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Intro/Naked Music
By Cheryl Mullen - 04/19/2002 - 09:17 PM EDT

I love the internet.

One day in March I was web-surfing, doing research for a phenomenally-talented-yet-obscure singer/songwriter looking for some cool sites where he could post his music and hopefully become a little less obscure. My trusty search engine coughed up the Muse's Muse--and what a find! A veritable cornucopia of resources for music-makers and those of us who love them.

What particularly intrigued me was the Columnists section along with this little message that basically said, "If you're interested in writing a column, email me." I had previously written a music column for another website. When that stint ended, I found myself lamenting the lack of a creative outlet.

To make a long story short, I emailed Jodi and sent her a couple of my writing samples. Less than 24 hours later, I was officially a columnist again. Like I said, I love the internet.

So now I find myself writing a column for a website aimed at songwriters. Which I have to admit has me a little intimidated, since I am not a songwriter. I'm not even a professional musician. I played flute and sang in high school and college; and while I was fairly decent, I was never really good enough to give up my day job.

So what makes me think I can write a music column for a cyber-community where the majority of the members are much more musically knowledgable than I? Well, there are a few things. First of all, good music to me is like obscenity or virginity--I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it (or hear it, as the case may be).

Secondly, most of you out there reading this are obscure singers/songwriters/artists/musical magic-makers hoping to become a little less obscure. And that's exactly what this column is about--folks just like you! Generally, "Sounding Off" will be a profile of an insanely talented maker of music whom you probably don't know about.

Please note that I said "generally". This column is called "Sounding Off" because it's basically about me opening my big mouth and sharing whatever I think is important. (Gee, that didn't sound too egotistical, did it? :) ) Since it's my column, I reserve the right to stray from the format from time to time, and that's exactly what I'm going to do right now.

I'd like to talk a little bit now about a cappella, or why I like to listen to music naked. By doing so, I hope I'm not insulting anyone's intelligence out there. It's just that there are so many misconceptions about a cappella and what it is exactly that I feel it's important to explain it right from the beginning of my stint here. That way, when I profile an a cappella group no one will read the words "a cappella" and make an incorrect assumption about the group.

I've been a fan of contemporary a cappella for as long as I can remember. Yet being a fan of this type of music doesn't come without its pitfalls. When people find out that I'm into a cappella, these are some of the reactions I typically get:

"You mean like barbershop and stuff?"

"COOL! I just love doo-wop!"

"Oh, me too. Gregorian chant is just so soothing."

So what exactly is a cappella? Is it barbershop? Is it doo-wop? Is it chant? Is it something else? The correct answer is "all of the above". "A cappella" is an Italian term which literally means "in the style of the chapel". Today it is used to describe any vocal music performed without separate instrumental accompaniment. The style of the music is irrelevant. As the great modern a cappella pioneer Sean Altman put it, "A cappella isn't a style, it's an instrumentation." (And yes, there WILL be a column about Sean sometime in the near future--watch this space!) Whether you're listening to rock, gospel, classical, or whatever; if it's performed without instruments, it's a cappella.

Sometimes it seems to me as though a cappella has a lot in common with country in that they both tend not to get a lot of respect from the general population. Let's face it--country is the butt of a lot of jokes: it's twangy, it's corny, it's nothing but tearjerker ballads about drinking and divorce and prison and pickup trucks. (Reminds me of a joke: What do you get when you play country music backwards? You get your job back, you get your wife back, you get your dog back...) Yet probably everyone reading this knows that there are some amazingly talented country artists out there who work very hard at what they do and richly deserve every measure of success that they attain.

And so it is with a cappella. To the ignorant and uninitiated, a cappella seems so simplistic that it's almost laughable. "A bunch of people standing around singing? I could do that! Anybody could do that!" But don't let the simplicity fool you. While it's true that you don't necessarily need any formal vocal/musical training to be able to perform in an a cappella group, it isn't something that can be done by just anybody. First of all, you have to have a very well-developed sense of pitch, because there are no instruments in the background to help you stay in tune. Secondly, you need to be a strong singer if you expect to be able to do full shows on nothing but your vocal chords. Thirdly, the ability to blend is essential. You may have a lovely voice, but if it doesn't blend well with others, that can spell disaster for an a cappella group.

Why am I so fanatical about a cappella? Because there's just something immeasurably beautiful about its simplicity. The human voice is the most raw, basic, and primitive musical instrument known to humankind. Yet when you put a small group of those voices together on a bare stage with nothing between them and you but a handful of microphones (and sometimes not even that), the results are often nothing less than pure magic.

WHERE TO FIND OUT MORE: While it would be very easy for me to rattle off a list of a cappella groups that I think are worth checking out, there's a website out there that's done it so much better than I ever could. The Contemporary A Cappella Society (CASA) originated over a decade ago in a Tufts University dorm room. Today it has members all over the world, publishes a regular newsletter, and is widely recognized as a formidable force in the field of contemporary a cappella. To check them out, go to www.casa.org . There you'll find a wealth of information about a cappella music, including (but certainly not limited to) an explanation of a cappella that's more detailed than the one I gave here, helpful hints on how to start your own group, and links to the pages of more groups than my puny little brain can count!

Till next month...


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