An Ensemble Resolution of a Community Diversified
A Cappella Groups at Harvard
The a cappella groups are a timeless part of the rites of autumn. For the past few years, they have welcomed first-year students with their perenially popular Freshman Jam, and hardly an Ivy League football game passes without an a cappella ensemble celebrating it with a concert. The a capella groups have always revelled in this season of Ivy League festivity. Though the Krokodiloes have existed in their present form only since 1946, they date their tradition back to the founding of the Hasty Pudding Club in 1770.
Surveying the Music Scene Part One in a Series of Two
Indeed, a capella fanaticism is a distinctly Ivy League phenomenon. Associate Director of Choral Activities Beverly Taylor says the tradition grew out of the singing clubs and fraternities of England, and the Ivy League schools adopted the form because they had such close contact with universities such as Cambridge and Oxford.
But the a cappella groups are no longer the paragons of tradition they once were. They still perform in formal dress and, by definition, they still perform without accompaniment. But now the music scene has diversified considerably--female and co-ed ensembles have formed and survived. And the proliferation of distinct groups with distinct arrangements seems only to have heightened campus popularity, and cooperation within the musical community.
The modern a capella groups fall into four categories: all-male, all-female, co-ed, and special interest groups. With the advantage of history and generous alumni, the two all-male groups, The Krokodiloes and The Din & Tonics, remain the most prestigious. Traditionally, the Kroks played the famous Yale Game jam with the prestigious singing group, the Whiffenpoofs, but this year, the Dins were done the honor. Members acknowledge what they call a "friendly rivalry" between the groups, but that belies the scope of the changing community.
The Radcliffe Pitches benefit from their unique status as the only all-female group on campus. They are not as threatened as other groups by the spectre of competition. Indeed, they have the prerogative of choosing either the Dins or the Kroks to perform with them in concerts. And they occasionally perform in jams with the co-ed groups.
The co-ed category is the newest, and rapidly overtaking the all-male groups in prestige--The Veritones was the third and only non-male group to release their music on compact disc. The Opportunes and The Callbacks comprise the rest of the co-ed groups, and both of the young groups are increasingly popular.
Only one group to date comprises the special-interest group--Under Construction sees "sharing the Christian faith" as part of its musical mission, says member Lisa Park '91.
But the groups are as distinguishable in their musical styles and sounds as they are in their membership. The Kroks repertoire, for example, consists mainly of older popular songs.
"We don't feel comfortable singing modern music," says Larry C. O'Keefe '91, who left the group this fall. "When we do something in reference to rap, it's comic."
O'Keefe says the Dins have a more varied repertoire than the Kroks. Joe M. Hill '91, who left the Dins this fall, agrees.
"The Dins are not stiff and some other groups are," Hill says. "The Dins do new humor at every concert. They do new songs at every concert."
But Veritones member Timothy Krochuk '92 says he thinks that the Kroks and Dins are distinguished more by their stage presence than their sound. Krochuk says he thinks that the co-ed groups have a more "jazzy, brassy" sound than the single-sex groups. Opportunes member Daniel A. Singer '92 says his group tends to sing more modern numbers. "Current pop is one of our favorites," Singer says.
But Singer says parody is the Opportunes's specialty. The group tends "to change the words of a song that just came out to ones having to do with Harvard," he says. Singer cites a recent skit featuring the song "Bokman," and a number titled "VES Dropout," an adaptation of the classic "Beauty School Dropout" featured in the musical Grease.
The Callbacks claim more varied musical interests, and defy the stereotype of the focused a capella group, says President Jen E. Hunter '92.
"We really try to do a wide range of music...while some of the other groups have pet styles," she says.
"[The Callbacks] love contrast. We'll do a loud pop song then something classical and quiet, then throw in an African folk song," she says.
The Pitches, more constrained by their members' range than the co-ed groups, tend to sing music modelled on groups such as the Supremes and Andrews Sister, says Pitches member Alissa F. Kingsbury '93. And Under Construction, more restrained by its mission than other groups, tends to sing Gospel songs, Park says.
The Veritones also have a mission, though theirs is not so explicitly stated. "The one thing that makes the Veritones stand out is our public service," says Krochuk. He says that since 1988 the group has raised more than $62,000 for the charitable organization, Make A Wish, And because the group keeps few proceeds from its performances, it has been able to raise funds for a number of charitable organizations.
The Pitches have a goal somewhat closer to home. "We end up carrying the message that Radcliffe still does exist," says Kingsbury. The group sings at Radcliffe functions and gets support from Radcliffe alumnae. "It ends up being sort of a special thing," she says.
But not all the groups are so ideologically motivated. Though the Kroks also sing at benefit concerts, they are not without their more pragmatic impulses.
"We are stuffy and that's the main complaint made against us," O'Keefe says. "[But] we sing for adults much more than we sing for students. Adults pay our bills." Fairly prestigious adults, at that--the Kroks regularly play to foreign dignitaries and heads of state on the world tour they embark upon each summer. The group members' travelling expenses are paid by proceeds from performances during the year, O'Keefe says.
Much of the Kroks's celebrity indubitably springs from the group's past, but that sort of historical hierarchy is growing more negligible in the Harvard community, many singers say. Some say that any sort of hierarchy is becoming negligible.
Jen S. Light '93, a member of the Callbacks, stresses that although she thinks the groups have different sounds and personalities, she no longer thinks there is great range in the quality of their performances.
"This year [at the Freshman Jam] the groups came across pretty evenly, whereas in the past some of the groups wowed the audience and the others were good but not great," Light says.
"I don't think any a cappella group is better than another," she says.
The three co-ed a cappella groups, who might be expected to feel competitive with one another, are sponsoring a joint jam this December. The Christmas concert marks the first combined effort of the ensembles independent of the Freshman Jam. Hunter says she thinks this event is indicative of a new spirit of cooperation among Harvard's singing groups. Though she acknowledges that "recognition is something [a cappella groups] have to fight for," Hunter says that the various performers "are finally supporting each other instead of competing." Krochuk says he has noticed that trend himself.
"There was a time around here when there was a lot of rivalry," he says. "I'm really excited [about the change]. The groups are working well together this year."
All the groups on campus this year coordinated their auditions, Krochuk says, and no disputes arose. He also says that the groups now send each other good-luck cards before the jams. And despite the supposed rivalry between the Dins and the Kroks, O'Keefe says, "I love the Dins. We're getting along better now."
Park says she hopes that all the a cappella groups will support each other more in the future. She says she hopes that Harvard will someday form an umbrella a cappella organization similar to the one at Yale, which coordinates concerts and regulates auditions.
The atmosphere--though changing--is warming.
"These groups are not just business," Krochuk says. "It's a community, it really is."
And it is still an integral and thriving part of the larger University community. The Callbacks this fall drew 850 people to their first Sanders Theater jam, and expect to come out soon with their first album. Their success and the success of the other a capella groups does not seem likely to decline, even after fall and its associated traditions have passed.