Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Modern Use and Closing Thoughts

November 15th 2011



Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” became a hit in 1988, when it set a record as the first a cappella song to reach number 1 on the music charts. When it did, you could argue that this song sparked a mainstream interest in covering songs a cappella. This made Bobby McFerrin one of the leaders in transforming the meaning of a cappella from one referring to the reverberant space used to perform the music, into our modern use of the term that refers to using voice in place of instruments, or unaccompanied music.

Currently, the television show Glee features a group called the warblers, a singing group at an all – boys school who do all their numbers a cappella. This modern adaptation of a very old technique is an example of how the term a cappella has now broadened to include vocalists who literally imitate instruments – repeating a series of sounds to provide a background beat to the main lyrics / melody of the piece.

I chose one of my favorite covers of theirs to show you. The original song “Bills, Bills, Bills” Is by Destiny’s Child. This may be a piece by an imaginary singing group, but the singers are incredibly talented. If I hadn’t already told you that the piece was a cappella, it might have taken you a moment to figure it out. Each back-up singer is assigned a beat or series of notes, which they then repeat throughout the song. The Warblers are certainly reminiscent of the a cappella groups that are developing on college campuses these days. Many choose to cover pop songs, which is very interesting to me because it seems to breathe new life into, and uncover the meaning behind the lyrics in these songs.

Being very into visual art most of my life, I have never really been one to talk about music with such technicality. Even at my high school, in which students chose a major such as music, art, performing arts, etc., I would zone out any time a Music major tried to give details on a piece they were assigned. As a child I suffered through piano lessons, and then for a little while as an angsty pre-teen tricked myself into thinking I could handle learning the electric bass while trying to get through school. This series of posts has been a period of time for me to turn my ears toward unaccompanied music, and be able to immerse myself in something very different than my usual oil paints and rock and roll. I have gained an appreciation for simply listening close to live music, and a bit of the confidence necessary to re-introduce myself to my knock-off Rickenbacker bass.

Byzantine Chant

November 10th 2011

In searching for a good example of Byzantine chant, I found this video, which I feel gives a good sense of the space it is performed in.


“When you mentioned you where doing a paper on A Cappella, I immediately thought of Byzantine chant. It’s really the most basic form of singing, almost all working with one melody. It just depends on how you arrange the words, the singers…and what you do with the space you are in.” – My dad on the topic of Byzantine chant

Quote from “The Tonal System Of Byzantine Music” by Oliver Strunk. Published by Oxford University Press in The Music Quarterly, Volume 28, Number 2, April 1942, p.190 – 204:

“Byzantine melody, the reader may be reminded, is a sort of mosaic in which conventional melodic formulas are combined, now in one order, now in another, producing designs which, despite their general similarity, are never twice the same. These conventional melodic formulas are of two sorts. On the one hand are what we may call the patterns. Roughly comparable to the single phrases of the Gregorian "typical melody", these are ideal melodic forms; their actual shape, as a function of the momentary text, varies from use to use. On the other hand are the ornaments and melismas. Roughly comparable to the composite neumes and "wandering melismas" of the Gregorian chant, these are set figures; as pure vocalizations they tolerate no essential change. The patterns are restricted in principle to a single mode or pair of modes and are thus a significant factor in modal individualization. The ornaments and melismas, though for the most part free from this restriction, tend nevertheless to attach themselves to fixed points within the tonal systems. Not every ornament or melisma exhibits this tendency in the same degree.”

*Melisma – a group of notes sung to one syllable of text – Byzantine chant

*Neumes – a note or group of notes to be sung to a single syllable – Gregorian chant

(In other words - similar idea, different vocabulary)

Calming and meditative, byzantine chant relies on a slow, deep mode of singing. Today, if you witness a group reciting byzantine chant in a chapel, the group will be in the front of the space at the altar, organized by vocal ability (soprano, alto, etc.), and facing outward toward the people in pews. This tradition of chant mainly relies on somber dwelling on the life of Christ, and so in sound it mirrors these thoughts, typically having only a couple members of the chorus sing at once, and dragging out their voice. An illusion is created as the voices travel through the large space, making the chapel seem all the more empty, yet strangely comforting.

Byzantine chant creates the perfect environment for individual prayer and meditation. During a mass, the chanting sets the mood, as if to invite these thoughts to come rushing out of you as you sit and listen. A cappella, because of its origin as meaning “music of the chapel”, really embodies this sense of the importance of the space that the music is being performed live in, and not simply an umbrella term for any music performed in a chapel. Byzantine chant is commonly used in movies as background music these days, and even recorded onto CDs by prominent groups. Although these other modes of listening can be enjoyable, nothing can come close to the experience of witnessing this music performed live. Unfortunately it has been a while since I had the pleasure, but I have a few fond memories of going to such concerts in years passed, and may soon be able to attend another.

