether to re-open the debate.
"This world is becoming a frightening ... and a dangerous place to be. Are there not more important things than whether or not somebody should get married? For God's sake, all you need is love; that cannot be a bad thing," Morrison said. "That's the great thing about Pride, it's a gathering of positivity and energy and inclusiveness," he said. "Inasmuch as we hadn't done Pride for a number of years, it's time for us to get back there ... and to do our part to re-assert the message," he added.
June 14, 2006
And now for the coda
San Francisco Chronicle (CA):
In a cavernous rehearsal room underneath Davies Symphony Hall, 235 singers murmured before a recent practice until Vance George, a barrel-chested figure in black, had them rise, exchange shoulder massages, sigh exaggeratedly, sing scales and make "brrr'' sounds with their lips, like the engine of a motor boat.
Warm-up complete, George, planted in a tall chair behind a music stand, flipped open the 144-page Verdi "Requiem" score before him, trying to dissect problem spots, only to be bombarded by complaints. His microphone was off and no one could hear him. "Hello,'' he intoned dryly, with a smile, turning up the volume. "My name is George, and I'll be your pilot this evening.''
Humor can break all kinds of tension, and it did on this night, one of the last behind the podium for George, who is retiring after 23 years as director of San Francisco Symphony Chorus. Under his watch, the Chorus has evolved into one of the world's finest, earning four Grammys and an Emmy. George is recognized as one of the nation's premier choral conductors for his ability to shape the Chorus' sound in a range of musical styles. In the San Francisco Chorus, 35 singers are paid professionals; the other 185 are volunteers.
George came to San Francisco in 1983, the protege of Margaret Hillis, the choral conductor of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, who'd been asked to fill in after the departure of choral director Lou Magor. Now, after two decades of yielding the baton to Edo de Waart, Herbert Blomstedt, Michael Tilson Thomas and others on show night, the 72-year-old feels it is time to be at the controls from takeoff to landing, guest conducting elsewhere.
"The massive choral works -- the Mahlers, Beethoven's 'Missa Solemnis,' Verdi's 'Requiem' -- were a wonderful challenge and delight to conquer with the Chorus,'' he said, contemplating the highlights of his career over lunch last week. "The only downside in 23 years is that I didn't conduct the orchestra and Chorus as much as I would have liked.'' As resident conductor Edwin Outwater acknowledged, it takes a certain type of ego to stay on the sidelines that long: "He doesn't have the final say. He gives up all his works to someone else, but his soul comes through.''
There's a knock -- fair or not -- against choral conductors, who are sometimes regarded as less precise than their symphonic counterparts. George believes he's up to the rigors of the podium. His mentor was the late master conductor and composer Robert Shaw, and he studied under the renowned conductor Otto-Werner Mueller. Though he grew up on a farm in Indiana, music was his calling. He conducted his first opera, "Amahl and the Night Visitors," at Goshen College while studying music -- and scrounged up an orchestra, costumes and a set. "It was most unusual in our little world,'' said his favorite instructor, Mary Oyer, 83, who flew in for a recent good-bye party attended by 150 friends and colleagues. "He had that kind of imagination."
Composer Alice Parker of Massachusetts, also in attendance, said George "understands the voice ... and the larger implications of the score. Choral conductors are more apt to be flowing, but with this chorus, you have to be just as precise as the instrumentalists. He has fine training and is very disciplined.'' Training is only one aspect of the job. "There's a wonderful exchange we have, singing together, as human beings, experiencing the divine,'' George told his guests.
His use of metaphor to encourage specific sounds is highly regarded among the singers, said soprano Abigail Farrell, 59, of San Rafael. He is descriptive and fun, asking them, for instance, to imagine eating hot mashed potatoes. Though he is a gourmet foodie, he is not trying to evoke a smooth, satiny texture in the voice. He is trying to get them to think "burning hot food in the mouth" to get them to lower their jaws so that the roofs of their mouths won't be scalded. "This action opens up the synovial cavity,'' George explained, touching his fingertips near his temple, where the hinge of the jaw opens up. The jaw and mouth, he said, must be positioned just so for the proper sounds to burst forth.
