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Charmed Life

Voice Recognition

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 5/5/2004

Sometimes it seems like an invisible fence hangs around the perimeter of the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus, discouraging nonemployees from venturing in or out. Thus the realm beyond St. Paul Street is virtually unknown to most Hopkins students, and the average Baltimorean has scant idea of campus life, aside from the seasonal inactivities of "The Beach" at Charles and 34th streets.

As a result, non-Hoppies have missed out on the university's lively and impressive tradition of a cappella music--group singing, that is, with nothing but percussion (if that) for instrumental accompaniment.

Tradition might be too strong a word, but after a dozen years of enthusiastic, competitive, unpaid performances, vocal music at Hopkins has definitely evolved beyond fad status. (Elsewhere in the country, collegiate a cappella is solidly traditional, tracing back at least as far as the founding of Yale University's Whiffenpoofs in 1909. Not surprisingly, Yalies take this tradition to extremes: There are about 14 groups at the school, and they stage their own "rush" each fall, just like the fraternities.) Hopkins boasts at least seven groups, several of which originated in the early '90s and have continued to be replenished, year by year, with fresh voices. The present array includes the all-male All Nighters, the all-female JHU Sirens, the mixed-gender Vocal Chords and Octopodes (pictured), the humor-oriented Mental Notes, the Jewish group Ketsev, and the Christian group Adoremus. While some of the groups come up with original songs, the bulk of the repertoire is cover material performed in styles ranging from doo-wop to hip-hop. Some popular songs come all but ready-made for noninstrumental treatment--think of classic Beach Boys hits--but much of the fun of modern a cappella lies in clever vocal adaptations of current instrumental music, including percussion.

Recently, I dropped in on a performance by the latest incarnation of the Sirens and was immediately struck by the sheer ethnic variety of the 10 women in the group: Each continent and subcontinent on Earth seems to be represented by at least one member. On this very international campus, where so much social life is organized according to national ancestry, it was refreshing to see (and hear) musical harmony as a uniting principle. The set consisted of recent pop music--nothing this geezer journalist recognized. Each Siren got her turn as a soloist. A tearful little ceremony honored the women who would be graduating; for the finale, former Sirens were invited to join the group onstage. An audience of about 200--friends, fans, and members of other a cappella groups--sat in attentive silence through each song, erupting in lusty hoots and cheers between numbers.

Musically, however, the show was stolen by the Sirens' out-of-town guests, the Generics, a 10-member, all-male fixture from the University of Maryland. What they lacked in glamour, the group made up in punchy, polyrhythmic arrangements, climaxing with a flawless, funny rendition of OutKast's "Hey Ya" and a supple medley of later Beatles songs. After the show, UM senior and Generics spokesman Paul Kumar explained that the group's tightness comes in part from being "a fraternity in the original sense of the word." The lads live together, eat together, and hang out together, and they have done so--albeit with different personnel from year to year--for 16 years. Their performance, like the Sirens', exuded joy in both their music and their camaraderie.

By nature, a cappella music enforces a fusion of musical and social relationships. Without instruments to keep voices on pitch (and to mask mistakes), the singers must listen to each other intently. Individuals get their turns at the lead--some individuals more than others--but it's clear that a cappella is not a breeding ground for prima donnas.

"Every once in while you have a girl or guy come along who has a great voice and wants to be a diva, and that doesn't last very long," says Hopkins senior Michael Vu, president of the Octopodes.

In-group coziness is spiced with friendly intergroup rivalries and contests of skill. Some years ago, Hopkins a cappella was drifting toward a Yale-ish elitism, with different groups understood to be the A, B, and even C teams in their respective gender categories. The school and the student-run Performing Arts Council discouraged such stratification. These days, the groups tend to sort themselves out according to style.

A downright Olympian pursuit of perfection persists. At Hopkins this year, the laurels (or at least bragging rights) belong to the Octopodes: One of their recordings, a cover of "Bring Me to Life" by Evanescence, was chosen to be one of 18 songs featured on BOCA 2004: Best of College A Cappella, the annual CD put out by Maine-based label Varsity Vocals. The track shows off throbbing, seamless background harmonies and a sensuous, yearning lead by junior Emily Caporello. Vu says that the Octopodes' offering is the only song on the BOCA disc that wasn't recorded in a professional studio. The voices were recorded one at a time in a jerry-rigged sound booth in Vu's apartment, and mixed in his computer.

While the group includes the usual Hopkins cross-section of science, premedical, and engineering students, none of the Octopodes is openly aiming at a musical career.

"We love making music, and a cappella is such a weird way of doing it," Vu says. "There's just something about 15 voices coming together and making this huge wall of sound."

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