Julia Hoffman—administrator of the Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards and former director of the Stanford Harmonics—was one of five judges working the ICCAs this past weekend. Here, in an uncensored interview with the Pitch Perfect blog, she reveals what went on backstage, the state of the competition, and jazz hands.
(By the way, click here for my recap of the finals.)
So, did the judges agree on a clear winner?
There was no discussion. We all put the SoCal VoCals first. They were head and shoulders above everybody else. That second song, “All the Things You Are”—the tuning was impeccable. The judges did, however, disagree on second and third place. Some put the N’Harmonics second. I put them third.
Did the N’Harmonics lose points for not embracing choreography? The rest of the night felt a bit Dancing With the Stars to me. Jazz hands!
I’m not a big show choir fan. But at the CARAs and the ICCAs we get a lot of lackluster musical arrangements. If you have to spin someone around to make the music seem interesting, then I guess that’s what you have to do. The SoCal VoCals choreography—two of the judges said it was cheesy. They much preferred All-Night Yahtzee’s choreography, which was less dramatic. Or melodramatic maybe. For me, the problem with the N’Harmonics wasn’t the lack of choreography. But their director was conducting in a pretty grand way. And the group was looking to her for the whole performance. As an audience member my gaze is following their gaze. Their musicality was great, though. The group that got shafted, I think, was Oxford Out of the Blue. I wouldn’t have given them first place, but they didn’t get talked about at all.
There seems to be a formula to winning at the ICCAs, and it includes shameless choreography, a classical tune—you know, to show range!—and a crowd pleaser from the 70s. But there’s a byproduct to all this. The a cappella groups at the ICCA finals were largely indistinguishable from each other. What happened to personality?
The ICCAs is a self-selecting crowd. There are groups—the Bubs, Off the Beat—that are never going to compete, and will never regress towards that mean. They have no interest in that. That’s not their deal. Is it a shame that there seems to be a winning formula? Yes. That’s unfortunate. The N’Harmonics are good example, though, of doing something different. They almost got there without the theatrics. But Purple Haze—they had no choreography. And I was so bored watching them. And Ithacapella? What was going on there? I didn’t get that at all.
[laughing] I put my e-mail address on the score sheets right next to my comments. I’m not trying to hide.
At times the competition felt like a recital. The groups appeared on stage. They sang their 12-minute sets. And they disappeared. They barely looked at the audience, let alone interacted with them.
I know. It’s awkward. Some of that should be mitigated by an emcee explaining to the audience that, you know, there’s a time limit, and these are the rules, and this is the nature of the competition. As an audience member, you have to know what you’re in for. It’s not an a cappella show. It’s more rigid than that.
Shouldn’t entertainment be part of the judge’s criteria?
The ICCAs is still maturing and coming into its own. The competition is infinitely better than it was a few years ago when I was competing. You have to be grateful for the small things. We don’t hear Tori Amos anymore. We don’t hear the Indigo Girls. I think your point is well taken. I don’t want to say what these groups do is not art, because it is. It’s unbelievable what these groups can do. But it’s that it’s so processed. It’s almost pasteurized art at this point. They work so hard on their sets. There’s very little genuine affect that comes through. That would be my one complaint. I want to see people making music and enjoying the process and being human. In the solo, I’m less interested in pitch. I come from the Bill Hare school of solos. Pitch is secondary to style for me.
I kept hoping for something surprising. Was there something that surprised you?
I was surprised that all six groups didn’t do “Somebody to Love.”
Collegiate a cappella groups do love their Queen. Last question: What’s up with having the ICCAs on the first night of Passover? With Alice Tully under renovation, was this the only Saturday available?
Everyone bitched about it. Four of the five judges are Jewish. Backstage I said, We’re four bad Jews and a Mormon!