August 30, 2008
Flash mob a cappella
According to The Independent (England) the latest fad in the rather humorous practice of "Flash Mobs" is the recent incarnation of rick mobbing, rick rolling or, to give it its full Latin name, The Rick Astley Flash Mob, in which hundreds of people descend on a rush-hour station concourse and sing, a cappella, the lyrics to "Never Gonna Give You Up". And then leave. Read more
August 26, 2008
Keeping body and soul in tune
The Guardian (UK):
'The only thing better than singing is more singing," said Ella Fitzgerald. Perhaps such a statement is to be expected from a world-famous artist with an era-defining voice, but she wasn't the only one to wax lyrical on the benefits of a good vocal performance. "He who sings frightens away his ills," said Cervantes. Even John Harvey Kellogg - Mr Cornflakes himself - had this to add in 1931: "Singing promotes health, breathing, circulation and digestion."
Singing might be fun, might be joyful and uplifting, might inspire poetry and paeans. But could it actually be good for you? Oh yes. It seems that Kellogg was on to something.
Singing is also in fashion at the moment. BBC1's Last Choir Standing has taken it on to Saturday-night television, while this month the Sing The Nation project organised a programme of group singing events around the country that culminated in a nationwide singalong on August 24 to mark the Olympic handover from Beijing to London.
Last year, the government announced £40m of funding in the National Singing Programme to get every primary-school pupil singing regularly. And there are, apparently, now more choirs in this country than there are fish and chips shops.
But there is also an increasing interest in the physical, psychological and emotional benefits of singing. In December of this year, the charity Heart Research UK will run a Sing for Your Heart week to raise money and also to highlight the health benefits of singing. And in September the Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health at Canterbury Christ Church University will host a conference to explore the role of music and singing in health, social care and community development.
The Sidney De Haan centre undertakes research and provides evidence to support their aim of getting the NHS to provide "singing on prescription". Professor Grenville Hancox, director of music at the university and co-director of the centre, says, "We are convinced that it is a powerful tool. Research we've just done involving international choirs and over 12,000 people identified several particular benefits of regular group singing, including specific examples of people who say it helped them recover from strokes or heart attacks."
The research available on singing identifies some key physical benefits. It exercises major muscle groups in the upper body. It is an aerobic activity that improves the efficiency of your cardiovascular system and encourages you to take more oxygen into your body, leading to increased alertness.
Aerobic activity is linked to stress reduction, longevity and better overall health. Improved airflow in the upper respiratory tract is likely to lessen the opportunity for bacteria to flourish there, countering the symptoms of colds and flu. Singing also aids the development of motor control and coordination, and recent studies have shown that it improves neurological functioning.
But the benefits of singing extend beyond the fizzing of synapses and the whizzing of oxygenated blood cells. "There is an increasing appreciation that the way people feel about themselves is going to have an impact on the budgets of the NHS," says Hancox.
"If people are content they are less likely to encounter physical problems." He points out that feeling better through song is not a new discovery. "There is evidence to suggest that in their infirmaries, monks used to sing to each other as part of the healing process. And other cultures use singing constantly as a means to live."
There is nothing like singing for generating that feelgood factor. "It's almost indescribable," says singer and singing coach Helen Astrid. "It's an incredible endorphin rush. You feel like you've got a spring in your step. You feel like you're being totally true to yourself. It is like making love in a way. You're using your whole body, everything is involved."
But as well as the sheer pleasure of opening your mouth and belting out a tune, there's also evidence to show that singing can have a tangible impact on your sense of wellbeing in a variety of ways. Professor Graham Welch, chairman of music education and head of the school of arts and humanities at the Institute of Education, University of London, says: "There is currently a lot of interest in wellbeing and social inclusion and an increasing interest in how music in various forms can support a sense of being part of society and increase your self-esteem. A great deal of research is being done into music and medicine and how music can ameliorate pain."
Indeed, research published in the Journal of Music Therapy in 2004 suggested that group singing helped people to cope better with chronic pain. Read more
Well how great is this. The whole country is exploding in song! I'm so proud of my native land these days. (And so many Olympics medals). When health care is administered by the government it then has an incentive to improve the general welfare of the people to save the system money. And studies are showing more and more how beneficial harmony singing can be. Has anybody any ideas how funding might be procured for such a program in the US? To promote the health benefits of singing together.
August 19, 2008
Condom a cappella
Yes you read that right. In order to thwart the spread of HIV in India, the "condom a cappella" ringtone has been released by the BBC World Service Trust. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation it's part of a three-year ad offensive aimed at making condom use there more socially acceptable. Somewhat "Swinglish" in sound the music is the repetitive singing of the word condom and really is a pretty cool a cappella piece. I wonder who arranged it? Listen or download the ringtone (mp3) at www.condomcondom.org
August 18, 2008
August 16, 2008
Barbershopera take on a hair-raising performance
Metrolife (UK): (Edinburgh Festival)
Yearning for a delicious hour of light entertainment complete with boaters, bow ties, false beards and a toy cow? As long as you have a high tolerance for a capella singing and four-part harmonies, this sublimely silly yet smilingly sophisticated musical might be the answer to your prayers.
