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A singing tradition

More than 50 years on, a cappella thrives at Stanford

It's a Friday evening on the Stanford campus, and as the sun sinks behind the Dish, the members of one student choral ensemble make their way to rehearsal.

Inside the appropriately named Harmony House where they hold rehearsals, the living room is already full of sound: Members greet each other with exclamations of joy; they giggle and hug and chatter excitedly. Yet when it's time to sing, the room falls silent. Twenty-two college students form a circle, standing shoulder to shoulder. Tall and short, dark-skinned and light, male and female; together they form the very picture of diversity and solidarity. Then they begin to sing a song of yearning and power and defiance. Bass, tenor, alto and soprano notes dance in the air like sparks, making the small room seem to shimmer. As the energy of the song builds, its soaring harmonies reflect the lyrics.

"You can blow out the candle,/but you can't blow out that fire./Once the flames begin to catch/the wind will blow them higher," the students sing, closing their eyes at the crescendos as if savoring them before they fade.

With a few weeks to go before their 25th anniversary concert, the 22 members of Talisman are focused; they spend hours each week rehearsing their repertoire, repeating the tougher phrases again and again until they sound just right.

Outside on the steps of Harmony House, publicity director Charlie Yang chats about the ensemble's history. Founded in 1990 and inspired by the Anti-Apartheid Movement, Talisman began by singing the songs of that struggle and of the African diaspora. The group has since expanded to include world music from a range of cultures.

"For me, the greatest part of Talisman is the sense of catharsis," says Yang, a sophomore who's majoring in human biology and who joined the group freshman year. He goes on to talk about "Shosholoza," a Zulu call-and-response song traditionally sung by workers boarding trains and heading to the diamond mines.

"Parts of it translate to 'move forward' -- it embodies that sense of progress," Yang says with a tone of somber respect. "The way we start the song, you can actually hear the train whistle in the chord." He lists some of the other songs in the group's repertoire: African-American spirituals, Native-American songs, a traditional Korean melody, a Taiwanese lullaby. Because of the nature of their songs, Yang explains, Talisman is often invited to sing at religious events and even memorial services.

"Helping people process emotions and give them space to think is really cool," he says. "It's such a privilege."

In the 2012 film, "Pitch Perfect," a reluctant college freshman with dreams of a career in the music industry finds her tribe in a group of social misfits who like to sing. The film's success was as unexpected as its story of a ho-hum vocal group updating its repertoire and going on to win a national championship; Jason Moore's directorial debut became the second-highest-grossing musical comedy of all time.

If it seems unlikely that a movie about college kids' choral competitions should have won such mass appeal, it's just as surprising that a cappella itself ever captured the hearts of so many. Yet at Stanford as at so many other universities, colleges and high schools around the world, the art of the small, instrument-free vocal ensemble has grown from a fringe element to a thriving subculture. It's a pastime as expressive of school spirit as football, and even more inclusive. It's the art form that equally embraces the misfits and the popular kids, the class clowns and the serious students. In a cappella, there's room for pretty much everyone.

A brief history: Originally a term used to describe solo or ensemble singing without instrumentation (the name is Italian for "in the manner of the chapel"), a cappella was primarily performed in religious settings until the early 20th century. In 1909, Yale University became home to The Whiffenpoofs, the nation's oldest a cappella ensemble and a hybrid between a traditional glee club and a vocal quartet. As the name, drawn from a popular Broadway song of the era, suggests, an irreverent attitude was key to the emerging collegiate a cappella style. Schools across the East Coast and Midwest began to form their own a cappella groups. Over the years, the musical styles of these groups shifted, absorbing the sound of the barbershop quartets of the 1930s and '40s, the doo-wop stylings of the '50s and '60s and the pop and rock music of the later 20th century.

Alongside the singing, many groups adopted other elements of performance including physical theater, skits and comic routines to keep college audiences entertained.

While today's a cappella groups share plenty in common with their early 20th-century predecessors, much has changed since the birth of collegiate a cappella, from the range of styles represented to the art form's visibility and competitive nature, to technological developments that have allowed the recording of professional albums.

