by John Lau
Going into the last day of the 2012 London A Cappella Festival, I was thinking that it was going to be a big ask to provide many more highlights than the number enjoyed to date. At the same time, I didn’t know what to expect of the three workshops taking place in the morning and afternoon, as I had never experienced one before.
The first workshop was advertised as a Voice Camp, but I was surprised to find that once all seven Swingle Singers had taken to the stage, they had us members of the audience on our feet to attempt all sorts of exercises involving our foreheads, our feet, our speed of reaction and even involving the person next to us. Joanna Forbes-Eteson, one of the Swingle Women, justified these exercises when she said that they were meant to de-stress the body in advance of vocal warm-ups. Thankfully for me, I had just about recovered from the previous morning’s Vocal Jog to take a full part in this training session.
Now I am not a doctor, but I was even more surprised when Sara Brimer (at least, I think it was her who said this) suggested that every muscle in our bodies is inter-connected and somehow manifests itself in our vocal output when we sing. Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable learning session, and now I know that preparation of the body as well as the voice is key to delivering a public singing performance worthy of the audience’s adulation, whenever the next opportunity arises.
The second workshop was now half an hour away, but in the meantime, the latest foyer performance featured the Amersham A Cappella Choir (an all-female choir with women of all ages), whose talent had earnt them the gold medals in the Ladies Association of British Barbershop choir competition, so I sat down and enjoyed their wide repertoire of ballads, jazz and barbershop renditions.
The second workshop was about Improvisation and was led by Pete Churchill, the head of one of our acts for this evening’s musical festivities, which, like many of the excellent events I attended throughout the weekend, overran slightly while I and the rest of our audience tried to perfect our rendition of “Change In My Life” by Billy Strauss, most recently heard on the current album from the Oxford Gargoyles.
Sadly, this resulted in us missing most of the next foyer performance, by a group of women called Run who specialise in Gaelic music. As a young man brought up in the Scottish Gaelic language on a remote island in the north west of Scotland, I was so very keen to find out whether they were going to sing in the language I was taught or Irish Gaelic, which is somewhat different. It may have been a pleasant surprise to see such a group who have taken their voices to the Celtic Connections Festival now on in Glasgow, but in the end most of their repertoire was in Irish Gaelic, which I still have some time for because of Enya, so for the short while I saw them it was a pleasant surprise to see minority languages such as Manx, Welsh and Gaelic being brought to the fore.
The first gig of the day was upon us in mid-afternoon when the Cottontown Chorus from North West England came down. All 56 singers of them provided quite a sight with their uniform of crimson coloured shirts and suit jackets. With this many singers, I was convinced that this was the largest choir I had ever seen anywhere and in conversation with them in the upstairs Rotunda Bar & Restaurant after their gig, they definitely enjoyed their limited time here, which is what this festival is all about. The undoubted highlight of their short 5-piece set was their closing piece which encouraged us all to ‘Go Fly a Kite’ as written by Richard M Sherman (which I’m sure we would all have done had the organisers left one on our seats), but either way there were plenty enough kites in the hall when each member of the choir revealed their own kite that had been concealed within their uniforms. It was all great fun and I enjoyed their impromptu sing-along in the upstairs bar & restaurant after their gig. They were ably supported by the award-winning quartet named Crossfire featuring the Cottontown Director, Mr Neil Firth and some friends of his with whom they won the Quartet Gold Medal at the British Association of Barbershop Singers in May 2011.
The Cottontown gig finished and we came out to a foyer performance from a group of 10 young female pupils & students named A Cappella Amour, who have been in demand, having impressed the masses with their varied repertoire and virtuosity. To some of their number, this is another singing outlet as there is a proportion of the group who are also with national organisations such as the National Children’s Choir and the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain. I was particularly impressed with their rendition of ‘And So It Goes’ written by Billy Joel many moons ago in the 1980s. I find there is something quite unique about this group – because of the age range being 14-19, they have to take into consideration High Schools as well as Universities & Colleges within their catchment area of Greater London, How they find the time to rehearse is beyond me, but in any case, these guys are definitely a group of individuals to keep an eye on.
