Saturday 7 February 2015

Swinging out loud – the London a cappella festival

Swingle Singers
Swingle Singers
A Cappella Festival; Swingle Singers, Anuna, Accent, Alexandre L'Estrange; Kings Place
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Jan 31 2015
Star rating: 5.0

All things a cappella at Kings Place, with workshops and concerts curated by Swingle Singers

This week, the London a cappella festival celebrated the unaccompanied voice with concerts, workshops, and many chances to sing. Curated by the Swingle Singers, performers and participants from across Europe and further afield got together to indulge their passion for being vocal.

I caught the Saturday afternoon and evening at Kings Place, immersing myself in workshops by Accent and Alexander L'Estrange, foyer events featuring Viva Acappella, Park Street Quartet, and Vocca and Mensemble, plus concerts by the mystic Anúna, and the Swingle Singers. When I left the after show party was starting with a performance by the Swingle Singles – a group of participants brought together by their festival passes who were putting into practice everything they had learnt during the festival.

The workshops were aimed at different levels from the beginner up. The first workshop I attended was hosted by the virtual vocal ensemble Accent. It was a whistle stop tour of the history of a cappella singing, from hymn tunes to their own modern style, which they described as an evolution from "'boring' major chords to major 9th". Using 'Twinkle twinkle little star' as an example, which they themselves had arranged in each style, the audience could join in, singing along. In each case you could always sing the tune if you could not sight read music.
The examples included barbershop, where a third of all chords have to be dominant sevenths, everyone has to sing the same words at the same time, and there is definitely no rhythmic swing; the Mills Brothers, where one voice has the lyrics and everyone else imitates instruments; moving through the addition of 6th and diminished chords in the swing of Tommy Dorsey; the Milltones with their more open chord structure, more advanced harmony and use of colour notes; to Hi-Lo where the singers form groups within the group, and there is more going on such as voice crossing. A few more examples were given such as pop, Eric Whitacre style, Singers Unlimited, and Take 6 to bring the workshop to a (slightly overrun) close.

The workshop 'Performance Presentation' was meant to be given by Joanna Forbes L'Estrange, former singer and musical director of the Swingle singers - but she had unfortunately lost her voice. Her husband Alexander stepped into the void, delivering a high powered workshop based on getting the group to perform a multi-layered a cappella swing piece with vocal percussion, a 12 bar bass line, tune, harmony and second theme. Here the skill required was not the ability to read music but rather to remember and repeat blocks of music, while dancing and clicking fingers, which Alexander then orchestrated into a coherent exhilarating whole.

Not for the faint-hearted, this was aimed at choral directors (it was presented in partnership with the Association of British Choral Directors). But other people, who had less choral experience, had found something to excite them just as much in different workshops, although they too felt their workshops were a bit advanced for the complete novice.

The foyer performance groups each had their own style and interests. Viva Acappella sang 'Let me entertain you' and 'I'm feeling good' with smooth vocals and a sultry solo, while Vocca and Mensemble sang Michael Jackson's 'Bad' and traditional Turkish songs with equal skill.

Tonight was the first time in ten years that Irish group Anúna has been on an English stage. With the aim of using music to investigate the "frailty and strength of the human condition” Anúna was founded in 1987 by Dublin composer Michael McGlynn. Their distinctive sound comes from McGlynn's compositions and arrangements of Irish (and elsewhere) medieval, early music and folk.


The performance was sheer delight – back of the neck stuff. The atmospheric music was enhanced by the singers' costumes and their candlelit movement around the hall and stage. Plainchant, drones, vocal percussion, folk tunes and religious ideas all blended together. For a large part there were accompanied solos, but everyone had their turn being lead vocalist. Their very different voices became apparent during the solos in a way which was invisible when singing together – the sign of a very well thought out blend. There were also several songs in the typically very fast Irish style including 'Dúlamán' and the heterophony of 'Jerusalem'.

The headline band, The Swingle Singers was also a great success. They had a few emotional moments as they could not help but remember their founder and friend Ward Swingle who died on the 20th January 2015, and who was also one of the festival patrons. In his memory they played a track from their new album 'Deep End' which featured Ward's voice.

The Swingle Singers also have a distinctive style, with lots of vocal percussion, electronic overlays, live sampling, and the occasional self depreciating foray into vocally dextrous classicalism. They can tackle anything from a beautifully romantic Turkish folk song to a concerto grosso by Corelli (arranged by Richard Eteson), and an outstanding version of Bach's 'Little organ fugue' merged with 'Quia Respexit' from his 'Magnificat'.

For the concluding songs of each half of their concert they were joined by the Canadian group Countermeasure (who had had their own concert earlier in the afternoon). But the most memorable song was their moving rendition of 'Blackbird' arranged by Jonathan Rathbone. They may have been going for 52 years –with all the changes in personnel this requires – but the Swingle name is still a code word for singing in style.


While Anúna have just finished a world tour, the Swingle Singers are just setting off. They will be performing at Union Chapel in London this Saturday in "A lazy afternoon with music, tea and cake”.

But for all things a cappella – we will just have to wait – until next year's festival.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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