Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 27, 1995

'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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