As the musical landscape changed throughout the decades, so did one of the oldest forms of music: the constantly underestimated a cappella. In forming an appreciation of the importance and awesomeness of a cappella, it is key to understand the form's origins.
As do most things, a cappella has its roots in the religious. Gregorian chant, as well as most secular vocal music from the Renaissance, used it for praise worship, but it was the development of polyphonic sound in Europe around the 15th century that influenced the church composers and kept the art form alive to the present day.
In the United States, it was the founding of the Northwestern A Cappella Choir in 1906 by the dean of the Northwestern University School of Music that helped popularize it in its modern format. Fairly quickly, collegiate a cappella groups started to be founded and funded, with schools across the country creating their own choirs and competing in everything from tournaments to reality shows.
The formal movement made way for the modern as barbershop and doo wop gained in popularity, which eventually led to beatboxers like Rahzel and Biz Markie making their own marks on the art form. The true media explosion of the form came in the late 2000s with the advent of the show "The Sing-Off." The third season introduced the world to Pentatonix, an a cappella group that put such innovative spins on tracks including "Let's Get it On" and "Love Lockdown," that even people who had never heard of a cappella were getting into the music. After winning a Grammy, topping the billboard charts and going platinum, combined with the smash success of the film "Pitch Perfect," it was safe to say that a cappella was reaching the masses.
Now Bend has its own three-day a cappella festival that is filled with seminars, events and performances. There will be critique sessions on Sunday morning where someone can perform a song for a cappella experts and find out where they can improve. Saturday brings the master classes, where aspiring singers can learn how to move forward with an a cappella career. Festival Director Erin Felder explains, "There are 14 groups competing in the 'Sing Off,' traveling in from Seattle, Walla Walla, Portland, Eugene, Corvallis and Bend. We have a wonderful mix of high school, collegiate, amateur and soloists. Our headliner, The House Jacks, will be here to judge the competition and choose an opening act for the Showcase performance on Saturday, and award the $1,000 cash prize."
Ray Solley, executive director of The Tower Theatre, talks about the origins of the event: "About two years ago, City of Bend Arts, Beautification and Culture Commissioner Leonard Gross came to my office and suggested the Tower help create and present an a cappella festival. His idea was to celebrate the human voice in a festival setting similar to the way the old Cascade Music Festival showcased classical music every year. The Tower has been very successful with several a cappella groups over the years – from the Swingle Singers to Take 6 to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, so I was an early, enthusiastic supporter. But when I took the idea to the Tower staff, that's when it really took off. The staff and board got behind the idea and created a full-blown festival, complete with competitions, workshops, classes, and pop-up and concert performances."
On top of that, all throughout Saturday, different a cappella groups will give street performances all around downtown and the Old Mill, giving those who can't make the festival a chance to see these incredible singers in action.
As much as a cappella has changed over the last few centuries, it has changed the most in the last 20 years. For this reason, it is impossible to predict where the art form is headed next, but America will most certainly be along for the ride.
Bend A Cappella Festival
Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall St., Bend
Check bendacapellafestival.com for events, times and locations