photos by Sam F. Comen





Alternative rock, hip-hop, Afro-pop, rap, reggae. And now, for the Latest Big Thing … would you believe a cappella ensembles?

Yes, tradition isn’t 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 (, Melodious Thunk ( and Purple Haze (; all-male groups like Asterik ( and the Freshman Fifteen; and all-women groups like Significant Others.

Northwestern also has an Indian students’ group, Brown Sugar (; a Christian group, Harmony in Spirit (; and three graduate student groups: the Bottom Line (, the Catatonics and Kelloggarthyms (

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. "It’s taught them about ensemble singing," she says. "It’s 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 — Yale’s 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 don’t 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 ‘It’s 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 pieces.

Still, the staples at Northwestern seem to be selections from the 1980s on. One of this year’s most popular songs, "Fallin’" by Alicia Keys ("I keep on fallin’/In and out of love/With you …"), is in both Melodious Thunk’s and Purple Haze’s repertoires. Asterik’s two trademark songs are "Baby Got Back" (from a commercial advertising a restaurant’s baby back ribs) and "U + Me = Us (Calculus)" — ("I’m 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 isn’t just to entertain people. It’s an outlet for Christian praise and ministry," says music director and senior Joel Gibbs. Eschewing Top 40 hits unless they’re 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 don’t know might come up after [the show] and say, ‘You know, this is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen,’" Wong says. "That’s completely rewarding."

Good CD sales are also encouraging, especially when someone who isn’t 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," Thunk’s 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 hadn’t made it in the a cappella group freshman year, I don’t think I’d be in this school," says Houchin of Asterik.

"They’re some of my closest friends on campus," Streit adds. "[We’re] not only a singing group — we’re 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.