The Harvard-Radcliffe Veritones on "Gemini Feed"

Interviews

Last month, The Harvard-Radcliffe Veritones released college a cappella's first virtual reality video. Skip Rosamilia was kind of enough to discuss the project with The A Cappella Blog.


The A Cappella Blog: What can you tell us about how the concept for this music video in virtual reality came about?  Where did the idea come from?  Why was Banks’ “Gemini Feed” the song choice?

The Veritones: We really value pushing the boundaries of not only our music and sound, but also how we can express our music through different media. CS50 approached us this spring about using their 360 VR cameras to create something together in virtual reality.  When we excitedly agreed to take on the project, we knew we ran the risk of it amounting to a bunch of us just singing in a circle around a camera in 360.  So our group sat down together and discussed “why VR?”  Ultimately, we decided we wanted to take this opportunity to create something completely new and groundbreaking that would really push both traditional a cappella music videos as well as make a unique, new contribution to the relatively new VR space.

The concept of the video emerged from these brainstorming discussions around what it was that we wanted to say and do with this medium, and how we would achieve that.  We decided on addressing the idea of agency in media, about who ultimately has power in the realm of performance – both literal performance, and metaphorically in the performance of everyday life that we and those we interact with might put on.  What expectations, censors, privileged institutions or individuals, and unequal landscapes force us into particular ways of acting? Multiple sides of each individual are showcased throughout the piece and are given varying amounts of power.  The viewer is no exception, being placed in different roles throughout (i.e. viewer, participant, performer).  In creating the storyboard of the video, we consolidated our ultimate goals and concrete objectives, and worked backwards to figure out exactly what we would need to achieve them both technically and creatively.

We chose Banks’ “Gemini Feed” both because of its musical properties that lent well to the narrative we wanted to create and also due to the strong emotional connection the group has to Banks’ music.  This song in particular perfectly helped shape the three central themes to our storyboard: Defiance, Duality, and Distortion. We believe these three themes best encapsulate the we effect we set out to achieve with this medium - to have the viewer begin under the assumption that they are watching a typical pop music video, but, by altering this reality and transforming the virtual space, have the viewer ultimately question what their role might have been in this story.

The A Cappella Blog: What can you tell us about the creative process behind bringing this project to fruition?  In particular, how did you come to collaborations with the CS50 program, and with The Vocal Company on different components of this project, and how did those collaborations go?  How was this project different from other Veritones endeavors?

The Veritones: The best part of this project is that it pushed everyone involved to the limits of their experience and abilities.  Additionally, it proved to be a beast to manage, as it had a ton of moving parts that we had to make sure we kept constantly aligned and to task.  The project was driven forward primarily by Skip Rosamilia from the Veritones and Lauren Scully from CS50.  The various groups involved were the Veritones, both recording the track as well as blocking the narrative; CS50, who spearheaded production and filming; a Veritones alumnus William Horton, who arranged Gemini Feed; an incredible undergraduate choreographer Josh Lee, who created and coached us on our dance routine; and The Vocal Company, who edited, mixed, and mastered our track.  Skip and Lauren met a ton in order to make sure all the various parties kept to the timeline and that all the separate parts informed one another cohesively.  Outside of the logistics, it was just really amazing to see so many different people organically coming together to create art.  Everything from costuming to technical production aspects to envisioning the storyboard to spitballing publicity materials – all the people involved were just so excited about giving Gemini Feed wings and it yielded a unique, wonderful experience.   

We first established our relationship with CS50 two years ago when we worked with their production team to make two other music videos.  Through that, we fostered a very collaborative partnership and were excited to take on this new endeavor together.  The members of the CS50 production team (made up of both students and professionals) have extensive production experience, as well as specific technical knowledge of VR equipment and capabilities.  David Malan (head of CS50) and the CS50 production team are extremely committed to applying CS and their own production expertise to creative endeavors in unique ways, which is what motivated them to approach us with this opportunity.  Since VR best practices and technology are still being developed and perfected, we worked very closely together throughout the creative envisioning process to constantly ensure that our vision was both possible and pushing what we could achieve through the VR medium.

On the musical side of things, we chose the Vocal Company for editing and mixing because we knew they’d give life to the track in a unique way.  Their extremely talented sound experts are at the front line of pushing the boundaries of recorded a cappella.  We knew this project would not necessarily be an easy endeavor, especially when envisioning how to mix for a 360 soundscape.  This project demanded extensive collaboration, as the video and sound were both being edited and formed simultaneously.  Partnering with them was incredibly rewarding and allowed for the visual and sound to inform one another throughout the process.  We’re extremely excited about the cohesive product that resulted.

This project was certainly unique for the Veritones.  We’ve been trying to focus more on creative endeavors outside of just live performance, and hope that we’ll be able to take on more opportunities like this in the future.  

The A Cappella Blog: Where can interested parties find this video?  What should listeners/viewers expect when they encounter it/  What might surprise them?