According to a cappella producer and recording engineer Bill Hare, there are more than 3,000 collegiate a cappella groups in America today. Back in the late 1980s when he first began working with Stanford a cappella groups in his San Jose recording studio, Hare estimates there were about 150 such ensembles nationwide. The Grammy Award-winning producer is widely considered the patriarch of a cappella recording; he has recorded or mixed albums for many of the best a cappella groups around the world.

"I started with the Mendicants in 1988, and I've done just about every Stanford a cappella album since," Hare explained over the phone earlier this week. "Right this very moment I'm in the middle of the mix for Home Free, the winners of (NBC reality TV show) 'The Sing-Off' last year. I just got a Platinum record for working with (Texas-based a cappella group) Pentatonix. Stanford a cappella was where it all started for me."

Back in the late '80s, Hare explained, "No collegiate a cappella group's albums sounded that good because they weren't really thought of in a contemporary way. I realized these groups weren't recording barbershop quartets and choral music; they were recording stuff like Duran Duran. I thought, 'OK, if they're going to sing it that way, let's record it like pop music.'" His approach has since become the industry standard. Today, most Stanford a cappella groups have at least one album to their name; the Mendicants have nearly 30.

At the same time that Hare was pioneering a new way to record a cappella, the popularity of the form was taking off. On a national scale the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America (CASA) was founded in 1991 to promote interaction and collaboration between a cappella groups across the United States. Stylistically, a movement began away from traditional jazz arrangements and toward contemporary pop music, with vocal percussion styles like beatboxing becoming the norm.

At Stanford, the all-male Mendicants had been singing traditional, barbershop doo-wop a cappella since a Yale transfer student founded the group in 1963. The Mendicants were alone on the Stanford campus until 1979, when a group of women formed the all-female group Counterpoint in 1979, shortly followed by another all-male group, Fleet Street, in 1981.

When freshman Gina de Luca showed up in the mid-'80s, she assessed her options and decided to audition for Fleet Street, despite the fact that the group had never included women.

"To me they were simply the best at the time: best repertoire, high-energy, clever, funny -- all the things I wanted to be part of," de Luca remembered. After a great audition and a callback, she waited to hear what they would decide. Apparently, the 16 members of Fleet Street held an all-night meeting trying to reach a unanimous agreement to admit their first female member, but one member refused to vote for de Luca, insisting that Fleet Street should remain all male. By morning, it was clear he wasn't going to change his mind.

Undaunted, de Luca decided to form her own group. Mixed Company was Stanford's first co-ed a cappella ensemble.

"By 1988, Mixed Company was a dynamic, immensely popular group," de Luca recalled. "The 'boy-girl' experiment had absolutely succeeded -- and then the ball just started rolling."

Between 1987 and 1991, the number of a cappella groups on the Stanford campus doubled, with Everyday People (Motown/soul/funk/hip-hop) in 1987, Talisman (world music) in 1990 and Harmonics (rock and roll) and Testimony (Christian music) in 1991. Some of these groups have since gained national and global recognition: The Harmonics' 2008 album "Escape Velocity" earned numerous Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards or CARAs -- the international a cappella equivalent of a Grammy.

In more recent years, groups including Raagapella (Bollywood and South Asian fusion, formed in 2002) and Volta (vocal jazz, founded in 2013) have given voice to other musical interests and to the Stanford student body's increasing cultural diversity. Meanwhile, some of the older groups including Fleet Street and the Mendicants have become known for incorporating sketch comedy into their shows; at the Mendicants' winter concert in late January, the evening's musical line-up was punctuated by a series of Scooby-Doo skits, complete with costumes and some surprisingly accurate vocal impersonations on the part of Shaggy and Scooby. When not dressed in drag or sporting ears and tails, the Mendicants wore matching red blazers and crisp khakis for a hail-fellow-well-met fraternity vibe. The lecture hall where they performed was filled beyond capacity; students sat in the aisles, whooping and screaming with laughter.