Barbershopera is a lovely example of a show that hopes to please and knows how to do it. The story couldn't be simpler. With the Eurovision Barbershop Contest looming in Ljubljana, our manly heroes find their outfit is a singer short. Step forward Toni Soprano (Lara Stubbs) and the result is Toni & The Guys, the only barbershop quartet to feature a female opera singer in its ranks. Add a dastardly Swiss quartet and the internal ructions within Toni & The Guys when Toni and Hugh B Doo (Tom Green) fall for each other, and that's pretty much it.
But that doesn't do justice to the comic timing, witty words, terrible puns, wonderful singing and the barbershop versions of everything from The Marriage Of Figaro to Bohemian Rhapsody.
Highlights include Waltzing Duet, when Al Legro (Mark Hole) and Frank Sonata (Rob Castell) form a partnership of their own, Freudian Slip, where rude words find their way into the most innocuous sentences, and Toni & The Guys, in all their barbershop finery, giving it loads with their arms in the air when they win.
Some of the funnest times I have ever had working in the entertainment business were the years I was involved as a producer and talent manager with the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We have nothing at all similar here in the US, the closest probably being the Montreal Comedy Festival. The Festival is such a wonderful way for new talent to get national exposure and I can attest first hand how success at the Festival can result in instant reward for artists!
August 14, 2008
Review - Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
The Times (UK):
Other people devise league tables of wines, or left-handed batsmen since the war. I rank choirs. And on the basis of their Edinburgh Festival appearance (they were also at the Proms this week) the 26 choristers of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir soar right to the top of my Choral Champions League. Their basses are as fabulously deep-toned as any Russian choir’s, with the added advantage that they sing in tune and keep up with the beat. The upper voices are flexible yet full of character. Under the British conductor Paul Hillier they demonstrate faultless rapport.
I just wish that the repertoire hadn’t been so native. Why not a Bach motet, some vivid Gabrieli or sensuous Poulenc? One longed to hear such a well-blended choir tackling something other than the lugubriously crafted dirges of Toivo Tulev and the interminable chordal chanting of Arvo Pärt. True, we were given three wistfully romantic choral songs by Sibelius, and seven of Veljo Tormis’s adventurous and spirited Estonian folk song arrangements from his collection Jaanilaulud – in which speaking and glissandos are used to heighten the emotion. But the Estonians should have the confidence to place the burgeoning choral heritage of their homeland in an international context.
August 13, 2008
The NYC Chapter of the Complaints Choir is Here
Village Voice (NY):
If there's a group of people you don't want to keep waiting, it's a chorus of New Yorkers assembled to whine about things. "This place is a little fancier than the Bulgarian bar we met at last time," remarks one member of the New York Complaints Choir, waiting at an East 20th Street Greek bistro for the party room they've reserved to finally open. A waiter apologizes for the delay, sets out a tray of cheese and olives, and offers free drinks all around.
Marc Nasdor, an organizer for the New York Complaints Choir, is also sitting at the bar, kvetching about the quality of Hungarian beer. Then he switches to the subject of sister choirs around the world: "The other ones seem almost too nice." In Hungary, for example, the choir sang about the misuse of the word "goulash." Here, we have bigger gripes.
The project is the brainchild of Helsinki artists Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen, taking literally the Finnish expression valituskuoro, which denotes mass disgruntlement as a "chorus of complainers." The first Complaints Choir was organized in Birmingham, England; groups have since convened in 20 other cities around the world, from Budapest, Jersualem, Singapore, and St. Petersburg to Chicago and Philadelphia.
New York's own chorus of catharsis was put into motion by composer Charles Morrow, who contacted stalwart experimentalist Alan Licht to direct. Licht has a long interest in innovative choral music: His "Digger Choir" performances at Issue Project Room have used the audience as an ensemble, having them sing Yoko Ono songs and scream louder than the audience on Bruce Springsteen bootlegs. "I sang in choir growing up," Licht says. "It's a basic musical experience, if you grow up going to church or temple. It's a socializing construction, and it feels good doing it. To me, this fits in with the Diggers. No one is the star—people just show up."
Licht and Nasdor started with over 600 complaints covering doctors, cabbies, mass transit, and the media—surprisingly, Licht says, there were few about politics— submitted online and by choir members at the initial, pre-rehearsal meeting. Entries were pared down as Licht developed phrasing and cadence, during which he decided on a '50s rock 'n' roll feel: "The music, like Dion and the Belmonts, the Brill Building—that's real New York."