The Veritones: The video can be viewed on YouTube at the above link both with or without a VR headset on either a mobile phone or desktop computer. However, the experience is definitely optimized for a VR headset, as that way you can feel completely immersed in the space. Instead of simply watching a performance, viewers can expect to feel like they are playing an active role in the story that we tell in our performance, particularly through interactions with the soloist.  There is a lot of viewer engagement, changes of scenery and perspective, and playing with hard cuts that all contribute to various elements of surprise.  Viewers shouldn’t expect to catch everything there is to see in just one go, so we definitely encourage rewatching it.  For example, there are several moments where two scenes or images are presented simultaneously in front of and behind the viewer, making it impossible to catch both of these at once.  To us, this is what makes this project so special: it’s a very different experience each time you watch it since every view is unique.  That being said, it still has a very clear directionality to the story that won’t leave viewers completely in the dark if they only watch it once.

One important note is that we filmed the music video with the intention of engaging with VR as it could be, not necessarily as it is utilized by the public now.  That means that creatively we leaned toward using the medium in a way that would encourage people to put on a headset, rather than filming a video we assumed most people would still use desktops or headset-less mobile devices to watch.  

The A Cappella Blog: How does this marriage of a cappella with other art forms and technology fit The Veritones' group identity, or what the group seeks to accomplish? Do you think the group will pursue similar projects in the future? How has this project influenced the group?

The Veritones: As a group, we are devoted to pushing the boundaries of what our music can do.  We try to push ourselves in our arrangements and in the production of our recorded material by employing innovative ways to use our voices to produce art.  Virtual Reality pushes the boundaries of visual technology and a multi-sensory experience, so this marriage seemed very natural for our group to adopt and work with.  That’s not to say this project was not without its fair share of obstacles.  Given that this project was the first of its kind, it posed many unforeseen challenges, and there were many moments where it wasn’t always clear what the product would look like or if it would be a success at all, and it demanded a lot from every individual involved.  However, when each member took of the headset after watching the final product, it was so gratifying to see pure amazement in everyone’s eyes and the shock at the incredible product we made together.  This project really reinforced our values of taking on creative challenges and having each other’s backs to achieve our goals.  The Veritones aren’t just a group of students who sing together, but a group that of people who love each other and work hard together to create art, challenge ourselves to push our limits every step of the way.  

 

Freedom

Tuesday Tubin'

This week we present Miami Valley School Ars Nova performing Beyonce’s “Freedom.”

To Yearbook or Not To Yearbook

Recording Recommendations

A cappella recording has become a big business within a budding industry. Indeed, given the improvements in recording and distribution technology, and the increase in professional services available to groups interested in recording, it seems like groups at all levels, from  small high schools to major universities to post-collegiate social groups to full-fledged pros are releasing new  recordings each year.

In Recording Recommendations, we offer our two cents on best practices in recorded a cappella.

In this edition, our focus is on yearbooking.

For those unfamiliar with the yearbook concept, it’s an informal term for recording an album on which every group member gets a solo or otherwise featured song, thus the overarching recording feels like a catalog of everyone who was in the group that year. There was a time at which this concept dominated the sphere of scholastic recordings, and thus the yearbook moniker was a natural fit.

Is there a place for yearbooking in the current a cappella recording market? The short answer is that, yes, there is, under two circumstances. The first is that your group is generating an album for which the primary function will be a souvenir for the group members themselves, fans, friends, and families. These are the kinds of albums typically recorded and mixed on campus, within the group or its social network, for which there are no (or at least limited) designs on submitting the album for national awards or selling it beyond the local community. The other circumstance is that your group actually does feature a roster of all outstanding soloists, each of whom genuinely bring something interesting, different, and irresistible to the table, and thus are worth featuring in their own songs.

For increasing number of groups that are recording with an eye toward building a global reputation, I can’t advocate for the yearbook concept. To use a far-from-perfect metaphor, let’s compare a cappella recording to picking a team during high school phys ed class. At least at my school, the prevailing logic was that everyone picked the best athletes first, the un-athletic kids last, with some potential adjustments for non-athletics-related popularity woven in there. Typically, the result was that each team included strongest objective roster that it could (which more or less balanced the teams because the captains had divided the talents equally via alternating picks). The less popular strategy was for a captain to simply pick his friends,  regardless of ability levels, in the interest of having fun, with less regard to winning.

In the gym class example, one choice is about winning, the other is about enjoyment. In the low stakes of a gym class, in which wins and losses are typically realized and forgotten within an hour period, I actually wonder why more kids didn’t simply pick their friends. But recorded a cappella is different. Each recording is a representation of your group. Most a cappella groups favor talent over playing favorites when it comes to the audition process because they’re more interested in assembling a talented performing group than a social club (albeit the fact that the two are far from mutually exclusive). I would argue that the same should be the case for recordings.

It might hurt the feelings of a graduating senior not to have a solo on her last album with the group. It may frustrate a rising star not to have his signature song make the cut for the album. Just the same, the average listener (let alone critic or competition judge) only have so long of an attention span, and generally favor shorter albums over hour-plus works. Furthermore, when a group submits an album for the world to hear and critique, they have to accept that the whole album will be judged, not just the best tracks. It’s a lot harder for a few standout tracks to really shine, much less garner your group a national reputation, when they’re surrounded by middling material.

Yearbook albums are fine if they’re for the group and its supporters. Heck, if your group has the resources, I see no reason not to record additional, unreleased tracks that are just for the group’s inner circle to enjoy and remember the year. But for albums meant to be sold beyond the confines and campus, and meant to send a message to the world, groups need to be more selective.