The last workshop was upon us before we knew it and this was about the concept of live looping – a term which I had never heard of. Our hosts for this session the FreePlay Duo introduced the Loop station device which is designed to record loops and have them accompany whatever is being sung at the time. With a definition like this, I guess it would be used for the likes of backing vocals or for small groups of singers between 2 (like our hosts) and 6. It was quite an education and although I personally likened it to an instrument of sorts (as it can come in the form of a pedal), this was an useful introduction to a somewhat useful device.
By half 4, I had heard enough of people talking about how to perfect a group’s a cappella performance, so I decided to put a wide berth between myself any Festival-related activity for a while. This meant that I missed out on the foyer performance by The Refrains group of a cappella alumni and the 5 o’clock panel discussion, instead deciding to go and get something for dinner nearby. My loss was definitely other people’s gain. I will console myself though by the knowledge that The Refrains have been known to perform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (in which case I shall keep an eye out for them in about 4 months’ time, when the programme comes out) and also that some of the subject matter which may have been discussed at the panel discussion has also been discussed on this site, both here and here
Suitably fed, I made my way back to King’s Place for the last night of the Proms .. sorry, Festival, to enjoy the festivities. First up in support was the Freeplay Duo from Canada, as well as their friend the Loop station device. From their short five-piece set, I quite enjoyed the way they managed to send us on a journey across the world without having to leave our seats, through combining and recombining all sorts of different sounds (such as the combination of a hip jazz melody with an ancient Indian solkattu instrument) rather than any individual piece.
Next up was a group of about fifteen students and alumni from various jazz courses at the 2 Conservatoires of London & the South East of England, under the guise of the London Vocal Project. From a solid foundation in gospel and groove music, the group has metamorphosed since 2008 into an impressive, highly versatile ensemble with an ever growing repertoire. From their set of seven items, which included a homage to the acclaimed artist Bobby McFerrin with whom the group sang recently, my own personal highlight here was their rendition of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Love’s in Need of Love Today’, largely because of the smooth voice of the male soloist, which reminded me quite a lot of the artist Seal from the 90s.
We were treated on our way out of the London Vocal Project to the sight of almost cowboy-like uniforms all the way from the United States as the 16 or so Brown Derbies singers were starting their foyer performance, having only got to London the previous evening all the way from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. These boys are known for enhancing the quality of their live performances with factors such as humour, choreography and even their unique slant of using syllables on background vocals. For the little while that I managed to see them on stage, they looked quite the sight. And they think big as well (but then in the US, who doesn’t?) for they even have a range of non-musical merchandise for sale, which I found sweet, but it’s just a pity they don’t sell replicas of the hats they were wearing during their performance. But that’s another matter.
Leaving the cowboys behind, I made my way in for the finale gig aptly named “Swingles & Friends”. And from one group of Americans to another, we were introduced to Euphonism from Washington DC, who were making their first appearance as a group outside the United States this evening and supporting the hosts for the second time in 10 months. Of their four-piece set, I was quite impressed with their sassy rendition of Duffy’s ‘Mercy’.
The audience was well and truly warmed up now for the emergence of the legendary hosts and curators of this Festival, The Swingle Singers. For the closing statement in the programme which said that they “are committed to bringing the versatile world of a cappella to the masses”, I did find it somewhat disappointing that this gig was not simulcast on the Internet like the same gig was in 2011, which made it a blessing for me that if nothing else that I was there to enjoy the gig in person. The highlights which prove that the Swingles are so versatile in terms of repertoire were their renditions of Beyonce’s ‘Single Girls (Put a Ring on It)’ and Bach’s ‘Badinerie’, which I enjoyed immensely. The friends that were welcomed on stage at different stages of the gig were Albert Hera, Kevin Fox’s former group Cadence, the FreePlay Duo and the London Vocal Project.
This was not though, the last musical act at this Festival. The Single Singers project was created exclusively for this Festival by a Netherlands-based fan, Mrs Annemarie Homan who concocted a plan to gather individual singers on a Facebook page and see whether they could perform as a group with 2 practice sessions. There was not quite a roll-call of individuals, but I am hopeful that you can spot a single singer you may know somewhere on the photo.
And that was the London A Cappella Festival 2012. 3 days of pure enjoyment based on the unaccompanied human voice and all it is capable of. Here’s to the next opportunity, and here’s hoping that the Swingle Singers may be compelled to do what the Refrains, All The King’s Men and the Magnets have done (In other words, come to Edinburgh in August!)