2012 / august / 26

The Real Group Festival 2012

Now this was a fantastic experience. I thought I was going to Stockholm see three great concerts. It turned out to be so much more.

The Real Group Festival posters

I've sung and made music all my life, but I'm fairly new to the world of vocal and a-capella music. I heard about this festival and saw that this was a chance to finally see two groups I've wanted to see live ever since I got to know their music, but who hardly tour The Netherlands, The Real Group and Rajaton. I jumped at this chance and booked, money and time be damned. Later on, fellow Vocals Bibi and Mark booked as well.
Then, when the date came nearer, I looked at the programme more closely, and saw that it was actually jam-packed with not just seven official concerts in three days (!), but also an open stage, and lots of workshops... given by the same people performing. Really top of the bill, the cream of the crop, the best artists in the world in this genre period. Oh, wow. For instance, a workshop 'arranging for beginners' with none other than TRG's Anders Edenroth himself. Whom I funnily enough didn't recogize when I bumped into him on the first day... Youtube videos do not do this man justice! But I digress.

It turned out a wonderful learning experience. Everyone seemed to be on a buzz. The atmosphere was open and everyone, including the 'stars' ,very approachable and often funny. In most of the workshops I did, the group of participants completely went for it from the first moment. Despite the tight schedule and the fatigue resulting from just not wanting to miss a thing, from the nine o'clock warming up session to the workshops, to the open stage concerts inbetween and the afternoon concerts, then another workshop, then quickly finding a place for a quick dinner before the evening concert started at seven... lasting at least til around ten. After which there was an open bar, of course, and jam sessions.

So much music, such great people, a great, open atmosphere.

Before I get to what I took home from, let this 18 minute compilation video wash over you:


Now, some observations and things I learned...

1. What a rehearsal can be like

I joined the 'Real Single Singers', a made-up group of festival goers that did not come with their performing group and still wanted to have a chance to sing on stage. In a way, the RSS was a victim of its own success with seventy singers signing up, but the energy, the focus, the willingness of the singers in this group was so inspiring. Not to mention that everyone either was prepared, or could sheet-read perfectly. Wow... so that's what a rehearsal can be like, too. And how quickly can you start working on the myriad of details that make the difference between good and great.
(Merel Martens did a terrific job conducting this ragged group BTW, and Annemarie and Emily's energy worked wonders as well, hats off).
This raises the bar tremendously, and I feel there's no going back. I want this to be the standard for all the groups I will sing and rehearse with in future. Otherwise, what's the point? And thanks to what I picked up from other workshops, I also have a better idea now of how to make this happen (especially the 7-box model the Real Group uses to focus their rehearsals on specific topics). I have an awful lot to learn to get there (not the least in terms of impatience, people management and setting my own priorities), but knowing that it can be done is a great inspiration.

2. Vocal music with individual mikes and feeling: it can be done

Vocal music is unique, because the voice is such a unique instrument. The art of singing is for a large part removing obstacles in the natural flow of breath between body (chest) and mouth. Both my classical singing training 20 years ago, and the lessons I'm having since a few years based on the Lichtenberg school focus on that. Because it is about removing barriers, singing can seem to come straight from the singer's heart and be incredibly touching. That's why I love this music, and why I do it myself.
(of course, I'm conveniently skipping the other musical skills and talents that you need as s musician with any instrument here).
When a microphone comes between singer and listener, it forms an extra barrier. Amplification limits the dynamic range within which you can play as a musician, and even with good microphone technique (varying the distance and angle between mouth and mike) the reach is still less wide than unemployed. And on top of that, you cannot depend on your ears alone anymore to tune in to the others, you need monitoring, which oh so easily can go wrong... It's not a coincidence that Rajaton considers their sound engineere their seventh member. I've seen a lot of vocal groups that didnt touch me because of their use of mikes, and because of that I've never wanted to do that.
Still so many groups do, as singing with individual microphones in a vocal group also has two large advantages. You can more easily perform in larger settings where you need amplification anyway - for your average sound engineer, individual miking is much easier to set up than trying to catch a group (choral) sound. (I won't go into the technical details, but you need a completely different type of microphone and soundprocessing). Also, a mike can also be used as an instrument that a voice can use make new sounds, primarily for percussive sounds. Beatboxing! A vocal group can sound like a modern pop act this way. But at a price: the feeling slips away oh so easily.
So I've never been a fan of using individual microphones... but not anymore! It was a revelation to see groups performing that managed to keep the heart connection open while singing with mikes, and blending percussion with regular singing rather than having a beatboxer on the side, disconnected from the rest of the group. Its a delicate balancing act, it needs practice, technique, good equipment and an even better sound engineer, but it can be done, and then it brings the music to a new level. So, I'm over to the other side. My next group will be miked up.
I've even learned to appreciate looping as a tool, though I don't think I'll use that myself. Two groups featured that use this heavily, Postyr Project and Freeplay Duo, in very different ways: PP to create soundscapes, FP to have a duo sing as if they were six, which I especially liked.