On the opening night of Mahler's Eighth Symphony last month, he recommended something specific when singing the Latin word "accende,'' relating to fire and illumination. For the first forceful syllable, pronounced "ahhch,'' he urged them to think of the pain involved in dropping a wine bottle on their toes. For the second and third syllables, pronounced "CHEN-day,'' he suggested thinking about lighting a safety match, and the tension between the moment the match is struck and when it bursts into flame.
"You live in a trailer home, you're striking one of those long safety matches and after a pause, 'chhhhh!' -- it explodes into light!"
The most difficult languages for the Chorus have been Russian, Czech and other Slavic tongues, with sounds and consonants that are different and crisper than English. And yet, from gospel to Broadway to classical, the singers have done them all in the correct style, "which is what I've trained this chorus to do," he said, with pride.
Nearing the 2 1/2-hour mark of this rehearsal -- his last ever as Symphony Chorus director -- George tugged and pulled to get the singers to do things his way, knowing it could all go out the window when the guest conductor, James Conlon, takes the baton on performance night. He knows that some people will be happy to see him go, and that others are fretful that things won't be the same, though he is confident that under a new director, "everything will be fine."
When practice was over, he closed his book, looked down and gathered his belongings, preparing to leave as if it were any other workday. The Chorus, however, would not let him go without a standing ovation. He folded his hands together awkwardly and nodded his head. "I just taught you what I needed to learn,'' he said, softly. "Thank you, and good night.''
June 13, 2006
One piece of music, 700 singers
The Guardian (UK):
Thomas Tallis, born (probably) 501 years ago, is famous for his setting of the motet Spem In Alium in 40 individual parts: eight choirs, five voices in each. It's the Grand National of the choral repertory.
A friend and I, hopeless sight readers, once tried to sing it at a workshop day with 38 capable singers and failed ignominously. But I sang Spem In Alium again at the weekend, with rather more success, mainly because there were rather more of us: about 700 singers (plus BBC4 cameras), gathered in Manchester's Bridgewater Hall in defiance of a heatwave and a lot of football.
This was not an attempt on a Tallis world record but it's a fair bet that SiA has never before been sung by so many singers. I shall boast of this to my grandchildren, although they will probably exclaim: "Stuff it, grandad", and reach for some hip-hop. I don't care. I was there on an extraordinary day and the multi-layered, majestic, polyphonic glory of the music is still playing in my head.
Tallis is said to have reached for his very long music paper to rise to a challenge after the Mantuan composer Alessandro Striggio arrived in London in 1567 with a copy of his 40-part motet Ecce Beatem Lucem under his arm. There are other big works from this period: the Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem produced a 36-voice Deo Gratias and his countryman Josquin Desprez a 24-voice Qui Habitat. And the great Scots composer Robert Carver wrote an ear-grabbingly resonant 19-part setting of the mass.
Quite why composers were thinking big is not clear: perhaps they had rich patrons or wonderful singers or both. But the Tallis is the big one, with a superb dramatic moment when all singing stops dead and then begins again with the phrase "Respice humilitatem nostram" ("Look on our lowliness') on a beautifully crunching chord of supplication.
Rehearsals under conductor David Lawrence were cumulative: first choir one (with me and nine or so others on the bass line) and choir two together, then choirs three and four joining in and finally groups five to eight. Only at this point was it apparent that the piece is not just about notes scattered through 138 bars but about space.
The effect was better than anything the finest multi-speaker stereo system could produce. The first four choirs were down in the stalls, the second four closer to heaven in the circle. Phrases swayed from side to side, back and forth, up and down, flowing and interweaving into a delicate mist of sound. We sang the final mighty chord and stood amazed through the long, enveloping silence that followed.
June 12, 2006
György Ligeti, composer of numerous choral and chamber works, who fled the shackles of Nazi and Stalinist regimes in his native Hungry to find that his inborn distrust of dogma made the mid-twentieth century's rigid serialism equally unpalatable, has died at the age of 83. He reportedly died in Vienna after a long illness.
Born in 1923 into a Jewish family in Transylvania, Ligeti undertook conservatory studies with Hungarian composer Ferenc Farkas in 1941 at the ripe age of 18, but had his studies interrupted in 1944 when he was sent into the Nazi labor camps. At the same time his parents, brother and other relatives were sent to Auschwitz; only his mother survived.