Simulating Sounds

200 Reasons To Love A Cappella

Reason #127: Simulating Sounds

In a genre defined by the human voice and body, one of the most fascinating elements of a cappella to watch evolve over time is the way in which performers simulate sounds. Whether it’s Deke Sharon’s vocal trumpet, Jamal Reed’s electric guitar, or more dramatic, less literal interpretations of the sound of wind blowing, or a motorcycle revving up, the innovators of the a cappella form have dared to try new things and broaden the world’s conception of what sounds people are capable of making without any external instruments at hand.

I love it!

Don't Wait

Tuesday Tubin'

This week, we present Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Take It SLO performing Mapei’s “Don’t Wait.”

ICCA Finals 2017

Event Reviews

In a creative writing workshop a few years ago, my friend Dennis cited that “a house is just a bunch of rooms.” It was a statement that sounded simultaneously profound and profoundly obvious in a way that makes you want to laugh, cry, scratch your head, and roll your eyes all at once. I bring this up because when we consider a competition set for an a cappella group, the temptation may well be to say that a set is just a bunch of songs. It’s not altogether untrue, but 2017, perhaps more than any year before it, showed that just any old assemblage of songs—even really good songs—will not bring home the Gooding Cup. No, 2017 was the year of the set as an indivisible whole with bits of songs wedged and adhered together to create something unique, new, and wholly belonging to the college a cappella group at hand.

Before I get into individual groups, here’s a summary of this year’s ICCA Finals:

Venue: The Beacon Theatre, New York, New York

Guest Groups: ICHSA Champions and Top Runners Up Vocal Rush, Enharmonic Fusion, and Vocal Point

Emcees: Courtney Jensen and Cooper Kitching

Judges:

  • Abbey Janes
  • Alex Green
  • Bill Hare
  • Ed Boyer
  • Julia Hoffman

Competing Groups:

  • The ICCA Mid-Atlantic Champions, The Towson Trills from Towson University
  • The ICCA Wild Card Champions, Amazin’ Blue from the University of Michigan
  • The ICCA United Kingdom Champions, Aquapella from the University of Bath
  • The ICCA Northeast Champions, The Nor’easters from Northeastern University
  • The ICCA Central Champions, The Water Boys from the University of Waterloo
  • The ICCA Southwest Champions, The ScatterTones from UCLA
  • The ICCA Northwest Champions, Furmata A Cappella from the University of Washington
  • The ICCA Great Lakes Champions, Voices in Your Head from the University of Chicago
  • The ICCA Midwest Champions, The Ohio State of Mind from Ohio State University
  • The ICCA South Champions, The Beltones from Belmont University

I’d like to lead off the review of the show with some high praise for Courtney Jensen and Cooper Kitching in their hosting duties. They’re charismatic showpersons, yes, but the degree to which the two of them are experienced and entrenched in the a cappella world helps them deliver an engaging performance all their own on stage that’s both entertaining and tailor fit to an a cappella audience. It’s such a delight that Varsity Vocals has had the two of them hosting Finals shows in recent years, and it’s an arrangement I hope will continue for some time.

The first competing group was The Towson Trills. I had a chance to interview Aaron Bayne from their group a week before competition, and it was remarkable to learn how quickly this crew ascended from coming together just a year and a half ago, to competing in ICCA for the first time, to storming their way all the way to Finals. All of this as a seven-member group, all of this with a group made up almost entirely of college sophomores. Groups like Pentatonix, Aurora, and Vocalight have underscored that smaller can be better in the contemporary a cappella landscape, and it’s really interesting to see a college group working from that paradigm and thriving. On a less important note, I liked their choice of black, sparkling attire and accessories, which helped immediately establish their identity as professional performers.

The group opened with “Death of a Bachelor,” originally by Panic! At the Disco. I was immediately struck by the group’s stage presence and strong vocal percussion for this one. They did a nice job of both keeping the choreography under control and letting it build as the performance went on, including a nice bit in which one member did a full-body bob as the group grooved, and the bobbing spread member-by-member until the group was fully in sync. Killer swirling bass sound as the first song wrapped up. Next up, “Unsteady,” originally by X Ambassadors, mixed with hints of “Apologize” by Timbaland and OneRepublic. Very nice complexity of sound, particularly for a group this size, and the group did a really nice job of keeping the hints of “Apologize” present but understated to build to a truly electric moment when the two songs mashed together. The Towson Trills finished with Fergie’s “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got).” The group deployed an excellent vocal trumpet to lead off and accent this jazzy take on the song. Good charisma from the soloist, and the group wove in a fun rap interlude. My only knock on this closer was the visual presentation. It’s a fine line, but when a small group is performing, I tend to feel as though choreography—and more particularly the artifice of it—can stick out more and feel contrived. I felt the group would have been better off sticking to a more straightforward presentation, holding their own as individual singers who looked like they were having more fun as they had earlier in the set. That’s a lot of verbiage for a relatively minor quibble, though. All in all, I felt the Towson Trills demonstrated the ways in which a more traditional ICCA set structure can still succeed and offer a fun, engaging experience for the audience. By the luck of the draw, they were on first, but I suspect the set may have come across even better closer to the middle of the show, in contrast to sets that were arguably less accessible for a general audience. Just the same the group did itself proud in its ICCA Finals debut, and I suspect we haven’t heard the last of them at this level of competition.

