A hugely popular phenomenon in the US, the university a cappella craze has spent the last decade steadily spreading across the UK. Glee helped to boost it; so did 2012 film Pitch Perfect – and it seems now that the genre has reached its peak. Known for an inexplicable level of competitiveness for such a light-hearted craft, the UK scene is at its biggest here in Oxford, with seven full-sized, and very popular, a cappella groups.
Out of the Blue is the most successful group in the city; all-male and relentlessly serious about their professionalism, they performed at the Edinburgh Fringe this year to a 500-capacity venue. Also at Edinburgh this year were the mixed-gender jazz-specific Gargoyles; the The Alternotives, Oxford’s oldest group; and the all-female In The Pink. In The Pink’s fellow female group, The Oxford Belles, weren’t up there this year, but have been in previous years. The Ultrasounds, Oxford only all-male all-medic group, always perform in scrubs and are, by their own admission, “Oxford’s most amateurish a cappella group”; and there is Resound, a new ‘supergroup’ (as one singer described it to me) formed by an ex-member of the Gargoyles and Out of the Blue, and made up of hand-picked voices from across Oxford. Resound hasn’t made any music yet, so I can’t comment on its alleged superiority.
Before approaching any groups for interview, I asked some friends what they would want to ask Oxford’s a cappella groups if they were me. “Do they take it seriously?” asked one, and another said “Why is doing a song written for instruments with your voices better than doing it with instruments?”. Most abruptly: “What’s the point?”
All seven groups were asked a set of questions, hoping to shed some light on the murky world of 4-part harmony pop singing. Is the world of a cappella a serious place? Why do they do it? And how friendly is the competition? Hack-like stirring aside, there are also some innocuously interesting questions which you’ll hopefully find informative. Interviews over, are these groups being ironic? I’m still not really sure. Everybody got very evasive when asked about it – almost as evasive as they were when asked to comment on each other. Anyway they’re probably all very good friends and take themselves just the right amount of seriously. To be fair to them, even if they don’t, they all sound pretty great.
Let’s begin with the basics. What’s the most exciting thing about a cappella?
ALTERNOTIVES The feeling you get when you really nail an arrangement. Like when everyone’s tuning is spot on and it sounds kind of sexy.
BELLES How enthusiastic people get about it. It’s really exciting to be involved in something both performers and audience find so intriguing.
IN THE PINK All the male fans throwing themselves at us.
ULTRASOUNDS Being able to mash up Beethoven’s 5th and Ylvis’s seminal ‘The Fox’ (What Does the Fox Say?). Watch this space.
What’s the most exciting thing about your group?
ALTS My tagline at the Freshers’ fair stall was ‘Alts, an a cappella group for people who don’t necessarily like a cappella.’ I know that sounds a bit bizarre but what I mean is that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s really not like Glee. I swear.
GARGOYLES Bringing a new genre to audiences who don’t necessarily have a notion of what jazz is or sounds like.
ITP Definitely our crew-date sconces. Wink wink.
ULTRASOUNDS That we are all CRB checked and available for children’s parties.
What’s the Oxford a cappella scene like in comparison to other places?
ALTS Jam-packed. I have no idea how such a small city can have seven a cappella groups, but it’s quite fun; we’re all good friends… most of the time.
GARGOYLES In comparison to USA universities, it’s really very small – at Yale there are 13 a cappella groups.
ITP Cut-throat, dog-eat-dog, full of people who will stop at nothing to have the last ‘dum’.
ULTRASOUNDS Probably better than most of the DRC and Mogadishu. Probably worse than New York and California.
Do you think you are the best group in Oxford?
GARGOYLES It’s very difficult to compare the groups when we’re all singing such different repertoire.
BELLES It’s not really that fair to compare the groups with each other as each are so different.
OOTB I’d say we’re in the top 1.
If you could be one other group in Oxford, which group would you want to be?
ULTRASOUNDS Ideally the female half of The Alternotives.
RESOUND The Alternotives, they’re really fun.
OOTB The Oxford Belles or In the Pink purely on account of sass.
ITP Out Of The Blue. I’ve heard they have great ties with this super-fun group called In The Pink.
If you had to be one other group in Oxford, which group would you least like to be?
RESOUND The Ultrasounds, they’d all be cleverer than us!
ITP The Ultrasounds. Those scrubs would do nothing for us, darling.
ULTRASOUNDS Homeless people. Conditions really are quite shocking for people with no fixed abode in Oxford, especially at this time of year. Please consider donating to a local homeless charity.
What are the benefits of being all-male/ all-female/ mixed-gender?
