'New Style' A Cappella Singing Packs Them In At Hopkins By Mike Field It is a tradition as old as stereo amplification itself. In the spring, a young college student's heart turns to music. Loud music, music shot from speakers through open windows for all the passers-by to hear. And, presumably, to enjoy. Walk through the Homewood campus these warm spring evenings and you'll be treated to the over-amplified (and often competing) strains of the music that stirs a student's soul: classic rock, alterna-rock, avant-garde, heavy metal, rap and, of course, all-male a cappella singing. A cappella?! As in, men's voices without string or drum or even a little synthesized fill-in? Other than an aberrant Gregorian chant or two, it is difficult to imagine a sound that seems less '90s, less cyber-techno-hip-hop-punk than a bunch of guys standing around singing a song. Unless of course you mean 1890s, as in white shirts, suspenders and barber shop quartets. But the fact of the matter is, a cappella singing has arrived at Hopkins (or perhaps returned to Hopkins) with a vengeance. From no active a cappella singing groups just a few years ago Hopkins now has four, two of which formed in the last year alone. And these are not mustachioed men in straw boaters singing "Sweet Adelaide." Quite to the contrary: a cappella is contemporary, it's hot and it's extremely hip. "A new style of college a cappella singing has developed since the late 1980s," said senior pre-med student Delee Har. A double major in biology and Russian, Har somehow found time in his freshman year to found the Allnighters, Hopkins' second-oldest a cappella group and the first (in recent memory) to feature all-male singing. The coed Octopodes (pronounced ak-top-adees) were formed a year earlier and have developed a large and devoted corps of fans; new this year, according to the Student Activities Office, are the all-male Mental Notes and the Sirens, Hopkins' first all-female singing group. "The new sound is very contemporary and modern, as opposed to the traditional Harvard-Princeton-Yale doo-wop, easy listening songs most people first think of," Har said. "A lot of college groups are doing a style similar to what we do." Moreover, a lot of people seem to be listening as well. In the Allnighters' second season they began performing in Mudd Hall's Newbury Auditorium, a spacious room that comfortably seats 300. Last semester, the group's free concert attracted so many fans that, according to Allnighters president Peter Tillinghast, "we had a good 200 people standing along the walls and sitting in the aisles. We had to chase somebody out of President Richardson's seat when he arrived a little late." When the group performs its annual spring concert this semester on April 8, they will now sing from the stage in Shriver Hall, the biggest performance space on the Homewood campus. Last spring the Allnighters recorded their first CD, Lights Out. To date, more than 700 of the $12 discs have been sold, this out of an optimistic initial run of 1,000. Take away a healthy handful for friends and relatives of the 14-member group and you are still left with an awful lot of CDs in the hands of student fans. Especially considering Lights Out is generally for sale only where and when the group performs. "People have been going nutzoid" is how Har puts it. "They've just been crazy over this stuff." The "stuff" Har refers to is the latest, most up-to-date songs from the radio, arranged and sung in a complex, deeply layered style. "A song can be difficult to sing in two ways," said Har, who sings with the group and serves as its musical director. "First there is the inherent difficulty of the chords and the way they occur in the song. Then it's up to the arranger, what comes into his mind and what he generates on paper." It is in arrangements that the new a cappella music differs from the familiar four-part harmonies of the traditional barbershop quartet. "We do some songs in straight four-part arrangements," Har said. "But our tendency is to do multiple parts." For instance, the group's surprising smash-hit from last semester's concert was the song "Crazy" by Seal. That song used an 11-part arrangement for 14 singers. Har (who arranges most, but not all, of the group's songs) starts with parts for bass, baritone, tenor 2 and tenor 1. From there, the sky's the limit, with the addition of another baritone line and one or even two vocal percussion lines. The blend is mixed, and the effect heightened with individual solos, a practice that gives every member of the group a chance to shine. "We do a lot of songs that you wouldn't think of for a cappella," said group president Tillinghast. "Songs like "Crazy" and "Where the Streets Have No Name" by U2 are really complex, but they come off when sung this way. These are the songs that speak to our generation." Each semester the group performs a concert featuring a set of all-new music. The titles of those songs are a closely guarded secret until the evening of performance. "It's a great feeling when the audience is really listening," said Har. "They hear the first eight bars and they get it and you hear 'oh yeah' from people who love the song. Sometimes they can't believe the songs we do." So is there some song so complex, so intricate and unusual that having heard it you thought, How could I possibly ever arrange that? "Oh sure," says Har enthusiastically. "There's this one great song, but...." He pauses. "I can't tell you. We're going to do it April 8." ----------------------------------------------------------------- The Allnighters will perform their Spring Concert on April 8 at 7 p.m. in Shriver Hall. They will preview part of their show March 29 as part of the Wednesday Noon Series, held at noon in the Garrett Room of the Eisenhower Library. Admission is free.
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