Sunday, April 20, 2008

The ICCA Finals: Now with jazz hands!

So, the finals of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella were last night at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall. Before I comment, a quick shout out to Amanda Grish, who ran the event—a massive undertaking. The evening ran smoothly, quickly, and smartly. And she barely broke a sweat. In flip flops. Nice work.

That said, um, did anyone have fun? I'm not sure the ICCA finals is about fun, or the crowd, for that matter. It's about jazz hands!

The grand prize went to the USC SoCal Vocals (more on that soon). But I had more fun watching the four high school groups that competed first. Here's why: They were the only groups to show much personality.

A special round of applause for the all-male DeKalb High School Fly Check, and Cherry Hill High School West's Men of Note.

The kids from DeKalb wore tan corduroy blazers. One kid came out first, rearranged the mics on stage, then told the audience his friends sent him out first because he was the best looking. That's funny! Then he went into an explanation of why the group is called Fly Check. Funny! (I don't need to repeat that here, do I? You get it, right?) According to the program, Fly Check has been recognized by the Illinois State Legislature. I wish I could have seen them explain their name to paper-pushing bureaucrats. The kids were having fun up there, smiling and interacting with the audience. It was the rare performance that didn't exist in a vacuum. It was a concert!

A sad thing happened during their program, though: The official time keeper held up his yellow card and then his red card before they'd even performed their final song, "Accidentally In Love." I'm guessing Fly Check lost points for running over the 12-minute time limit. I just hope the other kids aren't mad at the student who ran the clock by running his mouth. It was the one moment of humor all night. They should be proud. Who cares about the trophy? You sang at Lincoln Center! You made people laugh!

Cherry Hill's Men of Note was similarly chillaxing on stage. They took the top prize for the high school groups, and with good reason.

On to the college competition.

The USC SoCal Vocals (who took the title) showed incredible range, and were one of the few groups to demonstrate an understanding of dynamics. Also, when their chords lock, they sound like a synthesizer, which is unreal. Now, I'm sure this will inspire some disagreement (especially since the SoCal Vocals are performing on NBC's "Today Show" as I type this.) But collegiate a cappella (at least the kind celebrated by the ICCAs) is becoming show choir. Which is fine. But it's not all there is to a cappella.

The SoCal Vocals had standout soloists. And they managed to make Queen's "Somebody to Love" sound fresh just 10 minutes after another group performed the same song. (Footnote: I'm surprised the duplication only happened once. A Cappella groups should be banned from singing the following songs in competition, or anywhere else: Coldplay's "Fix You," Michael Buble's "Feeling Good," Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," and anything by Queen.) But if you sing as beautifully as the SoCal Vocals do, why do you need to do the cha-cha, too? Their choreography was, at times, distracting and took away from the music—which is what a cappella is all about.

I was hoping (but not expecting) that NYU's N'Harmonics would take the title—because they were different. Alas, they were a distant third, behind Florida State's All-Night Yahtzee. The N'Harmonics wore black, which is to say they looked like they belonged at Lincoln Center. They were the only group on-stage where the men wore skinny ties and mod blazers. They also sang. Beautifully. With very little choreogaphy. Their repertoire was surprising. (Was that Sam Cooke?) They took the top arrangement award for Radiohead's "High and Dry." The performance was minimalist at points (which is strange for a cappella). But they were never going to win. Their brand of a cappella wouldn't play well on the "Today Show." No jazz hands.

Harshing on the ICCAs has become something of a cliche. It's sort of like critizing the Oscar host the morning after. The ICCAs is what it is—a celebration of a certain standard. I just hope people realize that the ICCAs is just one aspect of collegiate a cappella. I traveled to a lot of schools while reporting "Pitch Perfect," and not everyone is embracing choreography. I'd say the majority of collegiate a cappella groups actually are skipping it entirely. The best performance I saw all year was the UVA Hullabahoos singing U2's "One." Because it made you feel something. There was no theatrics to it—except vocal theatrics. And it would have been entirely out of place at the ICCAs. (The Hullabahoos celebrated their 20th anniversary last night at Charlottesville's Paramount Theater, to a sold out 1,000-person crowd. Nice work.)

The ICCA judges have scoring sheets to mark intonation, and choreography, and a host of other categories. This is worthwhile, because this should be a learning experience. The judges are also adjudicators. But I'm suggesting the ICCAs institute an audience award, much like the Sundance Film Festival. The film that wins there is generally about heart. It's the film you'd want to see again. The film you'd recommend to a friend. Maybe the dynamics aren't as thrilling and the structure not as sound, but isn't it nice to celebrate an aesthetic other than polished perfection? To celebrate something surprising? It might encourage groups to talk to the crowd. To do more than hit their marks.

By the way, commence shameless plug: Pitch Perfect will cover the surprising history of the ICCAs in-depth. Check it out May 29th. It will surprise you.