He resumed studies at the Budapest Academy of Music, Franz Liszt Academy, in 1945, and graduated in 1949. Ligeti returned the following year as an instructor in harmony and counterpoint, but the 1948 appropriation of Hungary as a communist state — and the resultant cultural stagnation — forced Ligeti to turn out largely traditional choral repertoire culled from folk melodies. Ligeti fled Budapest in December 1956 for Vienna, and then Cologne, where he would absorb the new techniques and ideas of the European avant-garde
Ligeti coined the term "micropolyphony," his expressed musical philosophy, by which dense and complex melodic lines manifest themselves as dissonant chords moving at subtly different speeds. The resultant otherworldly harmonies, which spurned sudden change for an amorphous blurring and merging of sounds, was put to use in his Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Mixed Choir, and Orchestra and his Lux Aeterna — both of which Stanley Kubrick would later use on the soundtrack to his film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Throughout the '70s Ligeti's work increasingly focused on rhythmic, as well as melodic and harmonic, variation, as evidenced in works such as Continuum and Clocks and Clouds. In addition, the decade found Ligeti increasingly interested in ethnomusicological sources, particularly African music.
Grand Old Party
The San Francisco Chronicle (CA):
Twelve years after the Kinsey Sicks' debut performance on a street corner in the Castro, the award-winning "dragapella beauty shop quartet" is making the transition from stage to screen, with a film version of its cheeky ode to the GOP, "I Wanna Be a Republican."
After its June 21 premiere at the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, the big-screen version of "I Wanna Be a Republican" will take a lap around the country's gay film festival circuit and, in the process, bring the Bay Area-born group's far-left-leaning blend of biting camp wit, raunchy sex jokes and politically charged ha-ha to some of the so-called "red states."
Other groups might have chosen safer material to use to introduce themselves to audiences in these more conservative parts of the country. But founding member Irwin Keller, a.k.a. Winnie, argues that "I Wanna Be a Republican," in which the group's drag alter egos host a Republican fundraiser, is a perfect introduction for newcomers to the Sicks' sense of satire.
"I'm really proud of this show," says Keller, who, in a previous life, was the lawyer who authored Chicago's gay rights ordinance. "Besides, we've performed in all those scary places, and you'd be surprised how well we're actually received. Sometimes people get up and walk out, but no one heckles us. We're way too scary to heckle." The group recently completed a two-month run with their "Dragapella" show at the Las Vegas Hilton.
In "I Wanna Be a Republican," the Kinsey Sicks, sharp tongues planted firmly in powdered and blushed cheeks, have a go at a number of hot-button issues, including the rampant streak of blind patriotism, racism, invasion of Americans' privacy and political corruption.
"Some parts of the show are pretty tough to get through, even for us," Keller says. "I can see people actually squirming in their seats. But I think audiences need to be challenged like that, so we're not about to dumb down our viewpoints to get more people to like us. Don't get me wrong -- we're applause whores. But we want to be loved for the right reasons."
It would seem that any person or topic is ripe for the picking-on by the Sicks, but while the girls in the band admit they enjoy a good scandal and love stirring up you-know-what, they insist that being unnecessarily mean for a laugh isn't in their nature.
"There are a lot of things that are off-limits for us," says Ben Schatz, a.k.a. Rachel, who, before joining the Kinsey Sicks, authored then presidential candidate Bill Clinton's HIV policy. "For example, we avoid misogynistic or racist humor."
"I know it seems like we'll make fun of anything, but we don't want to present any material that is cruel or insensitive," adds Jeff Manabat, a.k.a. Trixie.
"We love to be provocative," says Chris Dilley, a.k.a. Trampolina. "But we bring a lot of heart to what we do. If we feel we're going to a place that's too mean to still have that heart, we don't go there."
That mix of "humor and humanity" is what prompted Ken Bielenberg and Alonzo Ruvalcaba of Burlingame's Eyethink Pictures (see related story on Page 34) to approach the Kinsey Sicks about being the stars and subject of the newly formed production company's first feature-length film.
