The beauties and joys of a cappella

The Taylor Festival Choir is a standardbearer of a cappella singing in the Lowcountry and a touring ensemble that has performed in the U.S. and abroad.

A cappella. It is a term that sends excited college-age students all over the nation running to perform popular songs for unaccompanied choir with their student-led ensembles.

The “a cappella craze” has taken college campuses by storm for the past 30 years or more, and now has expanded to adult groups, both amateur and professional. The barbershop quartet is still going strong, but add to it groups like the King’s Singers, Chanticleer, Anonymous Four and many more. Even our European brethren, from whom we inherited so much artistically, have popularized this style of choral music. Surf YouTube and watch the various TV shows in Merry Old England devoted to singing sans accompaniment.

Yet the term “a cappella” has not always stood for the do-wop group, pop arrangement or avant-garde work for vocal ensemble. “A cappella” literally means “in the chapel style” or, more directly, “unaccompanied.”

In my childhood, a cappella singing indeed meant unaccompanied singing, with the additional connotation that the choir singing “a cappella” would in all likelihood perform some sacred choral music. My own father’s award-winning high school choir in Little Rock, Ark., was called, simply, the Sylvan Hills High School A Cappella Choir, and dad indeed preferred unaccompanied choral singing above all things musical.

Why this discussion on the meaning of the term “a cappella”? Because during the more than two weeks of artistic paradise that we call Spoleto Festival USA and Piccolo Spoleto, there will be an abundance of a cappella choral music performed all over our great city.

What makes unaccompanied choral singing special?

From the dawn of mankind, men and women have been singing. It’s very likely that the first music ever made involved singing. Civilizations such as the ancient Greeks and Romans certainly had an established musical tradition involving singing.

As Christianity spread across Europe, and great spaces of worship were built, music befitting these spaces developed. Plainchant, especially, filled these spaces with long, unison, gently curving melodic lines for more than 1,000 years. This was music filled with spirituality and a wide range of emotions conveyed by men striving to touch the eternal.

Eventually, plainchant expanded to more than one musical line sounding simultaneously, giving birth to polyphonic choral music. Much later, the organ would become central to sacred music-making, but a cappella singing has remained a fixture in these spaces.

As societies became more secular, choral music began to use secular texts, especially poetry, and a great deal of this newer music was accompanied by what was to become the ubiquitous instrument of the home and concert hall: the piano.

But the desire to hear unaccompanied choral forces has never diminished, and music written for unaccompanied choir continues to be written, performed, heard and valued right up to the present — which one could argue is the richest era of choral music in history.

But, back to the central question: what makes unaccompanied choral so special, both for listener and performer? Most basically, it is the sound of the human voice itself. No other instrument is quite so expressive, quite so capable of conveying every nuance of every emotion in the hearts and souls of the singer.

Almost every great instrumentalist will tell you that his goal is to make his instrument “sing.” Charleston’s virtuoso recorder player and Early Music specialist (and now old time banjo player) Steve Rosenberg will go so far as to say instrumentalists should be able to sing themselves.

On a philosophical-spiritual level, the act of singing together creates community. When there is no instrumentation at all, only voices, the sense of community is heightened, as the choral singer senses that these voices are combining to create something almost innocent in its purity and larger than anything a single voice can produce.

One of my favorite examples of combined, unaccompanied voices creating community occurred in a visit to Sligo County, Ireland, seven years ago. I wandered with family into a country pub one evening for a bite to eat and a well-poured Guinness or two. As we ate and drank, we noticed an elderly gentleman at the bar, who stood up and quietly began to sing a folk song that we did not recognize.

We must have been the only people in the pub that did not know the tune, because gradually, one by one, every publican joined in the singing. The sound in the room of completely unaccompanied voices spontaneously singing this song that clearly meant a great deal to everyone there generated an emotion so powerful I continue to feel it today.

From a harmonic standpoint, voices together can tune so precisely that overtones associated with specific sonorities such as octaves, fifths and even triads can be heard above and beyond the music on the printed page. This phenomenon is so intoxicating it becomes addictive to the singer. And it’s a property of expression so powerful that the skilled choral composer deliberately creates harmonies to take advantage of overtones.

Some modern composers such as Arvo Pärt, John Tavenor, Eric Whitacre, James MacMillan and Tarik O’Regan have gone so far as to adapt musical styles that emphasize long held chords and intervals, inviting the overtones generated from a choir tuning chords precisely into the essential sound spectrum of their compositions.

Dissonance (that is, intervals listeners find somewhat biting and not “at rest”) becomes an incredibly powerful expressive device when it is resolved into consonant intervals tuned so precisely that the overtone series almost literally lights up the room.

All this is to say that listening to a cappella singing is one of the truly special experiences any music lover can enjoy. This is not to diminish instrumental music, or choral and vocal music accompanied with instruments. Obviously, instrumental music, or music combining instruments and voice, is central to the classical music canon.

But there is no question that unaccompanied choral music remains one of life’s great treats. This Spoletotide, make sure you experience major unaccompanied works. Listen for those overtones, and the little slice of Heaven they bring.

Open your heart to the pure sound of human voices that can foster what is too often missing in our frenetic world: a sense of community, spirituality, and true fulfillment.

Robert Taylor is director of choral activities at the College of Charleston, founding artistic director and president of the Taylor Festival Choir and Taylor Music Group, and director of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus and CSO Chamber Singers.