After more than half an hour, the room at Kellari's finally opens and the singers file downstairs. They warm up with a few rounds of ascending and descending "bell-y ach-ing," and then Licht plays through his 15-minute anthem of angst. Among the verses crafted for the venting vocalists are "Please wear longer shorts to the gym/I don't want to know you all that well/Men, please close your legs in the subway/So others can have some space to sit." Nasdor suggests slowing the tempo. "But New Yorkers are fast talkers," Licht counters. "That's kind of the thing."
The rehearsal draws 22 people, ranging from elementary-school kids to possible AARP members, all but five of them female; the goal is to have at least 50 singers by the time they film the piece for ComplaintsChoir.org. Videos from other countries are already up and also appear as part of the Arctic Hysteria: New Art from Finland show up at P.S.1 through September. The New York branch may also perform live at P.S.1 or organize some other "surprise" appearances in the fall. "I think it's a perfect time," Nasdor says. "There's a lot of complaining going on. I call 311 all the time. There are a lot of things not to like about Bloomberg, but this 311 thing is one of the most empowering things I've ever seen. People have had this shit for seven years, and now they can let go. This is going to be a vehicle for letting go."
August 12, 2008
My Real Hollywood Ending
There's a full page article in this week's edition of Newsweek of the joy the writer had when he sung a cappella in college.
"Within weeks of being in the VoCals, I knew I had found my niche. The group turned out to be less like a choir and more like a rock band. Their killer harmonies and incredible voices worked best with contemporary tunes and classic rock. They threw huge themed parties, with hundreds of people jammed into the group's Victorian mansion. (That's not a typo; we rehearsed and most of the group lived in a mansion owned by the group's founder.) The VoCals performed from Massachusetts to Alaska. They had a ton of diehard fans who screamed their heads off at every show. Alumni of the VoCals were in movies and on Broadway. And I'll say it again; they offered coed housing in an unbelievable mansion! Getting over the girl was easy when I discovered that girls totally love guys who can sing."
August 7, 2008
Dick Van Dyke and the Vantastix release CD
Malibu Times (CA):
Anyone of a certain age who hears the whistled, opening bars of the old "Dick Van Dyke Show" can probably finish the riff, immediately recalling the visual of Van Dyke tumbling over an ottoman as he steps through the front door in the opening credit sequence. It was part of the populist, cultural zeitgeist of the '60s.
But perhaps a little known fact is that Morey Amsterdam, Van Dyke's co-star on the show, put words to the tune. The lyrics to the "Theme from the Dick Van Dyke Show" and many others, can be found on the new a cappella CD, "Put On a Happy Face," by Dick Van Dyke and The Vantastix, a group composed of Van Dyke and three West Coast musicians, Bryan Chadima, Eric Bradley and Mike Mendyke.
"I ran into Dick one day at Starbucks in Cross Creek mall," Mendyke, a former NASA engineer who also has a degree in music, said. "We started talking music and before you knew it, we would meet up to kick some ideas around Dick's piano, have some pizza and work on tunes.
"We developed a medley of songs with Dick and first performed for the wrap party of his TV show, 'Diagnosis Murder,'" Mendyke said. "We started getting requests to appear at all kinds of events and then Dick said he was open to the idea of producing an album. I told Bryan Chadima, one of our group, to go do a cappella arrangements of all Dick's songs now."
The group's CD, recorded and mixed at Chadima's Venice studio, has 12 songs familiar to Van Dyke's fans, from "Mary Poppins" favorite "Supercalifragilisticexpialic-odious" to the eponymous "Put on a Happy Face," from Broadway's "Bye Bye Birdie." All are sung in perfectly blended a cappella arrangements, with no instrumental backing.
"We also have a couple of bonus holiday songs," Mendyke said. "One was completely off-the-cuff. I threw a copy of the old Christmas poem, "A Night Before Christmas" into the recording booth and asked Dick to read it. He did. It was perfect. We put together an arrangement of Christmas tunes behind it and there you go."
Arranging for the group presents its challenges. Mendyke described the process: "It's kind of funny. Bryan is a tenor, so we always know what to do with him. But Dick, Eric and I are all basses, so we have to be creative. Normally Dick is on lead, Eric is on baritone and I'm on bass. Sometimes, if Eric or I have a melody line, the other one sings bass and Dick gets whatever note is left. If Dick is singing bass, as he does on 'Lover's Question,' then Eric and I are both signing falsetto tenor parts while Bryan signs lead. Confused yet?"
Mendyke concluded, "While it's always a thrill to sing backup for Dick, imagine how we feel when Dick Van Dyke sings backup for us!"
Van Dyke is equally complementary to his band mates. "They're all highly trained musicians and I get such a kick out of working with them," he said. "You don't hear much a cappella singing these days, particularly with jazz arrangements, and Bryan's such a good arranger. I would like to see this album get people used to hearing harmony again."