Congratulations again to everyone who participated in the ICCA tournament. Here's the SoCal Vocals singing "Somebody to Love." Complete with choreographed emoting!


Evan said...

I'm in another a cappella group at USC, The Trojan Men, and I must say we are very proud of the VoCals. That said, I couldn't agree more with you - ICCAs is turning into a show choir festival, not an accurate representation of everything college a cappella has to offer. Let's look to the contest's recent past, when YouTube sensation Straight No Chaser made it to the finals in New York, got a standing ovation for their performance, and took 4th place to groups with, you guessed it, more choreography.

There's a happy medium to be found though. Groups can do a little of both. That's what my group tries to do, and we've established a nice niche for ourselves here on campus between the several powerhouse groups (SoCal VoCals and previous ICCA finalists Reverse Osmosis). Shameless plug - check out Shout and Eye of the Tiger:

Z said...

Sorry the video is "no longer available," because your description sounded really intriguing. This was my favorite post -- really had a good idea of how you feel about a cappella singing, and I agree. So often the choreo seems tacked on -- it distracts from the singing and seems a sign of insecurity about the quality of the voices. So often my heart just sinks when I feel a dance coming on... Point is, you can see great dancing -- far, far better than the a/c groups -- in any number of places. But you can't hear really excellent a cappella close harmony very often, and when you do, it's exquisite. Thanks for reminding us, and for continuing to let us know how to find it.

Anonymous said...

Point taken. Now go to YouTube and listen to the video of the VoCals with your eyes closed... you'd have thought they didn't move an inch their whole set. I agree with the "music over movement" argument - these guys conquered the latter without even the slightest sacrifice of the former. Well done USC.

Anonymous said...

I was also able to attend the ICCA finals at Lincoln Center and I'm so glad that someone was able to address the choreography issue and feels the same way I do. I also found all this choreography incredibly distracting and found that it really did take away from the music. Some of the best moments in the show were when the groups just STOPPED moving and let the music shine through.

I also have to give you props for acknowledging The N'Harmonics from NYU. They really were in a league of their own. I think it was so incredibly REFRESHING to watch a group embrace what it means to make music with the voice and let THAT be the driving force for their product. I was blown away because they didn't need to use flashy "jazz hands" to entertain. They were able to rely on good old fashioned musical and vocal TALENT.

It'll be interesting to see which boat future a capella groups get on. What do we have to look forward to? More show choir? Lord help us...

TheOrigMac said...

Full disclosure...I am an alumnus of the SoCal VoCals, competed in the tournament twice and have attended at least 8-10 more ICCA shows since then.

FWIW, in New York, I was sitting several rows behind Barry Carl (the former bass vocalist for Rockapella, one of the judges at the ICCA Finals), and I was really struck by how little time he spent looking at the performers. Obviously I wasn't watching him all night, but he always seemed to have his head down, writing, no matter what was going on on stage.

So the thought crossed my mind several times during the is he scoring the groups on choreography if he's not looking at them? He almost seemed to be deliberately listening vs. watching, so I was very struck by that.

Regarding the choreography vs. not discussion, I agree that choreography is not what makes great a cappella, and I do wish there was a lot less of it required or expected in the ICCAs. But to sing well and move at the same time (especially in a large venue where it can be damn hard to hear critical pieces of what your group's other members are singing) is a lot easier said than done, and that's what blew us away about the VoCals' performance both at the Finals and also at the Western Semifinals in March, which we also attended.

I don't have video of the Finals, but I do have video of the VoCals at the Western Semifinals --

More will be available in my YouTube channel as I get it rendered.

Patti Gingrich said...

I'm mom to one of the "Fly Check" freshman and just wanted to say thanks for your compliments! They ARE a terrific group of young men and we are so proud of them here in DeKalb! I understand that there was a misunderstanding on the timing. They thought that timing began when the pitch pipe was blow for the first time, not when they started talking. All in all, they DID have a fabulous time and are totally honored to have been able to be there in NYC! Thanks again! :)

Al said...

No offense, dude, but do you work for the N'Harmonics or something?

It may have been their lack of choreography that lost it for them...or maybe it was the distracting conducting? Or maybe it was the arrangements (one of which they were awarded for) that tried so hard to be different simply for the sake of being different? Call me a purist, but those dissonant chords they use so frequently do NOT exist in the Allman Brothers blues-rock tune "Whipping Post"... nor should they ever (although I do have major respect for their choice to do that song).

The Western Conference Semifinal this year (and for the past few years, for that matter) displayed more talent both musically and visually than this ICCA Finals round. Seems to be yet another example of the older, more established East coast groups' refusal to accept that what the West has been doing for years is the future of collegiate a cappella performance.

Let's face it. People want to be entertained. And standing in a semi-circle just ain't that entertaining.

-Loud and proud SCVC alum

Anonymous said...

I have just one question: What do skinny ties and mod blazers have to do with anything?

Anonymous said...

The singing is great but that choreography makes my soul bleed.