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on "a cappella definition"

Dear friends, in the recent past I partecipate on this forum to some scattered and very interesting discussions which can be summarized under the title "what does it mean acappella today?". I would like to read your comments on a reflection of mine, which is just a weak attempt to understand a complex world as the acappella one, today. The reflection can be found on my site. Anyway, for your ease, I paste it inside this messages (pardon me, it is not so short...).
What does it mean "a cappella music" today?

I would like to speak of the meaning of "a cappella". Let us start with 

Wikipedia definition of "a cappella": A cappella (Italian for "in the manner of the church" or "in the manner of the chapel", also see gospel music and choir) music is specifically solo or group singing without instrumental sound, or a piece intended to be performed in this way. 

Or maybe you want the Oxford Dictionary definition: (with reference to choral music) sung without instrumental accompaniment. 

Another simple definition of "a cappella" (I use it below):

Definition A:     music made by singing with voices only. 

I think that Wikipedia definition, Oxford Dictionary definition, or Definition A, are all misleading. They were good for the past. Not today. In the following when I mention "Definition A" I am referring to any of the three definitions above (and to every other similar definition which can be found on dictionaries/handbooks etc). 

Nowadays the meaning of "a cappella" is wider: 
Definition B:     "music made by singing with voices, without standard musical instruments, with the possible complement of technological tools".

The difference between Definition B and the other ones is not so minor (if you are new to the topic, below I explain the impact of technology). 

Where does Definition B come from? You will not find it on dictionaries. Definition B is in the real world: the majority of modern a cappella groups use more and more refined technological tools, but this practice does not change the name they are called: they remain "a cappella groups". 

But remember: officially, Definition B does not exist! 

I do not want to impose Definition B. Certainly I'm not the right person for delimiting any "a cappella" definition. Just use Definition B as a provisional, practical tool for better understanding what happens today in what is called "a cappella world". 

For instance, look at this funny twist. An a cappella group makes an album using a lot of technology. Then they write the following presentation: 
"All sounds on this album were created by the human voice, including the vocal percussion. No instrument or drum machines were used."

People read the presentation; then they read (on dictionaries, or somewhere else) the "a cappella" definition, that is something similar to Definition A. Then they listen to the album: "Listen here! It seems Pat Metheny! Listen there! It seems a brass section! Listen over there! It seems a church organ!!". Finally they say:"Wow!! Great! And they do everything WITH THEIR VOICES ONLY! Incredible!!". 

So you understand the misunderstanding with "a cappella": 
a cappella music was done yesterday, and is done today, without standard musical instruments; but TODAY this does not mean at all that it is done with voices ONLY. The sound source remains human voice. Then there is technology: accoding to the cases: a bit of technology, lots of technology, or tons of technology. Or maybe, no technology at all.

Summing up: Definition A gives a wrong picture of what "a cappella music" is now. Definition B could be rejected, but gives a more faithful description. 

In order to substantiate a bit my thesis, let us look at live performances. We can classify a cappella groups according to how many technological tools accompany/help human voice in achieving the expected musical result. Remember: it is not important the classification by itself: if you do not like it, change it according to your experience. The focus is on the meaning of the term "a cappella". 

Let us see this "technological ranking" of a cappella groups. 
  • 0-groups. Certain groups have a "technology zero" approach. They are the majority of the groups that sing classical repertoire, but not only. For instance King's Singers (UK) have a modern repertoire that they sing without microphones/sound reinforcement system: everything depends on their voices. That means, for instance, that vocal walking bass suffers some restriction with respect to the next kinds of group. 
  • 1-groups. These groups use microphones and technology in a "passive" way. Sound reinforcement system is used for mixing, equalizing, and amplifying the sound. The treatment of the sound as transmitted by microphones is decided during the sound-check and not altered during the live performance. Acoustix (US) and Neri Per Caso (Italy), are examples of 1-groups. 
  • 2-groups. At the present time, these are the majority of modern a cappella groups. Technology enters deeper the sound production process: sound compression, overlapping reverberation/effects, occasional distortion, subharmonica/oktaver for the bass and other tools. A part from these specific differences, the main separation between 1-groups and 2-groups is the following: 2-groups depend heavily on the sound engineer, who stays hidden somewhere, but whose action is decisive during the performance, since he guides with his software all the sound processes that take place live. So when referring to a 2-group, it is better to consider the sound engineer an essential component of the group, like any of the singers. 
  • 3-groups. Technology supports music beyond what voices alone can do. For instance: live use of loop machines and reproduction of additional vocal lines (recorded in studio).

In my intention, this "technological ranking" has nothing to do with "artistic ranking". Speaking at a general level, I do not think that a 1-group is better than a 3-group, or viceversa. I have sung in various kinds of group: in my experience the overall quality depends more on competence, skill, care, enthusiasm, than on using/not using technology. 

Anyway we must be aware of the differences: our expectations must be different according to which kind of group we are listening to. The so called "booming bass" is impossible with 0-groups, as well as a high sound pressure from the vocal percussion. Arranging for a 0-group, is quite different a matter from arranging for a 3-group. Similarly, the possibilities and corresponding directions of musical experimentation are quite different for the various kinds of group. 

Finally, note that I have restricted the discussion to live performances. There would be a lot to say on studio recording sessions: in many cases technology has an overwhelming role with respect to voices. But this is another story. 

I hope this reflection will be improved/developed by you. Good a cappella singing to you all, whichever n-group you belong to. 

Replies (7): Threaded | Chronological
on October 1, 2013 12:40pm
Hi Craig, Hi Donald.
(a)Craig. In my message I delimited the context to live performances. I am not aware that distortion or looping were used in the past in live performances, but I may be wrong. If so, thank you for your correction. There is an interesting point in your message: "Also, a singer who is knowledgeable in using his or her mic is capable of changing the effect of their voice on the membrane etc". So the question: is the microphone an instrument? Violinists use their fiddlesticks for playing their violins. Similarly, singers use ther voice for "playing" the microphone membrane. Is it so? In the case of vocal percussion, I would say "yes" without many doubts. In the case of standard soprano lines, I would say "no". So: is the microphone to be considered an "instrument"? As to your question, try on YouTube "Pass me the jazz", by the Real Group (a group I love, by the way). You will find two versions (among the other): Soderlmam session, and another one, put on YT by a user named "johege". Compare them, using good headphones for appreciating the differences. The renditions are rather different. In the first one the sound has been edited afterwards (listen for instance to the unnatural "straight voices" at 1:30 and following seconds): this  is the 2-group version of The Real Group; the performance of the second link gives a picture of "The Real Group" as a 1-group. The group is the same, the difference is in the sound editing: the work of the sound engineer. In the second case, it is absent (or better: i cannot spot it). Please does not take the term "unnatural" above with a negative connotate. It is opposite to "natural", intended as the sound that is produced by voices ONLY.
(a)Donald Traditionally a cappella music with a mild non-vocal percussion is accepted as "a cappella". But probably the purists would argue. I am totally neutral on this subject. Thank you for your comments. 
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