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Overtones

Article from One Two Testing, June 1985

what's missing in A Cappella


John Morrish considers the world's vocal loners, and who needs instruments anyway.

The great poet, critic and general know-all T S Eliot once remarked that all art aspires to the condition of music. To which I would add, all music aspires to the condition of vocal music.

For whole periods of history music has been just that, vocal music. Any instrumentation was very much an optional extra. I call my first witnesses, two men whose names may be familiar to students of the vocal art, who would like to give us a little insight into musical history. Step forward Mr Michael Love and Mr Brian Wilson.

Well back in time, with just a rhythm and rhyme,
Gregorian Chants were a real big thing.
They took that chant and added harmony,
It was a different sound but had the same meaning.


I know (I know) I know (I know) it took us a long while,
To go (to go) to go (to go) and find us a rock style.
I know (I know) that we can take it one more mile.
(Chorus): We're singing that same song, still singing that same song (repeated).


Thank you, men. You're quite right in your chronology, although you seem to have omitted several centuries of experimentation in that blithe sentence, "They took that chant and added harmony." It is not as if someone woke up one day and thought, "This Gregorian Chant is getting a bit, er, monotonous. What it needs is some harmony, why don't we add some?"

More likely, harmony was an accident in the first instance, caused by allowing mixed groups of people of different ages to sing music that had always been preserved for monastic groups with very homogeneous vocal characteristics. The next thing you know people are singing at the intervals at which they feel comfortable, and you have the beginnings of harmony.

Of course, it wasn't real harmony as we know it today, because once people had established themselves at an interval from the main tune, they stuck there determinedly rather than wandering around the notes of the chord or even outside as they might today. They couldn't then: there were no chords.

No, real harmony had to wait until people started messing about with, of all things, the rhythm. In the original chants, all the notes were the same length, and everybody changed pitch together.

But when one half of the choir started changing the rhythm, the other half got left out, and didn't know when to go up or down. So they stayed where they were and, lo and behold, the collision of the two notes produced a new chord.

For instance, if somebody is singing a C and somebody is singing the F above, you have the common medieval interval of a fourth. If both parties ascend one whole note, to D and G respectively, the interval is maintained. But suppose the person on F forgets to change, not being familiar with the latest groovy changes just off the Vatican's banned list. Then you get an interval of D-F which is, wait for it, a minor third. The sound of that interval must have knocked the brothers sideways after years of droning up and down relentlessly. And so, goodbye parallel harmony, never to return except in some of the early Beatles records ("Love Me Do", for example).

That's the theory, anyway. I can't quite see it happening like that, but what better explanation is there? Psychedelic drugs? Alien beings with an interest in surfing music?

But let us leave the enigmas of history far behind and move on to the present day. Of all the forms of vocal music, none is more central then a cappella, which is Italian for "in the church style", and means "unaccompanied", or virtually so. Note the spelling: some authorities prefer a capella, but that is quite wrong, meaning "in the she-goat", which is something very different. (If you don't believe me, look it up in the Oxford Companion to Music.)

It is my belief that there is currently more interest in a cappella music than there has been for many years. Amateur sociologists might like to make a comparison between what has happened here lately and what went on in America in the 1950s, the golden era of a cappella pop music. It is said that the street-corners of New York and (particularly) Philadelphia were crammed with largely unemployed black and Italian youths crooning under the neon lights, while the high-schools and Ivy League colleges resounded to the academic harmonisations of the white Anglo-Saxon protestant glee-clubs.

A sociologist might say the conditions for a boom in British a cappella are comparable. Unemployment, plenty of would-be musicians with no money for instruments, racial prejudice in employment and culture, a prevailing belief in "stardom" as a vehicle for escape, and so on.

But the process seems more complicated than that. More complicated, and in the broadest sense more political. But before we get embroiled in that, let's stick with the music. A cappella is not a style, nor a technique, but a simple formal characteristic: music for voices alone, or with the barest minimum of accompaniment. It's a long way from the King's Singers to the Mint Juleps, but both are a cappella groups.

In the "serious" field, the range stretches from, at one end, the practitioners of unaccompanied vocal church music and the madrigalists, right through to enthusiasts for the university glee-club style of sophisticated vocal harmony. All this stuff is vaguely, "artmusic", and it is all written down and performed from parts. It suffers from the lack of any repertoire from the broad central period of classical music and its po-faced tone.

In the "popular" field, there are all sorts of people doing nasty US-style barbershop music (again based on parallel harmony). Then there's folk-club style finger-in-ear renderings of 19th century workpeople's songs (coming soon, "The Lament Of The Love-lorn Systems Analyst"). And then there's what you might call "doo-wop".