BELLES (all-female) Sometimes it’s fun to be girly! I also think it encourages people to stretch themselves vocally, to prove that we can be as loud and have as big ranges as mixed or male groups – which we achieve. Obviously.
OOTB (all-male) The ‘blend’ is much better with just male voices (no voice sticks out). All-female groups suffer from a lack of bass, and can’t produce as full a sound as a guys’ group.
GARGOYLES (mixed-gender): Sexual tension between members.
Do you fight over who gets to sing what?
BELLES No! It’s all done very diplomatically.
RESOUND No, I decide: it’s a dictatorship.
ITP Definitely not – this is not a democracy.
ULTRASOUNDS We have frequent scuffles with In the Pink about who gets to cover the latest song about strong independent women.
OOTB The soloist of a song is always a coveted position, but we always have enough variation in repertoire so that everyone has a chance to have a solo that suits their range and the style of their voice. Last year we were incredibly proud of producing our album ‘Blueprints’, in which all fourteen of us had a solo. I think that this is another unique attribute of Out of the Blue.
How do you arrange your songs?
ITP Generally start simple, with the clearest or most stand-out bits from the original song – then keep polishing with anything that sounds good, maybe bits from other songs, or anything really – this is when the creativity truly comes in.
ULTRASOUNDS Usually alphabetically.
How do you choose which songs to arrange?
BELLES A definite part of our image is singing songs that everyone will recognise and can jam out to, but if someone’s got an arrangement for something they love, we’ll sing it!
OOTB We always try and sing a range of genres so that everyone amongst our highly varied audience will recognise something.
ULTRASOUNDS We survey our target market of teenage girls to see what they would like to hear. Or just see what Out of the Blue did last year.
Is beatboxing all the way through a song boring?
BELLES No, it isn’t; not only is it fun to play around with different beats at different parts of the song to see how everyone reacts, it’s a great ab workout.
GARGOYLES It depends on the style, but it’s never as interesting as singing.
How far is your tongue in your cheek? Please give answer in mm(length of tongue in cheek)/mm(length of tongue total) and supplement your figure with a written explanation.
RESOUND 30/120. [ed: these guys have long tongues] We’re not really going for full cheesiness so I guess our tongues aren’t that far in our cheeks.
OOTB I would say that we’re looking at an average of a solid 5mm. Our Beyonce choreography is 100% genuine.
ALTS Our tongues are flexible, although they are normally at least some way ‘in cheek’, as we don’t approve of the Miley Cyrus look.
ULTRASOUNDS How long is a piece of string?
ITP 30/30 – like, did you see what we’re called? [ed: these ladies have really short tongues]
BELLES 40/80mm. We are a 50/50, fair kinda group, with average sized tongues. We’d rather keep the readers guessing as to whether we’re being ironic are or not.
GARGOYLES sent in a picture of a member of their group with his tongue stuck out, not even in his cheek.
How ironic do you think the other groups in Oxford are on a scale of 1-10?
ITP You’d definitely have to ask them. Oxford a cappella is a close-knit community, where we try not to speculate on each other’s levels of irony.
BELLES 10/10, but secretly we’re all just wishing we were in ‘Pitch Perfect’.
GARGOYLES Is there some link between a cappella and irony that I’ve just never noticed before?
But seriously now, how important is a cappella on a scale of 1-10? Where 1 is, like, what your facebook friends had for lunch, and 10 is finding a cure for cancer?
BELLES 6/10: It’s not going to save lives but it enhances them, definitely. I’d say that it does hold a special place in people’s hearts. Even if they won’t admit it.
OOTB 8/10: I don’t think that a cappella is essential – but it definitely cheers people up and I think that this is important.
ULTRASOUNDS 8/10: As people who cure cancer every day, sometimes more than once a day, we can say with confidence that a cappella is about an 8.
And… What plans are in the pipeline for this year?
RESOUND Hopefully a CD, a ball or two in the summer and making sure the group continues on after us.
ALTS A tour to America and possibly a new album. Then there’s the edgily named “VFUK” (Voice Festival UK) at some point in the spring.
ITP It’s our tenth year at the Edinburgh Fringe, and we’ll also be recording and releasing another album!
GARGOYLES A lot of gigs in Oxford; recording our 12th album, a two week tour to Asia and returning to the Edinburgh Fringe for the 9th consecutive year.
BELLES A Christmas concert, gigs around Oxford, recording new singles and music videos, new outfits, and, hopefully, a trip to the Edinburgh Fringe.
OOTB A UK tour at Christmas, a USA West Coast tour in Easter, and a European extravaganza in summer! We’ll have our traditional introductory G&Ds gig in 5th week, and a full concert at the Union in 8th week.
ULTRASOUNDS We’ve been booked for Wilderness Festival 2014.
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