Dick has been a customer of Primarily A Cappella for many years and Mike has told me that it was after reading a post of mine, when Dick first bought something from us, is how he learnt Dick was fan of a cappella. That's why he approached Dick in Starbucks was to share his love of the music form. Serendipity can be a wonderful thing! Oh yes and how fabulous does Dick look for 82! Coincidentally we just watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang while on vacation and I am so absolutely a fan of Mr Van Dyke. He is an American Treasure.
King's Singers at The Proms
The Guardian (UK):
The late-night Prom featured the King's Singers, whose versatility and sheer musicianship have kept them at the top of the range of a cappella consorts for an amazing 40 years. The current lineup's programme contrasted French Renaissance chansons, including virtuoso accounts of Janequin's La Guerre and Passereau's Il Est Bel et Bon, with some cleverly contrived French folksong arrangements by Poulenc. John McCabe's Scenes in America Deserta, which sets texts by Reyner Banham evoking the colourful landscapes of the south-western US, provided a substantial challenge. Its vivid word setting and inventive vocal writing proved superbly atmospheric, and the group's centred performance was immaculate.
Their final sets, selections from the Victorian part-song repertoire and English folksong arrangements by Gordon Langford and two of the group's past or present members, sounded a little too eager to please, though flawlessly realised. Arthur Sullivan's close-harmony setting The Long Day Closes proved an inspired encore.
Listen to the whole concert here. Bliss!
August 6, 2008
Battle of the Choirs winner to help community
The Age (Australia):
A classical choir from Newcastle has sung their way to take the inaugural series of Battle of the Choirs, $100,000 and an album deal. The University of Newcastle Chamber Choir won the Seven Network TV competition tonight, just edging out financially strapped Melbourne group VoxSynergy. Another young Melbourne choir Harambee finished third.
The 40-strong Newcastle group delighted judges and showed their diversity with their classical take on Sting's Straight to My Heart, and Queen's Bicycle Race. They also joined the other two choirs in a rendition of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody.
Over the course of the seven-week show conductor Philip Matthias said his choir had come a long way because they battled with the idea of performing rock music. "It threw up a lot of musical questions and some people thought this is going to be dreadful because we're going to be lowering ourselves to sing rock music," Matthias told AAP.
"But it was interesting because it was just as demanding. And it's like it's coming from within them now, there's something much deeper within them that they can express through the music. "The competition's freed them as singers and it's fed back into their classical stuff."
Matthias said it was a "delightful shock" to win but believed the group got over the edge because of their technical skill and choral sound. "You always hope for the best but you always think the other choirs sound so good," he said. "The others were a lot younger, so you wonder if that could work against you."
The University of Newcastle Chamber Choir plan to use the prize money to create a community centre in the Hunter region where disadvantaged people can come together and sing - in much the same vein as The Choir of Hard Knocks.
Matthias said he wanted to help seniors, young people and the mentally ill. "We've seen through this journey what it can do for individuals - if we can get a tenth of that out to others in the community no matter what situation they're in," he said "We want to make it last." The group will release an album through Universal Music as part of the prize.
Say what you will about these choral competitions but this choir just banked a cool $100,000 (and what choir budget could not well use that), got a record deal and will help their local community as well. Sounds pretty good to me.
August 4, 2008
Last Choir Standing
One of my favourite English columnists A.A. Gill (The Times) does not seem to care for the hit show "Last Choir Standing" which is now down to the final six.
"Or choral music can sound like Last Choir Standing (BBC1, Saturday). I have been orally immobilised by the breadth, invention and minutely crafted godawfulness of the arrangements, harmonics and twinkie descants in this spellbinding competition. What is so marvellously compelling is that there are quite so many teenagers and students out there who are publicly willing to give up any possible hope of a sex life or respect to live with the ridicule and revulsion of their peers, simply to take part in performing this wall of kitsch. What Strictly Come Dancing is to dancing, Last Choir Standing is to singing — and, indeed, standing."
Listen to The Bobs on NPR
Lots of listening fun on NPR this past week as The Bobs performed a session with host David Dye on the popular "World Cafe" program. Listen here. Mood elevation guaranteed!
August 1, 2008
Our Sierra sojourn
How I love the Sierra Nevada mountains! No blogging the past couple of weeks as we took our annual vacation to what is now our regular summer vacation spot at Lakes Basin in the north eastern part of the range. This unspoilt area is relatively unknown and nowhere near as popular as the nearby Lake Tahoe yet has many beautiful pristine alpine lakes and amazing vistas. We really love this area and the kids had so much fun swimming, hiking, horse back riding and chasing butterflys! Here I am with Emma and Sean at Bear Lake, about an hour gentle hike from the lodge.