A consideration of Islamic prayer as unaccompanied music:

October 20th 2011

If you live near a Mosque, hearing the sound of Arabic verses of prayer being broadcasted by loudspeaker is probably all too familiar, as this is traditionally done five times a day for local Muslims to observe. One of the things I love about living in Rogers Park is that it is very similar to my home neighborhood in Brooklyn. Back home, the nearest Mosque is around the corner from me. Here, all I have to do is walk down to Howard Street.

Having taken two classes at my school relating to Islamic history and theology, I have become fairly acquainted with the Quran. This exposure has left me mystified by the poetic nature of the text of the Quran, and sympathetic to Muslims and their culture. Every so often I go back to the Quran, and enjoy hearing it recited, whether its while I’m walking down the street, or listening to it on the Internet.

The word Quran is most often translated as “the recitation” – which points to how important it is for one to hear the words, whether you are listening to someone else or reading aloud to yourself. There is no set structure within, but rather each surah, or chapter, has its own flow, its own message, and therefore its own feeling. Individuals who recite the Quran for others have gone through a great deal of training and practice. And not all reciters do each verse in quite the same way. A certain amount of creative license is allowed on top of the acquired knowledge. The musical quality and creation of melody that reciting the Quran requires makes Islamic prayer very much a part of a cappella music, especially when considering it along with other religious forms of unaccompanied music.

This goes back to my previous entry on Piyyuts in Judaism, and how both recitation of the Torah and recitation of the Quran can change from person to person. Reading the words of these texts with a more melodic sensibility is very engrained in the culture and traditions of these religions. To me this highlights a desire to pay more respect to these books than any others one might come across in a lifetime.

My favorite surah is 101, entitled Al Qaria. Many surahs are similarly poetic, but I cannot ignore the persistent flow that this surah is composed with. To hear it recited is a similar experience for me to when I attended the concert at Pilgrim Congregational Church. I often use www.quranexplorer.com to listen to it, which is a great resource. In their recording of this particular surah, the reciter holds the notes at the end of verses, and pauses are very noticeable. This, combined with his tone, makes the surah seem stern, and lamenting – almost like a concerned father figure. Though there is great passion in the reciters voice, it is noticeably different from the excitement expressed in other surahs.

Surah 101 Al-Qaria

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

The Calamity! (1) What is the Calamity? (2) Ah, what will convey unto thee what the Calamity is! (3) A day wherein mankind will be as thickly-scattered moths (4) And the mountains will become as carded wool. (5) Then, as for him whose scales are heavy (with good works), (6) He will live a pleasant life. (7) But as for him whose scales are light, (8) The bereft and Hungry One will be his mother, (9) Ah, what will convey unto thee what she is! - (10) Raging Fire. (11)

Here is a video on YouTube of this surah being recited, but if you can, go to the Quran explorer website listed below and listen to their version of it.


Not familiar with the sounds of Islamic prayer? Check out this website for verses, recitations, and translations:


Another interesting place to check out on the web would be out of body travel. On top of surah verses, they have interesting videos on topics like Islamic mysticism.


More on Jewish Spirituals / Use of A Cappella in Jewish Culture October 17th

Judaism being the oldest and the origin of the Abrahamic religions, it is easy to see how the others adopted certain elements of worship from Judaism, such as chanting and reciting prayers in a musical way. The term a cappella was developed in Italy to refer to chapel music, and then much later evolved into the meaning “without accompaniment”. This being said, the actual practice of a cappella is much older than its name. Judaism and Christianity simply developed this practice into an art form, creating a way to transcribe vocal cues and organize groups of voices.

Torah recitation, I think, is at the heart of Judaism’s use of unaccompanied music. Though it is a more basic form of a cappella in relation to Piyyut and Jewish spirituals, the use of patterns of speech and the addition of melody to verse could be responsible for why the method of recitation of the Quran is so important in Islam. It could also be a device for memorization, in order to pass stories down from generations. I can imagine it must have helped my friends when they were getting bat mitzvahed.

Piyyut is a term referring to a type of Jewish liturgical prayer which is sung / chanted during a service. The prayers are separate from the torah, but incorporated into most services. The tradition of writing these prayers to be sung started around the time Temples started to be built and Jewish communities developed. Most are written in Hebrew, but some were written in Aramaic as well.

Additionally, Piyyuts do not have a melody that is set in stone. Jewish Temples will typically have their own way of singing the song which then becomes a traditional way to sing it within the community. Since it is a form of song that is most often performed unaccompanied, musical accompaniment requires some imagination.

Here is an example of a very well known and loved Piyyut, entitled “Adon Olam”, which is sung joyously, but not always with quite the same melody. This isn’t exactly the best video, but it helps you sort of get a feel for the type of occasion this piece would be performed for, and how well known and inspiring it is to people.


Adon Olam – “Master of the universe”

Hebrew Transliteration:

Adon olam, asher malach,

b'terem kol y'tzir nivra.

L'et na'asah v'cheftzo kol,

azai melech sh'mo nikra.

V'acharey kichlot hakol,
l'vado yimloch nora.

V'hu haya, v'hu hoveh,
v'hu yih'yeh b'tifara.

