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!