"After seeing the 'Republican' show, we had the Kinseys on the brain," jokes Ruvalcaba, the former head of production at Tippett Studio. "We sent them an exploratory e-mail via their Web site proposing a short-subject documentary. Ben responded, 'Thanks so much for your e-mail, and for your questionable judgment.' "
A dinner meeting with the four Sicks at a Gladys Knight's Chicken and Waffles in Atlanta quickly resulted in a two-picture deal. Bielenberg and Ruvalcaba hope to have the second film, an on-the-road documentary chronicling the foursome's most recent cross-country jaunt, ready in time to submit for possible inclusion in next year's Sundance Film Festival. Eyethink also has three other non-related LGBT projects in the works.
"We'd been approached before," Keller says, "but those people didn't really seem to get the subtlety of what we do. They were sort of blinded by the drag thing and the other more obvious elements of what we do. But we could tell right away that (Ken and Alonzo) got it."
"The show, though wickedly funny, is more than that -- it's political activism," says Bielenberg, a former visual-effects supervisor at PDI/DreamWorks. "(Under the current administration), I feel so powerless as an individual. But at least we still have our power of freedom of speech. And, with this film, we're exercising it, baby!"
"The way I look at it is, we're starting a dialogue," Keller says. "While we're entertaining you with these gorgeous songs, we're sort of getting up in your face and making you think. And I think that's really exciting because, nowadays, dialogue is discouraged."
Questions for self-appointed Republican matrons the Kinsey Sicks
Q: Who's the pretty one in the group? The smart one? The funny one?
Trampolina: The pretty one is Paris Hilton. Nicole Richie is the smart one. She's also the funny one. Oh, you mean out of our group?
Rachel: Duh, me!
Q: What's the one thing you never leave home without?
Winnie: A smile for my fellow man (and a bottle of anti-bacterial hand cleanser, in case I am inadvertently touched by my fellow man).
Trampolina: Extra pantyhose. In case we run out of money on tour, the pantyhose go on my head so the people I'm robbing don't know who I am.
Q: Do you have a pre-show ritual?
Rachel: Yes, but I promised both Pat Robertson and the goat that I wouldn't tell.
Trixie: Divorce. Or an annulment. I am always available for marriage after every show.
Q: When you find Mr. Right, will you give up touring to start a family like Celine Dion did?
Rachel: Actually, I'm looking for Mr. Far-Right. John McCain has been coming on to me a lot lately. I'd thought he was a wimp, but his recent sucking up to Bob Jones and Jerry Falwell makes me think he might be perfect husband material.
Q: What are you looking for in a husband?
Rachel: Preferably a mammal, and preferably breathing. But I'm flexible. Oh yeah, and preferably Republican.
Q: Will you be bringing a date to the Castro Theatre premiere of "I Wanna Be a Republican"?
Rachel: No, I'll be stealing someone else's.
Trampolina: No, but I might bring a can of beer nuts, in case I'm hungry. Don't tell the Castro Theatre. They don't allow you to bring in your own food.
Q: Now that you're running in GOP circles, how do you feel about gay marriage?
Winnie: I think it's important for gay people to be represented in all traditionally heterosexual institutions. Marriage and the early bird special come to mind.
Rachel: As long as gay people are filled with shame and self-loathing, I don't care what they do.
Q: You hobnob with conservatives, but you have mouths like sailors. When is it excusable for a lady to curse?
Winnie: It's never excusable, but it is sometimes understandable. Just last week, I spilled a whole glass of prune juice on my antique rug. Well, before you could say "drag," out of my mouth came a foul expletive that begins with "d" and rhymes with "yarn."
The Kinsey Sicks photo also graced (?!) the front cover of the San Francisco Chronicle's Sunday entertainment section.
Financial Times (UK):
A nice mention (in a much longer review) of an exciting new vocal group The Exaudi Vocal Ensemble, and at one of England's most prestigious classical music festivals - The Aldeburgh Music Festival . I grew up in the next county over and have been to Aldeburgh many times and highly recommend the area, especially off season.
June 9, 2006
Singing for themselves
The Telegraph (UK):
A new television programme The Singing Estate traces the progress of an unusual choir from a tough housing estate near Oxford. Susannah Frieze reports
In a space designed for hundreds of musicians and an audience of 6,000, there is just one performer - Eric Hill, aged 71. His wife is the only listener, seated in solitary splendour in the royal box of the Albert Hall. The choice of song, You'll Never Walk Alone, is particularly poignant because Mrs Hill's agoraphobia is so severe that she is essentially housebound and has only been persuaded to come here because otherwise she would miss seeing her husband realise his lifelong ambition.