V'hu echad, v'eyn sheni
l'hamshil lo, l'hachbira.

B'li reishit, b'li tachlit,
v'lo ha'oz v'hamisrah.

V'hu Eli, v'chai go'ali,
v'tzur chevli b'et tzarah.

V'hu nisi umanos li,
m'nat kosi b'yom ekra.

B'yado afkid ruchi
b'et ishan v'a'irah.

V'im ruchi g'viyati,
Adonai li v'lo ira.


The Lord of the Universe who reigned

before anything was created.

When all was made by his will

He was acknowledged as King.

And when all shall end

He still all alone shall reign.

He was, He is,

and He shall be in glory.

And He is one, and there's no other,

to compare or join Him.

Without beginning, without end

and to Him belongs diminion and power.

And He is my God, my living God.

to Him I flee in time of grief,

and He is my miracle and my refuge,

who answers the day I shall call.

To Him I commit my spirit,

in the time of sleep and awakening,

even if my spirit leaves,

God is with me, I shall not fear.

An evening listening to Chicago A Cappella at Pilgrim Congregational Church in Oak Park.

Concert: Sunday, October 16TH at 4pm

Post date: Sunday, October 16th

The sanctuary I enter is massive, well lit, and in full attendance. Light filters through large stain glass windows on all four sides. The sanctuary is the shape of a rounded cube, it is perfectly symmetrical, and an 8-sided star motif echoes throughout. When I finally find a seat, I am greeted with smiling faces by the other people in my pew.

After the briefest of introductions, the crowd warmly welcomes the Chicago A Cappella ensemble, which is composed of 9 singers and one conductor. Shortly after, a male soloist begins, and is then joined by the 4 others standing behind him at the front of the space. Then suddenly, a group of voices chimes in from behind. You can hear the creaking of pews as the entire audience turns their head to the new sound. The chorus now literally surrounds the crowd as their voices ring back and forth, submerging the audience with the tempestuous waves of their voices. The shape of the sanctuary seems to be in their favor, as the slightest raising of voice causes a shift in volume, and with it, a more intensely felt emotion comes across.

Each voice stands out as it enters and leaves the soundscape that has formed around me. Full and proud, the singers are capable of expressing pure joy or devastating sadness. Each song has such identifiable character, and this is not entirely due to the fact that I could understand them, since more than half of the songs were in Hebrew. Though it was more distracting to focus on the members themselves, it was intriguing how expressive their faces were. A sad song would make me feel sympathetic, and when they performed a more joyous song, they where so energetic and full of life that I could tell I wasn’t the only one wanting to join in the fun.

The theatrical use of the space in the first number left the audience not knowing where to turn their heads. From then on, they kept the audience guessing where new voices would come from. I close my eyes to focus my attention completely on the music, and all of a sudden, everything is clearer. It is as if I am alone with the group on stage, as the presence of the audience is no longer felt around me. I may not have been the only one who has this thought, since the audience seemed much quieter from then on. I sit back, and begin to separate out each voice in my head, sensing the emotion in their voices even stronger.

This musical group works incredibly well together. With 4 men and 5 women, each number is so incredibly organized; so much care has been put into what responsibilities are assigned to each individual. As I listen, I can’t help but imagine how long it must take to reach such a level of discipline.

The concert lasted 2 hours, with a short intermission half way through. In fact, the intermission took me by surprise, since I had gotten so wrapped up in the music. I didn't want to miss anything, and stayed in my seat until the music started up again. The second half of the performance was noticeably more cheerful in feel than the first. I even recognized a few numbers as jazzed up versions of old jewish holiday favorites, and nearly sang along (but stopped myself and left the singing to the professionals).

Chicago A Cappella is a group that performs Jewish spiritual a cappella music, as well as Gregorian chant and, according to their profile, even covers of songs from the Beatles. Most of the time they travel around to the different neighborhoods of Chicago and the surrounding area to share their music. They have also toured the rest of the United States and Mexico. The show I went to see was part of a series of concerts entitled “Days of Awe and Rejoicing: Radiant Gems of Jewish Music”. They first performed in Hyde Park, then Evanston, then Oak Park, an lastly Naperville.

I felt it was important to drop in on this event as part of my investigation into the world of a cappella music. I will also be looking into Byzantine chant, and even Islamic prayer recitation. This is only breaking the surface of the a cappella genre, considering the countless types there are. I find it interesting how similar these spiritual uses of a cappella are, and how successful they are in conveying such intense emotion.

On the website for this event, there are audio samples of some of the numbers the group performs. I recognize a few of these from what I saw them perform, including Hal’luyah, and Oseh Shalom. I highly recommend listening to these clips, as well as making it out to see them at a future event. I found the performance to be incredibly enjoyable, and stayed after for cookies and to compliment the performers. I even entered to win a signed copy of their CD. Wish me luck!

More information on Chicago A Cappella here:


Check out the concert preview video:


Chicago A Cappella on youtube:



Sign in front of the building
Front end of the building
Awesome license plate!