Yet neither comedy nor matching outfits are required for an a cappella group to gain recognition and popularity at Stanford. Today, there's a fan base to support every style, from the most earnest and traditional to the most experimental to the downright wacky. A cappella in its many guises has become a defining part of the Stanford undergraduate experience. Today, there are no less than 10 a cappella ensembles on the Stanford campus.

"Years ago, we had no idea (a cappella) would explode like this," de Luca reflected. "I think it's wonderful for the university: A cappella groups are great ambassadors in the community and for prospective students. The East Coast schools now aren't the only ones having all the a cappella fun."

Music department chair Stephen Sano, who directs the Stanford Chamber Chorale and Stanford Symphonic Chorus, shares de Luca's enthusiasm for the form. Every year, a few members of his selective choral groups are also active in the a cappella community.

A cappella groups, Sano noted, bring "exciting richness to the variety of vocal ensemble music that's available to students. The same student can be in an a cappella group doing their own arranging and composing in the morning, and can be singing a Haydn mass with a professional orchestra the next day."

Among those students who split their time between classical and contemporary choral music is freshman Jeremy Raven, who also happens to be de Luca's son. As a tenor with the Stanford Chamber Chorale and a member of Fleet Street (yes, his mother wholeheartedly approves of his choice), Raven's extra-curricular schedule is full -- and that's in addition to his studies. Yet to see him perform, one would think he had hardly a care in the world.

It's all part of the carefree style of Fleet Street, still an all-male group as they approach their 35th anniversary. If Talisman tends toward the reverent and the Mendicants toward the irreverent, Fleet Street's style, said director Weston Gaylord, might be characterized as "zany."

"We'll do live skits during our shows, but I think the core of Fleet Street is more about originality than humor," Gaylord explained. "We try to be funny, but if we miss, we end up more on the side of weird than banal." More than some groups, Fleet Street sings exclusively original compositions and arrangements. Among these is a song they rewrite every few years -- "Greatest Hits of the 1590s" -- in which they set modern pop lyrics to medieval Gregorian-style chanting.

Every Friday afternoon at 4 p.m., Fleet Street performs outside the Stanford Bookstore for whatever crowd gathers. Last week, the sun was shining as they warmed up for the show. Before they went on, they invited members of Mixed Company to take the stage for a couple of poppy top 40 hits, followed by a group of Talisman members who gave a rousing rendition of the traditional Zulu song, "The Gates of Heaven Are Open," and reminded listeners of their upcoming concert on Feb. 8.

Then, with a resounding battle cry, the members of Fleet Street came bounding out of the crowd, yelling and leaping, running in circles as if crazed and eventually shuffling into place for a short set: an original song about outer space, a comical Fleet Street arrangement of Aretha's Franklin's "Natural Woman" (with baby-faced Raven singing lead) and finally the latest rendition of "Greatest Hits of the 1590s," featuring Taylor Swift's "Shake if Off" ("For the minstrel he shall play play, play, play, play, play") and Pharell Williams' "Happy" sung as a mournful dirge, complete with a swaying monastic procession.

With a lash-flutteringly pious "Amen," they fell silent, and there was a beat before the crowd of 100 or so burst into spontaneous applause, whistling and shouting with appreciation. As the clapping died down, one young woman in the audience sighed deeply.

"That," she said to no one in particular, "was one of the most beautiful things I've heard in a long time."

What: Talisman's 25th anniversary concert

Where: Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen St., Stanford

When: Sunday, Feb. 8, at 7 p.m.

Cost: $10-25

Info: Go to live.stanford.edu or call 650-724-2464.

To learn about upcoming concerts, hear songs and more, visit the following websites:

Counterpoint: counterpointacappella.com

Everyday People: everydaypeople.org

Fleet Street: fleetstreet.com

Harmonics: stanfordharmonics.com

Mendicants: stanfordmendicants.com

Mixed Company: mixedco.com

Raagapella: raagapella.com

Talisman: stanfordtalisman.com

Testimony: web.stanford.edu/group/tmony

Volta: stanfordvolta.com

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