Ah, doo-wop. Rarely has there been a more descriptive term for a musical form. I suppose they could have called it "boop-boop-shooby-doo" music but that would have been a bit unwieldy. Actually it is a very accurate term because it pin-points the fact that doo-wop is a polyphonic music rather than harmonic music. By that I mean that it is made up of separate lines that are sung simultaneously rather than of chords which have been broken up and distributed to different singers.

That sounds horrendously technical written down, but it's obvious to the listener. The harmony is a by-product of the individual lines, rather than vice-versa, and in that it goes right back to the beginnings of vocal music. The same song, indeed.

The reason for that is obvious enough, too. This is music that is harmonised by way of "head" arrangements. That's nothing to do with the Pink Floyd, it just means the individual lines are made up by the performers as they go along and only then recorded on tape or manuscript paper. And frankly, it's the only way to work if you are interested in doing something quickly and easily with a familiar tune, or even a new composition.

Say there are four of you. To start with you all sing the tune in unison. Then one drops an octave to take a bass-line. That person may start messing around with the rhythm, or singing alternative notes from the chord to produce interesting inversions. One of the others may just double the bass line an octave up, while the third sings a descant — either well above the one remaining melody line, or in contrast to it, again selected from the chord tones. Then, when you're happy with that, you can start moving outside the chord, with a chromatic bass line for instance.

Of course, the picture I have presented of two entirely different sectors of a cappella music going about their business in isolation is not quite accurate.

For a start, there are plenty of "serious" singers who are interested in a bit of "slumming", particularly if it will get them on "Pebble Mill At One". Take the King's Singers — please. Or Cantabile. These people are particularly noticeable for the perfect roundness of their individual voices, and for that curiously nauseating upper tenor that always seems to be so prominent in their "re-interpretations" of great classics of popular music. Recently I upset Harvey Brough of sometime a cappella champs Harvey And The Wallbangers by suggesting that their newly-recorded version of "Break Away" had "a whiff of the cloisters" about it. He was not pleased. "We don't like to be compared with people like that," he protested, indicating the aforementioned choral scholars.

But it's not a one-way process. In America a group called the Beach Boys did very well out of re-jigging the harmonically complex sounds of the university singing groups into apparently improvised arrangements. But then they did have an exceptional musical director, who thought up the parts and dished them out without a piece of paper or even a piano in sight.

But to return to today's apparent revival of the unaccompanied voice, and its connection with our present straitened economic circumstances. The simple equation, unemployment + poverty = a cappella, just won't do.

In America, the tradition of singing, especially in church, had been virtually unbroken across the whole spectrum of society at the time of the great a cappella boom. They may have been singing different songs, but they were all singing. That's hardly true in Britain circa 1985. Ask any group of people born since, say, 1955 to sing you a song all the way through, with all the words intact, and they'll be struggling. My own repertoire extends to half-a-dozen Beatles songs and the odd hymn and that's about it.

For better or worse, mass culture and mass communications (particularly television) have done away with the central thread of tradition that is necessary to maintain both the repertoire and the practice of singing. Test any group of old age pensioners on how many songs they can remember and you'd be lucky to get out by next Christmas.

A live tradition of singing depends not only on people singing, but on people singing the same songs. That only happens now in societies that are outside the main cultural stream. Elsewhere, the relentless drive to make culture a branch of the market economy has meant a constant supply of apparently new songs which stay in the memory for a matter of weeks and then depart. Only the new is saleable: and only what is saleable has, apparently, the right to exist.

So when a group of British people set out to form an a cappella pop band, they do so as a conscious and inevitably political act. It represents a rejection of the pressure to buy instruments of the Transit-van rock and roll ethos, and of the drive towards novelty. And since the repertoire is invariably lifted from US models, it represents a rejection of the void in British vocal culture.

For American teenagers in the 1950s, hanging around on the street-corners or the high-school gym and "vocalising" was natural, easy, and an extension of the sort of activity that "adult" society had been engaged in for at least a century. It was something that most kids did, and that some kids made into a career. For British people to do the same, in 1985, is a completely bizarre act.

No doubt people felt the same about the Beatles and the Rolling Stones when they started. So let's hear it for the British a cappella revival. But let's not pretend it's a natural outgrowth of our economic situation, or a sign of the buoyancy of our pop culture. It is neither. It is a choice as deliberate as becoming a bossa nova group or buying a wok.


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Publisher: One Two Testing - IPC Magazines Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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One Two Testing - Jun 1985

Donated by: Colin Potter

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