Amazin’ Blue was next up and offered up. At the top of the review, I noted the degree to which the 2017 Finals re-conceptualized the competition set, compelling the listener to think less about individual pieces and more about the sum of those parts. In my book, Amazin’ Blue kicked off that trend in earnest. With a set that artfully sampled from itself and felt tonally consistent in ways that were simultaneously brilliant and profoundly dark. I know that there’s been some push back in the a cappella community against a cappella that’s, frankly, less fun, but when groups are assembling sets this artful I have a hard time finding reason to complain.

Amazin’ Blue led off their set by not taking time to set up on stage, but rather already singing from on their way in, accented by a haunting, repeated whisper of, “I can feel them coming.” Their performance of The Weekend’s “In the Night” carried a palpable sense of danger both in its vocals and the visuals, particularly at the point in which they rotated in and out of two lines to generate a unique, unpredictable visual. The group moved seamlessly to Transviolet’s “Girls Your Age.” The song itself carried forward a themes of youth and of foreboding, particularly on their delivery of lyrics like “Girls your age never mean what they say.” Tremendous precision of sound all around on this song, and I particularly loved the edgy visual of the group closing in on the soloist, and later surrounding her in what could easily pass for a traditional a cappella arc but took on the sensation of overwhelming forces standing over and surrounding her until she collapsed to her knees. Powerful stuff. The early whispers of the set came back around as the group settled into “No One’s Here to Sleep,” originally by Naughty Boy. I can’t overstate how good Amazin’ Blue’s control of their visuals was—nothing gratuitous or overly literal, but so captivating in their ever-shifting staging. Bits of “Girls Your Age” came back in before the group moved to a soft, choral take on the opening to “Carry Me Home,” originally by The Sweeplings with a choral opening. The group offered a masterclass on the effect of doubling up on key parts of a song to really drive them home, before a lovely fall out moment that gave way to one more transition to Bishop Briggs’s “River.” I loved the way the intensity built on this one, both in terms of the vocals opening up and the group spreading the set and weaving in bits of stomp percussion to bring all that danger to fruition on a monster finish to this excellent set.

2016 saw the rise of the very first truly international ICCA Champions, when The Techtonics from Imperial College London took home the Gooding Cup. So, it was with great anticipation that we awaited the successors to the ICCA UK throne, Aquapella. Elite groups from the UK tend to have a different sound from their American counterparts, often leaning into old-fashioned humor in a way that top-tier groups from the US have steered further and further away from over the last decade. Moreover, their sound veers more toward an emphasis on traditional harmonies over bass and vocal percussion that increasingly get privileged in US-based groups. Aquapella embodied a lot of these aca-cultural differences, and I have to say that their style served them well in this show, as it helped them stand out from the pack. There’s also something to be said for accessibility as the group book-ended its set with mainstream music that was easily recognizable to a general audience, rather than deep cuts. All that, plus they offered one truly star-making solo. We’ll get to that, though.

Aquapella opened on an instrumental groove that gave way to what I can best describe as a sexy medley. The first song they settled into was Justin Timberlake’s “Sexyback” which offered some welcome comic relief as the soloist strode from the back of the stage and let his British accent fly free across the theater. Fun bit as one group member gyrated his hips and the movement spread across the group. “Sexyback” gave way to snippets from “Let’s Talk About Sex,” “Let’s Get It On,” and “Sexual.” No denying that the medley was well-sung and very funny at points, but it also felt a bit oddly dated to me. I think this comes down, in part, to the aforementioned cultural differences, but as entertaining as it was, I didn’t think the medley had quite the hook necessary to sell Aquapella as top contenders at the Finals level. I liked the shift from there to The 1975’s “Fallingforyou,” which carried along a compelling sense of sensuality but was a slowed down, more serious piece of music that really let the group’s harmonies and sterling intonation take precedence. Excellent emotional vulnerability on both soloists on this one. Aquapella closed with “Purple Rain.” While I’m all for innovation in an a cappella set, this was the point at which I felt Aquapella’s more traditional sensibilities served them really well, and shot them back up to star status on this show. The solo on this one was just sensational, building nicely unaccompanied and then against the backdrop of a sparse arrangement, before positively exploding on the climax of the song. If you have a soloist with the capabilities of this young woman, it’s all but criminal not to showcase them, and this was truly a star-making performance to end the Aquapella set on a high note.

The fourth competing group was The Nor’easters. There are but a handful of collegiate a cappella groups that walk into a competition with everyone assuming they’re going to be great and—quite arguably, even at the Finals level—the group to beat. The Nor’easters are not only one of those groups, but occupy that even rarer space of groups we know will be great and yet have no friggin’ idea what to expect them. I mean that in the kindest way; the group has developed an identity as one that experiments, pushes limits, creates dramatic effect. To return to my opening metaphor of a room being a bunch of houses, The Nor’easters are the a cappella architect that will say, Oh, you wanted a house? My bad, I designed this gothic castle with a fire pole running down the middle and a stone dragon façade. Also, it’s a boat. In reply, you might say, What? And that’s exactly right. The Nor’easters arrange, sing, and occupy the stage in ways that no other a cappella group has done, because no other a cappella group has thought to perform in such a fashion. You might argue that this is a group of innovators that will influence the future of a cappella future, but I’m genuinely uncertain their template is one anyone else could follow. (And lest anyone have doubts, I mean all of this in the best ways possible.)

