The evolution of choral music is defined by religion, encapsulated in the term acapella, the Italian phrase for music “according to the chapel.” The host of compositions made for unaccompanied voices before the year 1600 was arranged by composers to be sung by choirs in praise of their God.
Certain religions still hold to the original values that ancient church leaders found appealing as a doctrine, that the regulative principles of worship based on the second Commandment were to be strictly enforced.
In recalling the pious nature of apostles and scripture that admonished false idols before God, parishioners were encouraged to sing loud the praises of their faith without accompaniment. Many Presbyterian, Baptist, Mennonite, and Amish members still hold to these values today.
Perhaps the earliest examples of acapella music is Gregorian chant, so named after Pope Gregory I, acknowledged as the man responsible for organizing a body of music to celebrate events on the church calendar. By the 11th Century, papal authorities in the Roman Catholic Church had organized monastic choirs who sang psalms as part of their development under the ancient Rule of Saint Benedict.
Todays acapella groups vacillate between sacred and secular music that continues a serious art form but whose composition varies considerably. In fact, some of the better-known traditional groups like the King’s Singers build repertoires by infusing centuries old music into interesting, if not lively, songs. Still, the most stirring ensembles originate from the church, and some forms, like Gregorian chant, have even been researched for their tranquilizing effects on the brain waves of human beings. Collegiate and barbershop groups are other strong sources of acapella singing that enjoy a wide following in America.
One unlikely figure in the modern development of acapella music is the enigmatic Ben Folds, better known as the creator of the trio Ben Folds Five, which enjoyed a few hits during their seven-year stint as a group in the 1990’s. As a solo artist with a witty sense of humor, the songwriter devised the idea for a concept album featuring acapella arrangements from the best collegiate vocal ensembles, many of whom were already covering his songs.
The move hearkened back to the roots of collegiate choirs that began with the first recognized collegiate acapella group, the Yale Whiffenpoofs, in 1909. The efforts of four Yale senior classmen at the college have sparked repetition and competition among colleges across the nation since then.
Other notable contemporary artists have experimented with acapella recordings in the last twenty-five years, including Todd Rundgren, Bjork, Bobby McFerrin and Mike Patton, some of whom revived interest in the lyrical style by mimicking the efforts of masterful doo-wop groups like The Persuasions of the 1950’s and 60’s.
The long-term success of formal entities like the Barbershop Harmony Society, with an estimated 30,000 members in the U.S. and Canada, and Chorus America, a support group that represents more than 1,600 choral groups in North America, gives strong support to the acapella form.
Add those numbers to the thousands of similar groups in other nations and religious choirs who rely mostly on vocal harmonies around the world, and the future interest in acapella music is assured. The souls of voices from civilizations thousands of years old still linger in the spirit of modern acapella music that is as strong today as it was long ago.
Sara WatkinsYoung in All the Wrong WaysNew West RecordsThis is a breakup album with myself… says Sara Watkins of her third solo record, Young in All the Wrong Ways. Writing and recording these ten intensely soul-baring songs was a means for her to process and mark the last couple years, which have been transformative. I looked around and realized that in many ways I wasnt who or where I wanted to be. Its been a process of letting go and leaving behind patterns and relationships and in some cases how Ive considered myself. What these songs are documenting is the turmoil you feel when you know something has to change and youre grappling with what that means. It means youre losing something and moving forward into the unknown.That sense of possibility infuses the songs on Young in All the Wrong Ways with a fierce and flinty resolve, which makes this her most powerful and revealing album to date. In some ways its a vivid distillation of the omnivorous folk-pop-bluegrass-indie-everything-else Watkins made with Nickel Creek, yet she makes audacious jumps that push against expectations in unexpected ways. These songs contain some of the heaviest moments of her career, with eruptions of thrumming B3 organ and jagged electric guitar. But its also quiet, vulnerable, tenderhearted. In other words, bold in all the right ways. Recently Watkins found herself without a manager at the same time she was leaving the label that released her first two solo albums. For many artists that might be the worst possible time to enter the studio, but working without a net invigorated Watkins. It was important for her to document this time in her life when she was between professional contracts: free from the weight of obligation to anyone but herself. In that regard the tumultuous title track sounds like the first song of the rest of her life. Her backing band create a violent clamor, with Jon Brions sharp stabs of electric guitar punctuating the din and Jay Belleroses explosive drumming ripping at the seams of the song. In the chaos, however, Watkins finds clarity: Ive got no time to look back, so Im going to leave you here, she sings, with new grit and fire in her voice. Im going out to see about my own frontier.Fittingly, Watkins wrote or co-wrote every song on Young in All the Wrong waysa first for her. Her previous albums have featured well-chosen covers that compliment her own songs and showcase her interpretive abilities. I love singing other peoples songs, and originally I did plan to have a couple of covers on the album. But as we were recording and getting a picture of how everything fit together, it became apparent that the covers really stood apart from the story that was taking shape. I felt like I just had a little bit more to say. Everything is coming from me, so theres a unified perspective on this album thats different from what Ive done before.Some are lonely and quiet: Like New Years Day describes in careful detail a trip out to the desert, and the low-key arrangement echoes the reassuring isolation of the southwestern landscape. Other songs are more extroverted, their volume and energy a means to reach out to friends and colleagues. Move Me opens as a loping pop song, but soon explodes into a walloping rocker as Watkins demands, in a voice that strains against composure, I want you to move me! Its a time-stopping performance: Janis Joplin by way of Fleetwood Mac. That song is about relationships that have gone stagnant, how sometimes we just go about the process of making small talk in order not to stir anything up, she says. But its sad when you cant have a meaningful conversation with people after a while. Even if they hurt you, you just want to feel something from them. You dont relate to each other the same way as you once did, so you have to decide if youre going to invite this person further into your life or just move on.Watkins knew just the right people to bring these tough-minded songs to life. She corralled longtime friend and fellow fiddler Gabe Witcher to produce, then put together a band that includes two of Witchers fellow Punch Brothers: guitarist Chris Eldridge and bass player Paul Kowert. Providing harmonies on the title track are Sarah Jarosz and Aoife ODonovan, Watkins bandmates in Im With Her, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket provides a vocal foil on One Last Time. Ive known these guys for a long time, so theres a personal trust as well as a musical trust. I was able to put my heart and soul into these performances, in a way that I dont think I would be able to if I was in a room full of strangers. It allowed me to give myself over to some of these very personal thoughts that are in the lyrics. To say these are personal lyrics might be an understatement. Theyre beyond personal, whether shes confessing some long-held regret or gently consoling a friend. Young in All the Wrong Ways ends with Tenderhearted, a quietly assured song that Watkins wrote about a few of her heroes: women like her Grandmother Nordstrom who have weathered hard times with grace and have provided Watkins with examples of how to live her life. Theyre women who have endured so much yet emerged with love, strength and kindness. I remember someone saying, Its so sad how much shes had to go through. And I remember thinking, Thats why shes such an incredible person. She faced all those trials and came out the other side. Watkins would never be so bold as to count herself in their company; instead, she aspires to follow their example. But Young in All the Wrong Ways does reveal an artist who has managed to transform her own turmoil into music that is beautiful and deeply moving: God bless the tenderhearted, she sings, who let life overflow.