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would you believe a cappella ensembles?
Yes, tradition isnt entirely dead. Like other universities, Northwestern
has seen a recent emergence in the number of the close-harmony vocal groups
that forgo accompaniment. While most campuses these days might boast three
to six a cappella choirs, the University has an astounding 11 groups (and
growing), with about 15 members each, all started in the last eight years.
Oddly, this throwback to the past is no big thing to the students themselves.
"I think [a cappella] is very typical college," says McCormick
junior Katie Hill, musical director of Significant Others. "In high
school people are really into choir, but around here, if you want to sing,
a cappella is the big thing."
On this campus, however, a cappella comes in a variety of packages. There
are coed groups like Aural Fixation (studorg.nwu.edu/auralfix), Melodious
Thunk (www.melodiousthunk.org) and Purple Haze (www.purplehaze.ws); all-male
groups like Asterik (studorg.nwu.edu/asterik) and the Freshman Fifteen;
and all-women groups like Significant Others.
Northwestern also has an Indian students group, Brown Sugar (pubweb.northwestern.edu/~dsa789/brownsugar);
a Christian group, Harmony in Spirit (www.studorg.northwestern.edu/his);
and three graduate student groups: the Bottom Line (www.kellogg.nwu.edu/student/club/bottomline/),
the Catatonics and Kelloggarthyms (www.kellogg.nwu.edu/student/club/kelloggarhythms/).
All of them produce their own CDs and do just about everything else themselves.
Northwestern has no school-affiliated vocal jazz ensemble, and a cappella
provides an outlet for students to explore a different type of voice performance,
according to Sunny Joy Langton, assistant professor of voice. "Its
taught them about ensemble singing," she says. "Its also
tapped into jazz."
Group vocalizing without instrumentals, of course, has been around for
centuries from the venerable religious chants of Gregorian monks
to barbershop quartets at the turn of the century to the doo-wop singers
of the 1950s. College a cappella has also been on the scene for awhile
Yales Whiffenpoofs started in 1909.
As for musical content, the actual phrase "a cappella" is Italian
for "in chapel style," but college a cappella groups today dont
limit themselves to any genre of music. "What will attract an audience
is people singing modern songs. You always think of a choir, and you think,
Oh, church or Its always classical,"
says McCormick senior Chris Wong, musical director of the Freshman Fifteen.
"But with a cappella
there are no rules." His group has
sung everything from barbershop-styled music to Christmas carols to 1980s-era
Still, the staples at Northwestern seem to be selections from the 1980s
on. One of this years most popular songs, "Fallin"
by Alicia Keys ("I keep on fallin/In and out of love/With you
"), is in both Melodious Thunks and Purple Hazes
repertoires. Asteriks two trademark songs are "Baby Got Back"
(from a commercial advertising a restaurants baby back ribs) and
"U + Me = Us (Calculus)" ("Im losing my hair/And
my vision is shady/Last night I dreamt/Of an overweight lady
originally performed by 2gether, an MTV boy-band spoof.
Yet even with a wealth of material out there, developing an individual
identity is key. "We really have to strive to set ourselves apart
from other groups," says Speech junior Matt Houchin, musical director
of Asterik. "I think we do that well by having a laid-back style."
Asterik has a reputation for its off-the-wall humor and for involving
its audiences. At their Sausage Party spring show last year, the group
raffled off an autographed shirt, CDs and, yes, cans of sausage.
For Significant Others, appearance is the hook. "We put a big emphasis
on what we wear. We want to look good and sound good," says Hill.
Last year, one member made T-shirts for every member featuring rhinestones
that spelled out "Sig O."
As for Harmony in Spirit, the religious message is the important element.
"The music that we sing isnt just to entertain people. Its
an outlet for Christian praise and ministry," says music director
and senior Joel Gibbs. Eschewing Top 40 hits unless theyre Christian
songs, the group usually sticks to religious contemporary music, choral
hymns and gospels.
Other ensembles find a theme to promote their concerts. Purple Haze strives
to deliver a full package, complete with choreography, skits, jokes and
video, according to former general manager Chris Plevin. "We make
our performances about being multidimensional and multifaceted."
To promote their spring show, a few members from Purple Haze participate
in the annual Purple Streak. Members modestly wrap themselves with purple
plastic wrap and run from North Campus down Sheridan Road to the Arch,
the Rock and South Campus.
While the shows seem to be all fun and games, a cappella is also a serious
time commitment. Nearly all the groups practice at least six hours a week,
usually late at night.
Still, no matter how many hours of practicing the groups put in, the unexpected
happens. "My freshman year we kept having to restart a song in our
fall show because the girl who had a main part had the giggles,"
says Cory Streit, director of Melodious Thunk. "It was hysterical.
We all started laughing
so did the audience."
But when things go right, the pleasure the singers feel makes all the
effort worth it. "Random people you dont know might come up
after [the show] and say, You know, this is one of the best shows
Ive ever seen," Wong says. "Thats completely
Good CD sales are also encouraging, especially when someone who isnt
a family member or a friend purchases one. The members of Sig O were astonished
when someone in Europe bought a CD.
Performing off campus also adds zest to the experience. Every year Purple
Haze participates in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella.
Other groups go on tour during spring break.
"Until last year, we had just driven a van to the East Coast and
sang in high schools, colleges and some other venues," Thunks
Streit says. "Then last year, our producers [students in the group]
decided to have us tour London. We sang all over, from Covent Garden
and Camden Yards to impromptu performances in Piccadilly Circus."
But at the essential level, the most important part of college a cappella
is to hang out with close friends and just sing. "The guys are amazing.
If I hadnt made it in the a cappella group freshman year, I dont
think Id be in this school," says Houchin of Asterik.
"Theyre some of my closest friends on campus," Streit
adds. "[Were] not only a singing group were a
group of friends who get together and make some amazing music."
Esther Chou, a Medill junior from Plano, Texas, is an editorial intern
for Northwestern magazine.
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