The Nor’easters led off with Jason Derulo’s “Cheyenne.” Killer vocal percussion here on a somber, complex start, and the solo work was outstanding. The group went for some true explosions of sound. For a lesser group, you might think that the group was giving too much, too soon, but I kind of love the Nor’easter aesthetic of leaving everything they have on the stage, fully understanding that they’ve got just twelve minutes to prove themselves as the best collegiate a cappella group in the world. They transitioned to Bon Iver’s “715-CRƩƩKS,” starting with an unaccompanied solo. The group joined little by little in a choral presentation, which climaxed in some pretty spectacular swells of sound. The dynamics were insane on this one, and I particularly loved the choice to go un-mic’ed for a bit. Not to say that that’s unprecedented, but it is thinking outside the box. A cappella groups only have so many tools at their disposal. We’ve heard groups test the limits of their physicality, the stage, and microphone technique, but it's less common to see groups go in the opposite direction and strip away traditional pieces; it worked here to spectacular dramatic effect. Soaring high harmonies on the finish, before the group moved to its closer, “Writing’s on the Wall,” originally by Sam Smith. Downright insane solo work on this one from a guy who was solid throughout and demonstrated remarkable range when he went high. This was such a challenging set, and I loved the choice to spotlight a star soloist (not to mention an extremely unique star soloist) on the finish to really hone the audience’s attention on that single point. I really liked that one background vocalist on a “bing” syllable—it’s the kind of syllable choice that can get really grating with too many voices on it, but just one lent an edge and undertone of discomfort to the piece. A lot of groups settle for splitting up parts more simply—for example, everyone on each vocal part doing the same thing—whereas an arrangement like this, in some ways, pulled from the techniques of much smaller groups to achieve a remarkable complexity of sound. Killer finish to an exceptional set.

The Water Boys were up next. While it’s not exactly desirable to have to follow The Nor’easters, I actually think that the juxtaposition played in this particular group’s favor. On a night with more than its share of edgy performances, The Water Boys leaned into smooth identity that distinguished their set from others, and put an emphasis on clean, clear vocals, matched by put-together look, sporting matching blazers and collared shirts on stage. As the lone all-male group at Finals this year, the temptation easily could have been to come in hot and heavy or to go for laughs, but in this more mature set, the guys demonstrated exactly why they’d made it to Finals, mixing contemporary music and song stylings with some far more traditional material and harmonies for a set that was easy on the ears and masterfully performed.

The Water Boys kicked off their set with a classic, The Beatles’ “Blackbird.” Such a crisp sound here, with pristine intonation and control of mechanics. An opener like this doesn’t knock down a door, but rather cracks it open and wafts the smell of your mother’s apple pie to invite you inside. Just a beautiful opening. I really liked the choice to jump generations from there, moving on to a mashup of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and “Maps,” originally by Maroon 5. The Clarkson part was fun, and a part of why it worked so well was that the guys didn’t play up the irony of an all-male group covering her for laughs, but rather thrived on keeping things musical and playing them straight. The result hit the precise sweet spot between something familiar and something that feels fresh for being performed in a way the audience isn’t accustomed to. This song was particularly strong when the soloists converged on the finish. Next up was OK Go’s “Needing/Getting.” This was another great showcase for the sheer musicality and harmonies this group was capable of, with the vocal percussionist as an unsung hero doing a terrific job in the background without ever threatening to overtake the piece. The most impressive piece of all may be how divergent The Water Boys’ interpretation was from the far grittier original, to reinvent the song in their style. The guys closed with One Direction’s “Midnight Memories.” Not so dissimilar from “Since U Been Gone,” it was fun to hear the guys cut loose a bit here, still offering pristine vocals but doing so in a looser, sillier context of a One Direction song. Very smooth solo work, and I loved the choice to bring back a sample of “Blackbird” to help tie together the set and give the audience a sense of the journey the group had taken them on.

I’d introduced The Nor’easters in the context of being a consistently great ICCA franchise; no question, The ScatterTones belong in precisely the same category after a series of tremendous showings at ICCA Finals in recent years. The ScatterTones approach aca-excellence from a very different angle, though, in some ways more traditional for their song choices and set structure, and yet nonetheless pushing the limits of sheer virtuosic musicianship. Check out an ICCA score card and you’ll see items like balance and blend, rhythmic accuracy, and intonation take precedence, alongside effectiveness of presentation and stage presence. The ScatterTones are the kind of group all but built to max out scores while still offering one of the most downright entertaining sets of the year. Their 2017 offering was a prime example of the things this group does so well, honed to one of the group’s best sets yet.

