But there are many styles of singing without accompaniment in the world of a cappella – and at the Pacific Northwest Harmony Sweepstakes happening Saturday in Olympia.
“There’s jazz, there’s barbershop, there’s vocal percussion, there’s gospel,” said Gary Witley, musical director of Masterworks Choral Ensemble, which hosts the regional competition. “There are many, many different styles.”
Among the more unusual groups performing Saturday are KlapaDooWopella, which does doo-wop but focuses on traditional Croatian klapa songs, and the Shadywood Boys, whose specialty is Southern gospel.
“Their music is like something that would be on ‘Prairie Home Companion,’ ” Witley said. “It’s reminiscent of ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’ They sing with an old-fashioned microphone, too; it’s like a radio mic and they all cluster around it.”
The winner goes on to compete for the national title – and returns to host next year’s competition. The 2010 Northwest champion was Realtime, a group that started with a focus in classic barbershop.
“They won the world championship of barbershop in 2005,” Witley said. “Once you win that, you can no longer compete in barbershop events. To say that they are excellent is an understatement. To win at the world level in barbershop is a big deal.”
Two more of the competing groups – the Baudboys and Rezonate – are former Northwest champions.
While style isn’t the key to who wins, innovation can sometimes be rewarded, said judge Jamie Dieveney – and Dieveney knows. He’s the musical director of The Coats, who won the national Harmony Sweepstakes in 1994.
“When I first started with The Coats, we were exploring music that wasn’t traditionally done a cappella,” he said. “We decided to do classic-rock tunes or punk-rock tunes. We did Devo. That made it a lot more challenging for us and we had to start imitating instruments as opposed to just doing choral music.”
“When we won, we did ‘Whip It,’ and one of the judges at the national competition said, ‘Any group with the guts to do this song deserves to win something,’” Dieveney remembered.
Innovation is much more accepted these days, he said.
And it’s the quality of the singing – how the voices blend – and how the group connects and communicates with the audience that matter most.
“The judges don’t judge on style,” Witley said. “Fifty percent is for musicianship, and the other 50 percent is for showmanship.”
“Ensemble singing maybe requires a little more when it comes to the blend and styling,” Dieveney said. “A piano or a guitar will keep you in the right key. In an a cappella group, you can drift to a different key, and you have to drift together.
“There’s really that fine tuning that goes on to ring a chord and sing it in a way that’s beautiful.”
Pacific Northwest Harmony Sweepstakes
What: Presented by Masterworks Choral Ensemble, this night of a cappella singing features seven groups competing to win the Northwest regionals of the national competition. Also performing is last year’s Northwest winner, Realtime.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. S.E., Olympia