Island feeling

3. Beyond covers: write original material!

Acapalla music has long been about interpreting existing music. Covers dominate, with some exceptions. Groups that write and perform their own material (by which I don't mean arrangements, but music) have been few., TRg and Rajaton were the two prime examples I knew. Most acapella festivals and concerts I've been to in the past years were cover-only.
But not here! It seemed that almost every group I saw sung a mix of covers and own material. The covers pulled me in as a listener and prepared me for music and lyrics completely new. It's riskier, as it can fall flat - not everyone is a Lennon/McCartney, and not every great song is an earworm - but when it works, it has so much more impact.

Eric Ericsonhall


Some of the groups that stood out:
The Real Group. What to say. They popped up everywhere it seemed, hardly a concert without one of them joining up as guest, without any star attitude... they were fantastic hosts and fantastic musicians.
Rajaton - they're even better than their records. Their 'meet Rajaton' workshop was a real treat. They were very open about the way they make their magic happen and the practicalities to make that happen to make a living from it, in what felt like a genuine conversation over a cup of tea in an intimate circle, despite it being a packed room. And to top it off they sung three songs without mikes and it was stunning. (one thing they told in this workshop was that they make sure at least 20% of their gigs are unmiked, and that their rehearsals are almost always acoustic as well - microphone training is for separate, dedicated rehearsals).
Swingle singers - nothing to do with the swingle singers of old, the new incarnation put up a solid show. It's not really my thing, but they do it really, really well.
Freeplay Duo - two eclectic canadians and a macbook whose energy and musicality I loved. Suba Sankaran's workshop on Southern Indian classical singing was fab, as was the duo's workshop on their use of looping, especially the non-technical aspects: what it means for arranging and performing.
Voces Nordicae - a bit of an outing from the rest of the program, a highly stylized blend of theatre and classical vocal music. What Cirque de Soleil has done for the classical circus, this group does for classical choirs. Fantastic.
Voco Novo (facebook page, as their website seems to be only in chinese) - acapella from Taiwan, mostly in Chinese (various dialects actually). In the opening concert they sung three songs based on Taiwanese folk traditions, in chinese, a blend of tradition and modern acapella. Seemingly simple but effective choreography and explaining the story of each song before performing it did the trick to overcome what could have been a huge language and cultural barrier. It was heartfelt, mesmerizing, wonderful. Later in the week I saw them again, this time on the open stage, performing chinese pop songs and own material of a much more modern kind, and they pulled it off again.

Postyr Project - a unique blend of electronics and voices. Lots of looping and effects. Very interesting, though the technology for me got in the way of the emotion sometimes, and not all the songs are memorable. But when it all comes together, such as the first time they performed 'my future self', it works. I'll certainly want to see them again to see where this journey leads them.

Vocado like our gracious hosts, also from Sweden. After so many really special acts, this group looked and sounded more like a 'regular' acapella sextet. More traditional in repertoire, arrangements and choreography - but hey, they were so good at it! and... they also sung a few songs of their own, and those really stood out in their set for me. Another sign that this is the way of the future.

Perpetuum Jazzile, or as they call it among themselves, PJ. A 55-voice strong choir that shows how far a group of non-professionals can come with near-total dedication (when I talked to some of the PJ singers in the bar, they described it as a marriage - rehearsals twice a week, several international tours a year, as well as lots of logistics and marketing). Incomparable with any other pop choir I've ever seen, and their live performance way exceeded their videos.

By no means this is an exhaustive list. Jim Daus Hjernøe gave an outstanding workshop on rhythm. I saw a wonderful women's octet from Åland at the open stage whose name I forgot, but who were really lovely. Singing circle songs with Kristian Skårhø was special. The location of the festival, on a peninsula, was maybe not very practical, but created a perfect atmosphere. And so on...

China Teatern audience
(full flickr set Stockholm august 2012 - the festival was so absorbing that I hardly took pictures during, so this is an impression of Stockholm before and after)
So far my personal views, there's much more to say and enjoy about this festival (and Stockholm, what a nice vibe that city has), but others have written about it much better.
Jeff Meshel was a really nice man to meet during the festival, and as it turns out he's an astute observer and very knowledgable music lover, who posted an interesting view on the European vocal scene on his blog titled The New A-capella.

Also, do check out Florian Städtler writing about this festival at Acapellazone's Vocalblog: My Favourite Real Group Festival Moments , The Real Group Festival kaleidoscope, a mothership post collecting video, photo and writings about the festival.

Acapella arrangement: Price Tag, by Jessie J | main | Halki, the quiet island





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