The ScatterTones opened with Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana.” Taking on The King of Pop in an a cappella set isn’t a great idea for most groups, because most groups can’t handle lead vocals at the level of The ScatterTones. Fortunately The ScatterTones are who they are, and put a positively killer solo front and center to open the set. The group also let this song build nicely with soft backing vocals early on, which gave way to a low, ominous hum on the chorus before launching into movement and more pronounced instrumentation as the song went on. I liked the stomp percussion that spread throughout the group—one of the definitive strengths of this group is building to big moments, rather than firing everything they’ve got all at once. Next up was “Magic,” originally by Coldplay. I loved the interaction—both aurally and visually—between the two leads on this one, and really appreciated the degree to which the sound opened up as this song moved along, before they pulled way back for a soft, broken finish. Just a lovely take on this song. The ScatterTones went back old school on their finish with Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing.” The group did an excellent job of working in rotating soloists on this one, which is such a difficult thing to do, both in terms of having talented enough soloists to justify the choice, and in maintaining the backing sound with parts moving in and out of it. Fun dance breakdown, en route to some really fun, high energy choreo to take this song home. While I thought they could have afforded to open up the sound a bit more to really drive home the party vibe on this song, that’s a relatively minor quibble for a very strong  finish to a stellar set.

Next up, Voices in Your Head took the stage. Much of what I wrote about The Nor’easters applies in similar ways to this group. This was the group’s third trip to Finals after a show-stopping performance that I’ll still call criminally under-recognized from 2012, and a second-place finish in 2015 that came as close as anyone ever has to beating The SoCal Vocals on the Finals stage (seriously, just six points away from a championship). And here the group was again, but with so few individual members from the past. In talking to group members and alumni after the show, I heard that 2017 was supposed to be a rebuilding year, with huge turnover in the group and little reason from optimism about the group’s chances in competition. Voices has always been the kind of group that reinvents the game, challenging the boundaries of what an ICCA set is, or rather can be, and that sensibility was very much in play this year for a set that was unique and uniquely inspired. Bear with me on another strained metaphor, but in evaluating the 2017 Voices in Your Head set in the context of an ICCA show, they’re the kids who showed up for the school bottle rocket competition with a reconstructed UFO they bartered from some extraterrestrials. Look at them fly. They didn’t match the parameters of any assignment any teacher ever gave them, but God almighty, look at them soar.

Voices in Your Head marched onto stage with a purpose, already making sound, and immediately walking in a spiraling formation to settle on a circle on stage before their whispers turned to a hum, to a swell of sound as they turned outward to face the crowd for Diplo’s “Revolution.” To pause for a moment, this was such an electric start to a set. While a set officially starts with the first sound a group makes, serious competitors understand that the audience really begins to judge them the moment anyone sets foot on stage. Great groups take the stage with conviction, but this was a next level version of making the entrance a vital part of the group’s art. Sensational harmonies here and the group demonstrated amazing control of their sound in varying dynamics. On another particularly cool note, they wove in pieces of songs ahead on the finish, a killer move to help bind the separate pieces of the set together. Next up was “How Deep Is Your Love,” originally by Calvin Harris and Disciples. They handled much of this song chorally and there was just so much going on at any given moment as the parts broke out, spiking in volume, killing it on VP, offering an ominous hum of bass and overlaying pieces with a positively gossamer high harmony. It’s rare for a group to challenge for best arrangement and best staging of the night with the same song, but that’s where this one landed for me. The group transitioned seamlessly to Eryn Allen Kane’s “Have Mercy,” nicely handled by two soloists. Really fun handling of the bridge with the female lead steering and the male soloist and the group alternately echoing or doubling up with her. This song gave way to Towkio’s “Heaven Only Knows.” It was the kind of shift, and the kind of choice that can only happen when a group fully knows its music inside out, makes discerning choices, and settles on something that only they could have brought together. I’d like to tip my hat, in particular, to the group’s music director Will Cabaniss who was reportedly responsible for arranging this set, because in addition to being so good, and so startlingly different throughout, this ending felt downright holy as the group lined the front of the stage for one final crescendo before finishing, soft, precise, and clean. I loved it.

Next up, we heard from Furmata A Cappella, making their debut at ICCA Finals. I really liked that this group delivered a sense of urban chic out of Seattle, with their sound and their sense of style all lining up to present something cool and deeply compelling. If the group had nerves going into this performance, you’d never know it as they came across completely collected. I love that they’ll have the foundation of this experience to hopefully find their way back to Finals again the years ahead, all the shrewder for the experience.

Furmata kicked off with heartbeat percussion on Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam.” Cool, deep hum of the bass beneath this, and nice control of the stage from the whole group. I really dug the cymbal percussion that led off a jazzier section of the song, and a nicely staged bit with all of the group members snapping their fingers. The vocal percussionist swirled the group seamlessly into Charlie Puth’s “Dangerously.” Tremendous intensity on the solo here and the group created tension nicely with their purposeful reconfigurations on stage movements, and particularly a moment when the two leads all but squared off from opposite ends of the stage with separate clusters of group members behind each of them. Excellent explosion of sound from the leads on the finish. A foreboding hum gave way to the group’s last transition, over to “Freedom,” originally by Beyonce. Great fire from the soloist as she emerged from the back of the stage and the group fell into formation behind her. In the second verse they formed two lines between which the two soloists operated. The visuals and shifts in the leads did a ton of work to keep this performance dynamic and engaging, and a beatbox showdown from two group members over the bridge was a lot of fun. This felt like a kitchen sink closer in terms of throwing everything the group had into the mix—I mean that in a great way, because it’s exactly the kind of performance that gets a group to Finals and doesn’t leave a thing behind for them to regret or think twice about having left out.

