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AK A Capella

Jacob Collier has stunned the world with complex vocal arrangements of well-known tunes. His first Grammy (of five) was awarded in part for a rendition of a very unlikely pop melody: “Meet the Flintstones.” Clearly, Collier doesn’t think music must be serious, yet he is accomplishing what many serious musicians dream of –– highly original, complex work that runs the emotional gamut and appeals to wide and knowing audiences.

Why are vocal arrangements so central to his success? There are probably many reasons, but let me offer a few. People are hardwired to listen when someone sings, because our voices are one of the most important ways we communicate. After all, we use them to speak. But there’s something else about singing that makes the voice a special instrument: unlike pianos and guitars, which are tuned with tools and pegs before a performance, the voice is tuned by ear as we go. This opens up chords that simply don’t exist within the rigid tuning of a piano. When we respond to one another in real time, abandoning the fixity of frets, we can find more pure harmonies. In fact, it’s very difficult to describe to a non-singer the secret joy of locking into lush, resonant choral chords.

The flexibility of the human voice allows Collier to explore new musical territory and ‘move music forward,’ if you will. Although he is not the only musician to make headlines for vocal arrangements, his work in particular got me thinking about the place of vocal music in my own musical community. How is Alaska’s singing community moving forward? How is a cappella in particular relevant in the territory we call home?

To answer these questions, I teamed up with Lisa Hawkins of Pipeline Vocal Project to ask the leaders of Anchorage’s vocal ensembles some questions. We wanted to know what they're up to and how they think a cappella may develop in Alaska.

Before diving into their insights, I need to clarify the term ‘a cappella.’ Originally, it just meant ‘unaccompanied singing.’ Musical instruments have at times been considered profane and unfit for sacred settings, such as chapels or ‘cappella.’ As churches were the center of musical development in the West for quite some time, ‘a cappella’ was an important term.

That said, you might think of something other than church music when you think of ‘a cappella.’ You wouldn’t be wrong. Currently, a cappella groups across the country are popular on college campuses and almost anywhere people gather. They often specialize in a range of contemporary pop styles, and therefore the term a cappella has become synonymous with groups who sing in those styles. Although it would be convenient to talk about a cappella singing as a style, it’s really an instrumentation. Other groups with the same instrumentation (just a handful of singers) perform in more specific styles such as doo wop, barbershop, and vocal jazz, and the groups are referred to by the names of those styles.

So what’s a cappella like in Alaska? There are a handful of vocal ensembles up here that program unaccompanied music. Many of them sing in an a cappella style. However, Pipeline Vocal Project is the only group we found that focuses on contemporary arrangements and compositions (the '60s through today). Their passion for a cappella has driven them to move beyond performance into education, to bring an awareness of their craft to young people. This focus on education may be where a cappella is headed in Alaska, even while it is not certain what shape student vocal ensembles will take when the singers become adults.

Some student groups, such as the choir at East High School, have been singing in a cappella styles for years, thanks to veteran educator Melissa Fisher. In fact if there’s anyone in the state of Alaska with their finger on the pulse of how vocal ensembles are developing, it’s Melissa. As an educator, she is forming tomorrow’s performers. She organizes a cappella ensembles in schools for practical reasons. They do not require accompanists, which can be expensive and hard to book. Plus there's an abundance of great a cappella arrangements available for the ensembles to learn and perform.

With regards to today’s adults organizing a cappella groups of their own, there seems to be nothing stopping us, even if there isn’t much organized yet. One exception is the aforementioned Pipeline Vocal Project (whose soprano, Adriana Latonio, studied with Mrs. Fisher at East High). Another exception is the community choir Da Capo, led by another former East High alum, Sam Strumpler. They perform in the stylistic neighborhood of bella voce, as part of Mr. Strumpler’s organization Akapelle.

Two more adult vocal groups that sing in a cappella styles are the Midnight Sons and Alaska Sound Celebration. Both focus on barbershop tunes and arrangements. As you might guess, the Midnight Sons is a men’s group. Alaska Sound Celebration is composed of women. Together they run an event called Alaska A cappella U (AAU), a one-day barbershop music festival.

It remains unclear if The Midnight Sons are actually Marvel superheroes or simply share a name with an infamous team of crime-fighters. In either case, they perform at the Alaska State Fair, Spenard Jazz Fest, and a number of other venues across the state, mostly in the barbershop style. Alaska Sound Celebration are verified superheroines, best known for their comedic Fur Rendezvous Melodrama. They are also proud of their "Celebrate the Music" show, which features choruses and youth singers from our community. Like Pipeline Vocal Project and Melissa Fisher’s choirs at East High, education is at the core of Alaska Sound Celebration’s mission.

Moving beyond small, focused ensembles, The Alaska Chamber Singers number 36-38 members who perform a broad, evolving repertoire. They do sing unaccompanied, but they also sing with chamber ensembles. Although their unaccompanied repertoire includes music in a cappella styles, it also includes arrangements of folk tunes and commissioned works by Libby Larsen, Steven Sametz, David Dickau, Greg Walker, Moses Hogan, and Anchorage’s own Grant Cochrane.

Mr. Cochrane dual wields a pen and a baton, directing the 160 singers of the Anchorage Concert Chorus. His group boasts all the stylistic diversity of Alaska Chamber Singers, plus performances with full orchestras. Of course, Anchorage Concert Chorus is not the only big vocal show in town. Anchorage Opera programs large works in a range of styles as well, although they are, of course, an opera, not an a cappella group.

One question that has been impossible to ignore while writing this post has been: “How have these ensembles handled the pandemic?” I myself had to cancel vocal concerts made possible by a Rasmuson Individual Artist Award, because it has been difficult to sing together safely. I also volunteer with Spenard Jazz Fest, which produced the Hunker Down festival in 2020 to cope with the realities of the pandemic. Mr. Strumpler's Italy tour with Da Capo has been canceled twice in two years. Anchorage Opera has canceled performances of Gilbert and Sullivan, and more have recently been postponed. We understand their frustration.

Despite the difficulty, Christy Hedrick of Alaska Sound Celebration is optimistic about the future of a cappella in Alaska. She hopes that learning to deal with new performance and rehearsal constraints will get us “back to better''. I believe she’s right. If we choose to grow through the challenge of the pandemic, we may gain new skill sets along the way. For example, were it not for the pandemic, Spenard Jazz Fest would not have acquired a new tool kit for bringing music to global audiences online. Even Grammy winner Jacob Collier’s music has grown as a result of his isolation; without practice layering his own voice in complex harmonies, he might never have snagged that first Grammy. In the end it may be the music itself that keeps Mrs. Hedrick, Jacob Collier, Lisa, and me positive.

Michael Dickerson is an Anchorage composer, writer, and educator. He is a board member at Northern Culture Exchange and a 2020 Rasmuson Individual Artist Award recipient.

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