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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...).
 
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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. 

Fabio 
 
 
Replies (7): Threaded | Chronological
on October 1, 2013 5:05am
Signor Alessi--
 
Let me begin by thanking you for bringing such an interesting discussion point to this list. You had my complete attention on every word. I am a novice when it comes to the "a cappella world", as you call it, although singing and listening to groups such as Rockappella have filled many a pleasurable hour in my life.
 
I immediately took issue with your response to the disclaimer you gave as an example, "All sounds on this album were created by the human voice, including the vocal percussion. No instrument or drum machines were used." I have no doubt that the human voice is capable of producing all sorts of sounds and variations of sound, especially being able to review multiple recorded performances and changing how the performance is created, in order to create a 'Pat Methany" sound or imitation of instruments. Also, a singer who is knowledgeable in using his or her mic is capable of changing the effect of their voice on the membrane in order to produce a valid imitation of an otherwise natural sound. Does the knowledgeable use of a microphone discredit the use of an 'a cappella' label? I would argue no.
 
I am not aware, being the novice I am, of any groups who use such technological processes as you mention in your definition of #2 or #3 groups. Could you please site some? I would be interested in hearing via YouTube what you hear. Certainly the 21st century has opened up many more technological options to modern performance, but techniques such as reverberation, distortion, and looping of recorded sound have been around since the 1960s.
 
Whether or not performing and recording groups who fall under your "2" and "3" group definitions will survive and continue after the uniqueness of their experiments have lost their shock value  is yet to be seen. However, if audiences wish to be informed to what the majority of us here (I venture) already define as 'a cappella', what you call "0" and "1" groups, groups who venture further and further away from the natural human voice will fall out of any favor they may have found currently.
 
Craig
on October 1, 2013 7:39am
Hello Alessi- excellent question! If nothing else, it got me thinking about the issue– something I would not likely have otherwise done. I don't think, though, that Craig and I use the same crystal ball, as I don't foresee 'technology' lessening its impact on (vocal) music in the future.
 
A practical question arises out of the general issue. As an arranger, I have had a problem with categorizing certain music - generally that of first nations (the world over) - when a drum is used. Does the accompaniment of a drum to an otherwise a cappella piece of music then cause it to not be considered an a cappella work? Would I be right or wrong in including such a work in a list of a cappella works? Also: if a dance-like renaissance work is sung without any accompaniment at all it is obviously a cappella. But is it then not a cappella if a drum or other idiophone is added to it? Maybe we need a "–1-groups" category!
 
Apart from the categorization problem it probably doesn't really matter very much. Or does it?
 
Donald
on October 1, 2013 7:39am
Hello Alessi- excellent question! If nothing else, it got me thinking about the issue– something I would not likely have otherwise done. I don't think, though, that Craig and I use the same crystal ball, as I don't foresee 'technology' lessening its impact on (vocal) music in the future.
 
A practical question arises out of the general issue. As an arranger, I have had a problem with categorizing certain music - generally that of first nations (the world over) - when a drum is used. Does the accompaniment of a drum to an otherwise a cappella piece of music then cause it to not be considered an a cappella work? Would I be right or wrong in including such a work in a list of a cappella works? Also: if a dance-like renaissance work is sung without any accompaniment at all it is obviously a cappella. But is it then not a cappella if a drum or other idiophone is added to it? Maybe we need a "–1-groups" category!
 
Apart from the categorization problem it probably doesn't really matter very much. Or does it?
 
Donald
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. 
Fabio
on October 2, 2013 4:53am
Fabio --
 
Thank you for offering up the two versions of the Real Group's performances. I listened intently to the examples you supplied and I agree with your assessments of each. There are even credits at the end of the "Soldermam Session" video stating Anders Edinroth, a singer in the group, was the sound engineer. I'm thinking that your categorization is not so geared toward the GROUPS as toward their RECORDINGS, as your two examples illustrate very well. If this is the case then I'll leave this argument knowing I am arguing for something that doesn't concern me as I do not own any recordings of vocal groups and truly only enjoy them in live performance. I thank you for this discussion. It has certainly made me more aware of the impact of technology on what is produced and called 'a cappella'.
 
Craig
on October 2, 2013 8:55am
Hi Craig. Actually my classification is intended for live performances indeed. But my previous reply was not tailored in a proper way on your question. The present reply will clarify much better the point. Try on Youtube: Club for Five - Sassy (YouTube channel: ClubForFive). After listening, you will find, in the comments listed below the video, a remarkable reply by the group bass, whose YT identity is "Subbaritone", to some question on live pitch correction. He writes: "There is actually no autotune in this live performance. BUT there is an additional harmony voice (as you of course noticed right away..) derived from the second highest voice (that would be the alto) and that additional voice is in "perfect 4th" down from the original pitch. And needless to say, if the alto sings off pitch you'd have two incorrect pitches (in perfect 4th though..) And THAT would be awful, wouldn't it? So, no autotune, just innovative live sound tech". The conclusion is clear: as concerns that live performance, Club for Five is a sort of "augmented a cappella group", since new lines are generated electronically and added live. It's an example of a 3-group. Another input, that I do not want to substantiate with an example since the matter is delicate: several groups use ear monitors also with the following purpose: during live performances they want (chunk of) vocal lines sent out to their ears, for better fixing the intonation. That is, they hear what they are going to sing an instant later. Something similar happens in studio recording sessions. It's really amazing the impact that technology has on a cappella music! I cannot imagine an "augmented string quartet". But "augmented a cappella groups" (3-groups) do already exist. Of course a lot of questions may arise. Just one question: is it preferable to sing "natural" and risk going out of pitch, or using these tools and improve the performance? Anyone gives their answer. I just want to point out this fact: a lot of cappella today is winded together with technology and we must be aware of that.
 
Fabio
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 2, 2013 9:32am
Pardon me, Craig. I need to complete the phrase "during live performances they want (chunk of) vocal lines sent out to their ears, for better fixing the intonation". Those vocal lines do not come from the live performance. They are recorded in studio, BEFORE the performance, in order to guarantee the perfection of pitch, then sent out live to the singers' ears. Maybe the point was not so obvious.
 
Fabio
Applauded by an audience of 1
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