In my time here I have had and heard far too many discussions about a cappella music for my taste. I would hesitate to make any more noise on the subject but I have come to realize that a cappella is something we all have to live with. (On a side note, a cappella does fall into the category of convenient things which would go away if we all chose to ignore them.) But before I get carried away, I would like to state for the record that this column is in no way a condemnation of a cappella music. There are certain things I happen to find funny about a cappella and I am choosing to highlight those things. I am not joining the mob of chanting torch-bearers who wish to see a cappella eradicated once and for all; in fact, I think a cappella music can be nice sometimes.
First, the history. At a-cappella.com it states, “Humans have been singing without the help of instruments since before recorded history.” Allow me to point out that this is tantamount to saying, “Humans have been singing without the help of instruments since before instruments were invented.” This statement, of course, comes from someone who made a life of running a website about a cappella. However, for those who feel the need to highlight a cappella’s 20,000-year history in order to legitimize it, let me say that my problem with a cappella is not the singing per se. Rather, the issue is one of, as Confucius says, rectification of names. A cappella, which is Italian (often confused with the Latin variant a capella), means, roughly, in church, i.e. like a choir, i.e. without instruments. But if a cappella originates in a church setting of religious chanting and choir music, when did it come to mean impersonating instruments? What were the Whiffenpoofs thinking and shouldn’t Living Water know better? It would be one thing if collegiate a cappella had started at Oral Roberts University, where at least they could claim to be temporarily possessed by a guitar spirit.
According to the Yale Herald index of Sept. 10, 2004 there are currently fifteen a cappella groups at Yale University, which, by my logic, gives Yale one a cappella singer for every 20 to 25 students. This unusually large ratio leads to a noticeable thinning of the talent pool, like butter spread over too much bread, as Tolkein put it. Not everyone can be an “a cappella stella,” and as a veteran of a few a cappella concerts I think it’s clear that many of the singers’ talents don’t surpass the “aww, isn’t it cute how (s)he tries so hard” stage. The so-called (by me) ubergroups, Whiff and Whim, often manage to field a uniformly talented corps of singers, but we are talking about the cream of the cream. This leads me to my second question about a cappella: why is it that despite the vague, much-maligned and under-appreciated nature of collegiate a cappella music at its birthplace, Yale, these a cappella groups have all performed in places like the White House, onboard the Queen Elizabeth II, and France. Granted, there might be something interesting to rich people about seeing the Whiffenpoofs. At least they are almost famous. But who at the White House is paying the $500 to $700 an hour (some of it probably our money) to host a cappella concerts that most people at Yale can see for free? And speaking of music on cruise ships, imagine the sinking of the Titanic but replace the brave players in the string quartet with Yale’s New Blue, bravely refusing to stop singing “Always Be My Baby” until every man, woman and child had safely reached a lifeboat. Actually, maybe that would have helped.
A cappella singers take themselves very seriously and rightly so. I believe that a cappella helps singers at Yale find a place in society, build lasting friendships and explore their love of singing in a fun and relaxed atmosphere. I have the wisdom to know that I don’t have the serenity to accept the fact that I can’t sing. Perhaps I am bitterly jealous of those who can. That does not change the fact that a cappella is rather humorous. And look, I didn’t even make fun of “The Singing Group Council.”
Andrew Smeall is sweet on a certain a cappella stella.