Later, he will sing with a choir of 40 at that night's sold-out Classic FM concert, but this solo performance is purely for her. As he starts to sing, only the red winking of a camera light betrays that there is anyone else watching. At the end of the song, Eric cries, his wife cries, even the TV crew mop a tear or two - but they are, by now, used to the emotional journeys of The Singing Estate.
When a professional conductor and choral scholar took on the challenge of auditioning the residents of Blackbird Leys estate in Oxford, forming a choir of 40 from the 200 people who turned up and taking them to the Albert Hall to sing, nobody could have predicted how rich a vein of human life they had tapped. Unlike most reality TV shows, The Singing Estate was a feelgood proposition - not just an attempt by Channel Five to grab some ratings, but part of their FiveArts Cities initiative with the Arts Council which, this year, focuses on Oxford - a community arts project that could have been a little worthy.
Instead, the channel has scored a hat-trick by backing a project that culminates in a triumphant performance, launching the media career of a conductor poised to be the Simon Cowell of the classical world, and unleashing a gripping tour de force on our TV screens.
Take the story of Simba, the youngest in the choir at 17, who auditions with some heartfelt R & B, then undergoes a transformation as the series progresses to sing the classical repertoire with as much seriousness as a young Carreras. But this isn't Simba's first transformation: 18 months ago, he auditioned for The X Factor, only to be told he was too fat to make it as a singer. Simba has since lost 5st and become one of the stars of The Singing Estate, belting out O Fortuna from Carmina Burana to his posse of admirers.
At the heart of the show is conductor Ivor Setterfield. Having taken scholarships at the Royal Academy of Music, trained with Valery Gergiev, founded the New London Soloists' Orchestra, and with a decade of running both a professional choir and the amateur Barts' Choir under his belt, Setterfield has formidable musical form. But he also has the charisma to transform an arts project into pure TV soap opera, played out on the pitch of Oxford City football ground, in the amphitheatres of Verona and, finally, in London.
Blackbird Leys is one of England's more deprived council estates, suffering from high unemployment and a disaffected youth population pegged to the collapse of the nearby Cowley car works. Inside the threadbare community centre, there are old and young faces, white, black, thin, fat, shabby and blinged up to the nines. Eric beams from beneath a straggly moustache: a far cry from his days in a 1950s rock band called Good Company. Lucy, a pretty single mum, towers over him from behind. Colin, a cross between Des Lynam and David Beckham, smoulders behind designer specs and teeters on high-heeled lizard-skin cowboy boots. Joy, an intimidating mix of Mystic Meg and Zandra Rhodes, stares unblinkingly at the man at the front, the object of her affections. She's not the only one.
They are all held in Setterfield's palm, following his directions so minutely that when he holds up a hand for a crescendo, the sound swells immediately. It is still a little rough - as their leader says, "A little less builder's bum, please" - but the effort is there in spades. Setterfield himself is in his element, flirting with every one of them, with a talent for translating musical direction into analogies that even the most untrained singer can understand.
"When I first met Ivor," Lucy, a single mum and a tenor says later, "I thought he was going to be this condescending, smooth git from London. I didn't get classical music at all, and I auditioned because I thought it would be something different in my life. But when he says things like, 'Don't look so hopefully at your genitals!' to the basses when they're trying for a low note, you realise that he's just a normal bloke, and that beautiful music is beautiful music, whether it's hip-hop or classical."
Of course, it hasn't all been fun and arias. The choir's trip to Verona, designed as a morale-building interlude to show how classical music was part of the fabric of Italian life, was a rollercoaster. Most hadn't been to Italy before, some had never left the UK, and in the inevitable euphoria, late-night drinking sessions and hungover singing that followed, tempers frayed. Viewers will see one young soprano laying into Setterfield for what she sees as his cruelty to them after they sang badly on a busking trip round Verona. Since then, the bust-ups have been few and far between but Blossom, a buzz-cut alto with shooting stars emblazoned on both cheeks, has made waves with her abrasive style. "I've given my all to this," she tells me on the last day of filming, "but I'm not going to stick around. I'm going solo. I'll show 'em."
