September 30, 2008

A Capella United: A Night of Head-Bobbling and Doo-Wopping

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Andy Bernard, our college’s fictional representative on that all-indicative show The Office, describes life here on the slope in a couple sentences. He says: “I went to Cornell. I graduated in four years; I never studied once; and I was drunk the whole time. And, I sang in the a cappella group, Here Comes Treble.” In some portrayals (as depcited by The Office, Stephen Colbert, etc.), a cappella represents a part of drunk-social collegiate life that rarely continues past graduation, and over-shadows their primary focus: music.
[img_assist|nid=32197|title=United They Stood|desc=All of Cornell’s a capella groups joined to perform on stage at the Statler Auditorium on Friday night.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Though there’s no doubt that a cappella folks always have a good time, Friday night’s concert, A Capella United II — which saw all of the a capella groups come together to raise money for the United Way — proved Cornell’s singers to be, en force, a powerhouse of vocal talent while still having a sizable appetite for fun.
Friday night’s concert was an anomaly in a cappella performance, as groups usually sing individually. Matt Zambelli ’09, from the co-ed Key Elements, said, “We’re all friends, so it’s always great to have a chance to be able to all be on one place on campus.” It is easy to confuse the many a cappella groups (since they’re all named a variety of cocktail/musical-reference/academic themed puns); however, Friday night’s concert gave each group the opportunity to show all their strengths and differences. Many, additionally, showcased new talent from their incoming classes.
At the United Way concert, the all-female group Nothing But Treble carried the proverbial Olympic torch of this a cappella marathon — the flame in the hand of Cara Peters ’12. Her rendition of “Sweet Child O’ Mine”— a Guns and Roses rock-and-roll standard, turned sweeter by this arrangement — had the 60-year-old alumnus in front of me smiling and throwing his arm around his wife. A cappella has historically been the cradle of star-bound talent — musicians from Art Garfunkle to John Legend started in such college groups themselves. Peters, likewise, has the talent and showmanship that makes a cappella compelling in live performance. The emcee poked fun at “bobbling heads” in the audience, but it’s because Nothing But Treble was able to channel the full romance of Axl Rose’s guitar solos without his lonely electric riffs.
The all-male groups bring a different sort of energy to the table. If Nothing But Treble was the classy cocktail party of a cappella, Last Call was a rowdy summer barbeque full of hilarious/awkward dancing. These men showed up in matching vests, to the sounds of screaming girls in the audience, and sang Earth Wind and Fire’s “September” with a fantastic elbow-jiving, booty shaking accompaniment. Cayuga’s Waiters, the most famous all-male group (noted for their classic “We Didn’t Go to Harvard”), gave a slightly more somber showing. A group of talented performers who could have no doubt been well-received on charisma and good-looks alone (if the female cheering was any indication) got big laughs and appreciation for old-favorite jokes about argyle and Happy Dave.
Some of the groups — notably the Chordials and the CallbaXX — brought a different sound to Friday night’s performance. The Chordials’ arrangements all reached beyond the standard, Western perfect-third harmonies and catchy choruses. The CallbaXX threw down with Ciara’s “One Two Step” and “Ferga­licious,” breaking an age-old double standard — rap and hip-hop are uncommon in a cappella, even though rap is ultimately the most popular form of a cappella around. The group’s self-proclaimed interest (stated on their website) in taking a “new, different approach to all female a cappella,” is refreshing.
Friday’s performance proved Cornell a cappella singers to be talented and charismatic performers. However, the phenomenon of a cappella has lately been satirically represented in popular culture. The Office, for example, shows that the phenomenon of a cappella has leaked somewhat beyond college campuses — it is referenced frequently in comedic popular culture. In The Break-Up, Vince Vaughn, playing the genial loser (as usual), is beat up by an a cappella group.
A cappella does perhaps seem strange when viewed from afar. It has strange contradictions — it’s commercial and academic; it’s about a social life but also about… singing? The New York Times ran a piece suggesting that it’s something that could be a “lingering embarrassment to those who cannot grasp how a dozen or so singers making drum noises with their mouths might look to an outsider.” But what The Times author is missing in his critical distancing from these groups is that the beauty of a cappella is in live performance. Sometimes you’ve just got to be there: first you’re laughing at coordinated hand-gestures and beat-boxing, then all of a sudden you realize that you’re singing along! Besides, who can really say no to Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On?”