The penultimate competing group was The Ohio State of Mind. This was another group making its debut at Finals, and there’s always a certain joy to that. Mind you, I enjoy catching more familiar groups and hearing how they’ve evolved over time, but each group only gets one first appearance on the biggest stage in collegiate a cappella and it’s great to see it in action. Make no mistake about it, though, because this wasn’t one of those “we’re just glad to be here” performances—this group attacked the stage with some killer solo work and a particularly grabbing bass to make the most of their big opportunity.

The Ohio State of Mind started their set with Ariana Grande’s “Side to Side.” Nice full sound here, and I enjoyed the bold shifts in dynamics to really make the song pop at all the right moments, including sweet swell from the lead trio late in the song. The bass got the last word on this one for a nice shift as he just started to show us all what he was capable of. The bass would be such a key factor, lurking beneath the surface for much of the set, and shining in key moments. The group carried on with “Kiss the Sky,” originally by Jason Derulo, which featured tremendous precision of sound from the group, not to mention a compelling visual presentation. Tremendous emotion on their next song, JoJo’s “Say Love.” The set really reached a climax on Bishop Briggs’s “River.” The group rotated through different leads early on before arriving at a positively monster solo, which really opened up on the chorus. Nice use of interesting staging on this one, including some cool stop-motion work. The Ohio State of Mind wrapped up by challenging the front of the stage full force for an epic finish. A part of what worked so well for this set was that each of the leads seemed perfectly fit to the song of choice. While it may seem obvious, featuring key talents, and showcasing them on songs that make the most of their personality and talents is so vital in engaging the audience, not to mention maxing out the Solo Interpretation row on the scoring sheet.

Last out of the gate, but certainly not least, we heard from The Beltones. This was the third time the group has made it to Finals in just five years. Two of the group’s defining characteristics, traditionally, have been their commitment to razor sharp intonation and a distinctive country-fried approach to their set. It was interesting the see the group evolve and go toward a more conventional mainstream sound this year, if anything leaning into their showmanship more. Fittingly, their outfits were accented with shiny gold accessories to communicate a sense of excitement and electricity before they ever sang a note. The group served up one of the more diverse sets of the night, and I appreciated the degree to which they altered their sound and performance style to match different legs of the set for a tremendous all around performance that furthers their legacy as stars of the ICCA South and one of the preeminent collegiate a cappella groups of this era.

The Beltones kicked things off with “24K Magic,” originally by Bruno Mars. Simply fantastic charisma on the solo for this one and fun theatrics all around. In the late going, the group wove in some fun robotic sounds and a really neat effect in which they hit the rewind button and performed in reverse. Choices like that run the risk of coming across as gimmicky, but when a group has the unique set of chops to really pull it off, it can also present, a unique, memorable spectacle, and that’s exactly what we got in this case. The group progressed seamlessly to Beyonce’s “Freedom.” Great visual with the group members assembling into two lines and then peeling off to provide room for the soloist to move down the middle. Great command of the stage from the lead, and great energy from the group on the whole, in particular when they the sound grew biggest. From there, another seamless transition brought along Kirk Whalum’s “Inside.” I appreciated the subtle choice to reorder this song slightly to help the flow from one song to another—it’s the kind of adjustment most of the audience won’t even recognize happening, and that gives the group a lot of power to negotiate sound and lyrical content to create a fluid experience. The Beltones closed with “Something Beautiful,” originally by Tori Kelly. In and of itself, this was a nicely diversified piece of music with a fun, more jazzy section. Another strong visual choice in the group forming a triangle, and I’d loved the big sound that the group went for on the finish. While it seems to be going out of style, I actually felt like the group could have afforded to go for a clap-along with the crowd on the finish to really engage the audience, max out the sound, and, more functionally, to build even more physical excitement from the theater at the end of the long show. That’s a pretty minor point, though, for a group that performed beautifully with a big finish to wrap up the competition.

While the judges deliberated, the top three finishers from the previous night’s ICHSA Finals entertained the crowd with highlights from their competition sets. This remains one of my favorite traditions of ICCA Finals. It’s a practical choice for entertainment during the deliberation period. This guest appearance exposes the audience—some of which, for reasons beyond me, still skips ICHSA Finals—a taste of what high school groups are up to, besides inviting these high school stars to a preview of what’s ahead of them in college. On top of all of that, appearing at ICCA Finals has become sort of an unofficial, immediate prize for top finishers from the ICHSA to have the right to perform on another big New York stage, in front of another big audience.

While the high school groups performed, I made my picks for the night. As tends to be the case, it was tough the call. I found The Towson Trills to be engaging and inspirational in the sense of thriving with such a new and small-sized group.  Aquapella was fun and brought the house down with “Purple Rain” (especially that solo!). The Water Boys offered up such a polished, professional performance. Furmata A Cappella delivered a cappella chic to an unparalleled level. The Ohio State of Mind did a phenomenal job of highlighting soloists against the backdrop of a killer bass. The Beltones mixed their signature keen musicianship with elevated entertainment value this year.