Ruth, an outspoken soprano who runs karaoke nights in Oxford, is unimpressed with Blossom's posturing. "She needs to get real - and I know all about real. I got into drugs at 15 and if it hadn't been for my mum sending me off to live with my uncle in a mining village in Yorkshire, I'd be dead now. Other than that year, I've been in Blackbird Leys all my life." Ruth is another of the programme's success stories: Setterfield's pianist Chris Lee has been giving her jazz-singing lessons and she has since performed at the Living Room, a jazz restaurant in Islington.
I catch up with Ruth, Setterfield and the rest of the choir in the pub after the last day's filming. Spirits are good; after the inevitable post-Albert Hall flatness, they've wrapped up the series by singing Nessun Dorma at a community centre tree-planting and nearly all are confident that the choir will carry on after the cameras have left.
The almost slavish adoration of their conductor that I saw at rehearsal has tempered into affection. "We'd have followed Ivor off a cliff by the end," says Lucy. "He didn't half get cross with us sometimes, but he's worked this magic with us and we'll never forget him." As I leave the pub, Ruth's husband Jeff is playing his mobile-phone recording of their Albert Hall gig to anyone and everyone - I notice that most of them have a tear in their eye when they've finished listening.
Here's the show's web site which includes a cool trailer for the show.
Toxic in Dayton
After recently completing a three-month stint at the Luxor Resort & Casino in Las Vegas and a six-week tour of Japan one of our favourite a cappella groups (and 2000 Harmony Sweeps Champs) Toxic Audio is doing another extended run of their show. They are performing June 6-25 at the Loft Theater in Dayton Ohio. More info here.
June 8, 2006
Oh Say Can You ... Sing?
Christian Science Monitor (MA):
For 90 seconds, Marty Ray's ability as a talent scout will be scrutinized by everyone at Fenway Park. Before 36,000 fans can root for the home team, before the umpire can yell "Play ball!" before the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees can resume their historic rivalry, Mr. Ray will watch as Sabreen Staples, a student at the nearby Berklee College of Music, handles the toughest pitch of the evening: singing the national anthem.
It's a tense minute and a half. Ray, the man charged with wading through hundreds of submissions, searching for as many as 81 musicians to perform "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Sox home games, knows that anything can go wrong. Once, singer Michael Bolton faltered mid-song; the crowd had to carry him through to the end. Tonight, Ms. Staples will be flying without a net - while many amateurs are prerecorded to avoid musical balks, she will be singing live. But Ray is a pro at calming nerves. "It's best if I don't show much emotion," he says.
The front offices of baseball clubs conjure images of powerful general managers and shrewd scouts, negotiating for high-priced free agents. Yet they're also filled with unseen employees like Ray, who find singers for a pregame tradition as much an institution as the seventh-inning stretch. The Marty Rays of baseball perform a job akin to wading through an open-call audition for "American Idol." This particular night is Ray's swan song in the position. Once he has handed off the task to his successor, Jahaan Blake, he will move to another post in the organization. For the singers who have filled Fenway's irregular walls with "The Star-Spangled Banner," Ray's steady gaze has been the whole world - an indispensible anchor. Fighting a sound system that, until this year, had a 1.5-second delay, he has coaxed them through heart-stopping renditions of a song notorious for being difficult to sing.
"The Star-Spangled Banner" was first performed at a baseball game during the 1918 World Series. Played by a brass band, it was a patriotic flourish during World War I. It didn't become a fixture at games until World War II. (Congress made it the official anthem in 1931.) Today it has a place in nearly every sporting event. Some like to quip that the anthem's final words are "Play Ball!"
At 6:02 p.m., Staples appears at the edge of the field. With dreadlocks piled high on her head and a yellow chiffon dress stuffed beneath a brown leather jacket, she moves confidently in gold high-heeled sandals. She'll graduate from Berklee this year and has sung twice before at Fenway - once prerecorded, once live. Because of the delay in many stadiums, singers are often pre-recorded. But even this precaution has led to technical difficulties.
There was the time when four women opened their mouths to the miscued recording of a male barbershop quartet. In what could only have resembled an identity- theft commercial, they finished out the performance.
