Recordings, Technology, and Discourse in Collegiate A Cappella
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Recordings, Technology, and Discourse in Collegiate A Cappella

Collegiate a cappella is an American musical genre and practice in which self-directed groups of college student singers arrange, perform, and record popular songs without accompaniment. One of its stylistic goals is emulation: its songs should sound like the original artists' recordings, even though they are now a cappella, that is, limited only to voices (Duchan 2007).1 Group lineups (which may be all-male, all-female, or mixed) are transient, so their recordings comprise particular collections of voices singing particular songs at a particular time, as well as historical records of musical and cultural practice.

Vocal ensembles have existed at American colleges since the colonial and early Federalist eras (Buechner 2003, Kegerreis 1986) and continued throughout the nineteenth century in cases both well documented (e.g., the Fisk Jubilee Singers) and undocumented (e.g., the Cecilias, Owls, and Beethoven Bummers at Yale University).2 The college glee club, an ancestor of contemporary collegiate a cappella groups, began at Harvard University in 18583 and continues today, along with the barbershop quartet tradition, which began in the late 1800s and has included college groups (Averill 2003). Despite these predecessors, some consider the Yale University Whiffenpoofs the "first" collegiate a cappella group: a prominent online timeline of the genre begins in 1909 with the Whiffenpoofs, claiming that year as the birth of collegiate a cappella ("A Century of A Cappella," n.d). Founded at Mory's Temple Bar, a New Haven pub, the Whiffenpoofs are the oldest a cappella group still active today (see Gould 2004), and their signature song, "The Whiffenpoof Song," has been famously covered by crooners Rudy Vallée ([1937] 1993), Bing Crosby (1947), and others. A cappella grew slowly during the twentieth century, but exploded in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s for several reasons, including a long history of a cappella singing in American education, the gradual coeducational integration of American higher education, several prominent a cappella pop hits (e.g., Billy Joel's "The Longest Time" in 1983 and Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" in 1988), the rise of the Internet and its faster communicative powers, and the institutionalization of a cappella itself through websites, a professional society, and annual competitions (Duchan 2012:45-63).

With this growth and development, collegiate a cappella recordings saw considerable changes in both process and product, some of which met stiff resistance from members of the a cappella community. This review essay highlights several of those changes, considers their causes and effects, and discusses their reception in a cappella circles. Collegiate a cappella groups remain the primary focus, since they represent an American genre and practice on which scholarship has been virtually nonexistent.4

Despite the lengthy examination of a cappella recordings offered here, it is worth noting that few singers join a cappella groups for the express purpose of recording. Instead, my ethnographic research found that most singers had participated in some kind of musical activity in high school (often a school- or church-sponsored choir) and sought opportunities to continue singing in college. But a cappella groups also serve a larger purpose, often made plain to singers in retrospect: they create a sense of community. College has long been a time of transition in the lives of young adults; for some it is their first experience at a distance from home and family. As they form their new identities in this context, student groups replace family, at least partially, as systems of support (Karp, Holmstrom, and Gray 1998). It is understandable, then, that a cappella singers frequently described [End Page 488] their groups in terms of fraternity, sorority, and family.

The process of recording an album can become a common goal around which group members bond socially, spending hours huddled together in a studio, perfecting their parts and (hopefully) creating something of which they can be proud, a material emblem of both their efforts and their inclusion in the group. As Dave Ransom, music director of the co-ed Boston University Treblemakers put it: "To have a CD and say, 'this is what I did. Check this out. I'm proud...