Man, Machine, Music

Superhuman sound.
Superhuman sound. // Creative Commons

“All this fuss over nothing / reinventing the wheel,” they croon. They’re seated in a semi-circle — the focal point: a tablet glowing green and blue on a table. The stage is dark. The beat stutters and thumps. Their voices soar over static, computerized snaps and clicks.

And A.Squared, Yale’s newest a cappella ensemble, has truly reinvented the wheel. Founded in March by Jacob Reske ’14 and Emily Bosisio ’16, the group has created a new genre of unaccompanied singing, collaborating with various electronic guest artists. The members, including Jackson Thea ’15 and DJ Stanfill ’15 of the Duke’s Men, wear jeans and sneakers, headphones and baseball caps — eschewing singing groups’ typical bowties and tailcoats and gowns. They don’t snap or sing Adele arrangements. With a little technological magic (that is, the music software Ableton Live), the singers modify their voices into nearly unrecognizable clips of sound. They remix; they improvise; they turn a lilting phrase into alien chatter or the whirr of an overworked laptop. Katrina Ungewitter ’16, the sound designer, loops voices on voices, altos on tenors, sopranos on basses and the results are jaw-dropping: a chilling cover of James Blake’s “Retrograde,” a smoldering remix of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.”

Performing in the Off-Broadway Theater, A.Squared made a debut so thrilling that even my mother, who calls any song produced since 1985 “computer music,” would have hooted and clapped. Asher Young’s ’17 projections and lighting were perfect — a backdrop of fluorescent bulbs that flashed and glowed to the beat. Golden lights shimmered as A.Squared sang an obligatory Bon Iver cover. “I was not magnificent,” was their Auto-Tuned lament. Maybe not, I thought, but you’re damn close.

Original tracks were even better. Ayanna Woods ’15 sang “The Master,” an infectious, low-key ballad. Woods entered the dark stage alone, fiddled with the tablet, hands and shirt shining red and yellow. A few seconds of chanting. Then, beat-boxing. “I can’t find myself when I’m with you,” she murmured over a thumping beat. “I can’t stand to sit on a shelf and drink across from you. If it wasn’t you, it’d be someone else.” But A.Squared’s performance wasn’t all mellow. Later, Keren Abreu ’15 laughed as she introduced a collaborative piece written with Gabe Acheson ’16: “It’s called ‘Wasted.’ No, not like that.” She picked up a microphone and began looping the first phrases of the song. Amplified by electronic editing, these phrases built upon themselves, and into synth-like beats and hooks. Backlight by a bright white light, Abreu danced and bobbed to her own polyphonic creation.

Of course, like any a cappella ensemble, A.Squared couldn’t avoid some pitfalls: occasionally, the angelic humming grew excessive. A few songs felt stale — deconstructed thudding and swaying beats can only do so much. Both Blake’s “Retrograde” and “Fool’s Gold,” an original by Stanfill, were wistful and slow, and, together, almost indistinguishable.

Still, A.Squared had a youthful charm, and the resilience to bounce back from what can be traditional a cappella stumbles. When A.Squared faced technical difficulties, the music stopped and a few people coughed, the performers were unfazed and charming. Ayanna Woods told a joke: “What do you call a nosy pepper? Jalapeño business.” Even the frattiest boys in the audience chortled. Members and guest artists made a play of their awkward dancing, twitching along to the computer music. They sang a cover of Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” and exchanged laughing looks.

In their final song, a lively take on Kanye’s “See Me Now,” A.Squared and their guest artists bounced along to the beat. Christopher Tokita ’14 played Kanye, rapping with a smile and perfect delivery. We do indeed see you now, A.Squared. And we can’t wait to see you again.

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