Ray has been with the Red Sox since 2002. He began managing the anthem singers in 2004 and has devised his own system for organizing the 350 audition CDs delivered each year. It consists of four "rather ominous looking black albums," each holding 128 CDs, a stack of spreadsheets for scoring them between 1 and 10, and an Aiwa CD player. Ray doesn't have a baseball background, though he did grow up playing cricket in India. When discussing the anthem, he sounds most like the Boston University English major he once was. "I think good judgment comes from knowledge of the song or poem you're judging," he says, referencing the anthem's 1814 origins as a battle poem by Francis Scott Key.
The live, a cappella performance is a relatively new addition. During the '70s it was customary at ballparks to play any one of five recordings that included versions of the anthem sung by Robert Merrill and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and an instrumental rendition by the US Marine Band. According to Charles Steinberg,the Red Sox executive vice president for public affairs, the tradition of using local performers at home games was brought to Boston when new owners took over in 2002.
For the most part, the clear, often touching renditions of amateurs are forgotten, swept aside by the event to which they are the briefest prelude. Instead, it's the truly lovely, awful, and humiliating celebrity moments that have stuck. Whitney Houston's transcendent gospel-inspired performance (lip-synced) at Super Bowl XXV in 1991 is considered one of the best. Roseanne Barr was booed off the field in 1990 after her crotch-grabbing, phlegm-spitting effort to emulate the ball players at a San Diego Padres game. "That was probably the lowest of the low," recalls sportswriter Frank Deford.
Ray and a committee of four convene intermittently throughout the year to judge audition CDs on accuracy, musicality, and timing. "Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early fight" is a common point deduction. And while Ray acknowledges he's no expert, it has to sound good: "I'm not going to sit here and pretend I know what a C major and C minor is - but a note is a note, and you have to hit the note." The recording must also be under 90 seconds.
Rarely does anyone who rates lower than an eight make it onto the field. Occasionally you'll hear a 7.5, says Ray, like the wife of a player's brother who barely made the cut - and will remain unnamed. From a conference room with a startlingly clear view of right field, where the judging occurs, Ray suggests a bit grandly that singing the anthem in this iconic park "may be the steppingstone to a great career." Has that ever happened? "Not yet," he concedes. "But we like to believe it will."
As most groups know singing the National Anthem at major league stadiums is a fun and not-so-difficult gig to get. When I work with new groups one of the first things I suggest they do (after getting a good publicity shot) is to record an arrangement of "Star Spangled Banner" and send it off to their local professional sports team. Most all groups have done it at some time and, as well as great seats for the games, most teams usually gives you a photograph of you singing on the field and will announce your name and next gig on the scoreboard. Performing for 20,000 plus people is always a blast!
June 5, 2006
Help a Cappella Gold win the "dough"
A Cappella Gold, the 2001 International Queens of Harmony, is one of only 5 national finalists, out of thousands of entries, in the Oreo and Milk Jingle competition. The winner is chosen by popular vote and the prize is $10,000 and a chance to record so please show your support by voting for this great quartet. Every e-mail address is allowed to vote daily at www.oreo.com from June 1 to July 20. Watch their video singing the jingle here.
Gay Men's Chorus carries on after death of 257 members
San Francisco Chronicle (CA):
There is a common saying backstage before the curtain rises on the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus:
"I sing for two."
For each man standing, one chorus member has died of AIDS.
A quarter-century into the epidemic, the list of the dead is longer than the living: there are 210 singers and 257 obituaries. As AIDS devastated San Francisco, the Gay Men's Chorus suffered some of the city's largest group casualties. "If AIDS never happened, we'd be two or three choruses by now," said Bob Emery, 77, who is among the four active members left from the original 1978 roster and has been living with HIV for 26 years.
Today, the development of new medicines that make it possible for AIDS patients to live relatively normal lives has brought new hope to the brigade of men who make up the chorus. Now, only a couple of its members die of the disease each year. Yet, the sorrow will never leave their souls. The stories of loss and grief are painful and told through tears. Longtime chorus members speak of weekly memorials, of planning their own funerals and of watching dozens of friends wither to skeletons in an atmosphere of national indifference.
At every rehearsal during the 1980s and early 1990s, there were announcements about who was in which hospital room and when the next memorial was scheduled. "I could see all these people dropping all around me, and there was no official response from any health department at any level," said Tony McIntosh, who joined the chorus in 1985 and lost 25 friends to AIDS. "It was maddening. The chorus gave us an outlet for all that anger and relief from the feeling that nobody in the world seemed to care." Singing became survival. It marked a stark shift in mood from the early days of the chorus.