Amazin’ Blue offered up sensational continuity and storytelling over the course of their set, and in my book, they just missed out on placing at this show. I had The ScatterTones just edging them out for third place. Mind you, it’s nuts to say that a set of this caliber is only the third best at anything, because they were so technically on point and masterfully designed a set built to show off their considerable talents.

2017, however, was the year of the cohesive, bizarre, original set at ICCA Finals. That’s not to say that weirdness on its own wins—far from it—but 2017 was the year when the best of the best transcended the genre of a cappella music to create twelve-minute compositions that were simultaneously tailor fit to thrive in ICCA competition, and yet also completely outside the box relative to a traditional set. Voices in Your Head was in many ways the more experimental of the two, with less clear lines between songs, more circling around, and more (well-designed) chaos in both sound and visual performance. The Nor’easters tackled the stage with such a mixture of organic emotion and intensity. It was the kind of set that they almost could have sung wordlessly, and just emoted music for how raw the energy they were tapping into was. In the end, I felt either of these groups could have very justifiably taken home the Gooding Cup. For sentimentality’s sake, it would have been something to have seen Voices in Your Head win their first ICCA crown in franchise history, not to mention the first ICCA Championship for the fledgling Great Lakes region. On the flip side, there’s a degree to which it felt right for The Nor’easters to enter rarefied air as just the fourth group in ICCA history to win more than one championship (the others are the UC Berkeley Men’s Octect, The SoCal Vocals, and Pitch Slapped, for reference). In the end, I had The Nor’easters taking it by a hair, but wouldn’t have had any problem seeing it go either way.

In an all too rare occurrence, the judges’ placements lined up with my own—The ScatterTones took home third, Voices in Your Head finished second, and The Nor’easters won it all. They capped the night with a cover of Justin Beiber’s “Sorry.” I found it sort of delightfully ironic for a group this heavy to close out one of the biggest shows in their history with the uncharacteristic levity of a Beiber song.

So comes a close to another great ICCA season. It’s been a pretty crazy year in my own life. Between Finals weekends, I finished grad school, traveled across the country, and got married. Over the course of this time, I was saddened that this was the first season in eleven years when I only got to two Varsity Vocals events, but I’m glad that those ones were the ICHSA and ICCA Finals. I hope to cover more shows in future seasons, and always welcome guest writers to help us collect coverage in other regions. Rest assured, while our coverage of live events and the rest of the a cappella world may not be as consistent as it once was, we’re far from closing up shop, and I personally have every intention of continuing to cover major shows like this to the extent that I am able. In the meantime, I’d like to thank our readers, ranging from those who read every column, to those who only check in for reviews of big shows, to those who only read when they suspected we might write about them directly. You’re all the reason why we carry forward with this project, and we’re honored to be in service to the a cappella community.

On a final note, The A Cappella Blog has partnered with Teespring to create a high-quality, limited edition A Cappella Blog t-shirt that we’re making available for sale to our site’s supporters. All proceeds from this campaign will go toward the costs of running The A Cappella Blog, including web hosting and subsidizing the cost for travel and tickets to cover live events. The t-shirts will only be produced if we meet a minimum order count, so we really appreciate your support in buying a shirt and helping us spread the word about this project over the next three weeks.

Mike Chin’s Picks for the Night:

Overall Placement:

  1. The Nor'easters
  2. Voices in Your Head
  3. The ScatterTones

 Outstanding Soloist:

  1. TIE: Aquapella for "Purple Rain" and The Nor'easters for "Writing's on the Wall"
  2. The Ohio State of Mind for "River"

Outstanding Arrangement:

  1. The Nor'easters for the full set
  2. Voices in Your Head for the full set
  3. Amazin' Blue

Outstanding Visual Presentation:

  1. Voices in Your Head
  2. The Ohio State of Mind
  3. The Beltones

Outstanding Vocal Percussion:

  1. The Nor'easters
  2. The Ohio State of Mind
  3. Furmata A Cappella

The Official ICCA Results:

Overall Placement:

  1. The Nor'easters
  2. Voices in Your Head
  3. The ScatterTones

Outstanding Soloist: The Nor'easters for "Writing's on the Wall"

Outstanding Arrangement: Voices in Your Head for "How Deep Is Your Love"

Outstanding Choreography: Aquapella for the full set

Outstanding Bass: The Ohio State of Mind for the full set

Next Page
The Harvard-Radcliffe Veritones on "Gemini Feed"
Freedom
To Yearbook or Not To Yearbook
Simulating Sounds
Don't Wait
ICCA Finals 2017
ICHSA Finals 2017
Unsteady
Sahaana Sridhar, representing All-American Awaaz
RANGE Volume 1
The Towson Trills
Mad Hatter
A Cappella Only Festival
Let’s Bring Back The Sing-Off
Seanote Transitions
Deke Sharon on Total Vocal
Any Way You Want It
Song Choice
Clean Sound
Ghost
Hearing the Story Behind a Song
The Lion, the Beast, the Beat
Intro Videos
All I Ask
Campus Booking Agents
Wild Transitions Between Songs
Use Somebody
Let’s Archive, People
Buying a Group's CD After the Show
Hold Up