Celebrating life -- gay life in particular -- is what brought the Gay Men's Chorus together during the budding gay rights movement in the late '70s, set into motion in the Castro neighborhood by gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk. In 1981, the all-volunteer chorus went on a nine-city national tour as the world's first gay chorus, moving their audiences to tears with compositions such as "We Kiss in a Shadow" from "The King and I," or "Behold Man," an a cappella piece composed in 1961 by composer Ron Nelson.
As AIDS took its toll, the chorus members used their concerts as a forum to bring a sense of urgency about the epidemic to the public. Their music became more somber, and they began adding AIDS requiems to their programs. The chorus also became the only place for the members to talk openly about HIV and AIDS. The men shared tips on how to get into clinical drug trials and serenaded friends through their last breaths. For men who were fighting for their lives alone, estranged from parents who had turned their backs on their gay children, the chorus became family.
Everyone found his own way to cope with grief. "I just stopped singing at memorial services, because if I had to go to one more I was going to have a nervous breakdown," said Joe Castrovinci, 58, who joined the chorus in 1979. Instead, Castrovinci became a hospice volunteer, running errands, bringing food and walking dogs for AIDS patients. He was kept busy for the next 15 years.
With the advent of new treatments, AIDS is no longer a death sentence. The Gay Men's Chorus is climbing out of its grief, and for the first time, the group has the luxury of thinking about life. "When I came in 2000, there was an underlying sadness," said conductor Kathleen McGuire. "During the AIDS years, the chorus was looking inward just to survive. When people started living again, they wanted to move on, but they were scared. They didn't tell me this. I had to figure it out one conversation at a time." The chorus still sings about AIDS, but not as often. Slowly, the men are learning how to laugh again.
Leading up to the millennium, they recorded a CD of ABBA disco songs, and in early 2004, members entertained the thousands of gay couples who lined up outside City Hall to get married. The men of the chorus recently started performing for schoolchildren, and they are rehearsing for the opening ceremonies of the Gay Games in Chicago in July.
The chorus now has a staff of seven, supported by grants and donations. Ticket proceeds help pay for travel, recording and marketing, and they allow the chorus to raise money for AIDS organizations in cities with smaller gay networks. "We're starting to go to less-gay places like Modesto and perform now," said 21-year member Tom Burtch, keeper of the "Fifth Section," a list of every chorus member who has died. The chorus publishes the list in every concert program.
In February, Burtch added the latest AIDS victim to the list, 48-year-old Robert Frey of San Francisco. Not long after, Burtch overheard one of the new chorus members in his twenties whisper to another during rehearsal that he's never known anybody with AIDS or HIV. "It's mind-blowing that we're in the same room with youngsters who have no idea of what we've been through," Burtch said, "I went over to the guy and introduced myself."
June 1, 2006
Harmony Sweeps champs on Carson Daly show
I love a happy coincidence! Just a few days after the Harmony Sweepstakes National Finals I received a call from a booker from NBC's Carson Daly show who was looking for a barbershop quartet for a comedy bit on the show. Well I was able to enthusiastically say that why this very past weekend we crowned our latest National Champs who happen to be a barbershop quartet from Los Angeles who also are very funny indeed. So Hi-Fidelity was offered the gig and had great fun doing the show.
Here is a report from the set:-
"As you may know, Carson starts the show with a monologue, as do most late nite hosts..however, on this nite he explains how it seems that sometimes the jokes don't go over so well, so he has decided to bring out the "Barbershop Monologue Joke Explainers". Out comes Hi-Fidelity with a traditional Barbershop look (alot different then their award winning "Addams Family" attire!). Carson then goes on and tells poor celebrity put down jokes and the quartet then harmonizes and "explains" them...
The bit was hilarious and the studio audience went nuts. Writers and staff on the show commented more than once that this was the funniest bit they had done in awhile, and mentioned bringing them back again in the summer! Carson did call the quartet by name by thanking them after the first break and at the end of the show."
The show will be airing Thursday night June 8th (actually Friday at 1:35 am) and if you enjoy their appearance please send the show an email (LastCall@nbc.com) and let them know you would like to see Hi-Fidelity on the show again.