MUSIC:ED reviews the vocal extravaganza
The London A Cappella Festival (LACF) is an annual fixture on the UK choral scene, attracting performing groups from all over the world as well as hundreds of workshop participants and concert-goers. Based at Kings Place, with satellite events taking place at nearby LSO St Luke’s, the festival runs for four days and is an ambitious mix of concerts, workshops, children’s events and showcases.
Curated by a cappella supergroup, The Swingles, this year’s festival – the 9th – ran from 24-27 January 2018. Media partners, MUSIC:EDand sister site, Chorally attended on the last day, enabling us to sample workshops, showcases and the final concert.
What struck us first and foremost was the friendly, almost intimate, atmosphere of the event. Festival-goers were in evidence from the moment we arrived, hanging out on the ground floor of Kings Place or chilling in the basement where most of the action takes place. Riding down the escalator, we saw the foyer open up to reveal the showcase stage, situated between Hall 1 (where festival concerts take place) and Hall 2 (which hosts festival workshops). With Vocal Dimension Chorus’s showcase in full swing and an appreciative audience standing or lounging on banquettes or the floor to listen, applaud and sing along, there was a feeling that this festival is as much about chilled-out participation as spectating. Many of the people around us seemed to know each other and we sensed that people come here in groups – families, friends and, above all, fellow choir members.
This was echoed in the first workshop where participants were quick to shed bags, coats and even shoes in their eagerness to get comfy for the warm-up – a two-minute meditation-style exercise led by the beatboxer from all-female contemporary vocal group, Musae (stepping in at the last minute to cover for Huun-Huur-Tu, a throat-singing group from Tuvan on the Mongolian border, who’d had problems getting visas). While the rest of Musae watched from the stage, Mel Daneke and fellow singers, Jessie Litwin and Sam Creighton, led 80 of us in a session exploring what it takes to prepare for a performance. It’s always good to feel the fear and do it anyway and we found ourselves sharing some quite intimate experiences, including moving across the floor to music representing water, air, earth and fire, discussing where we feel confident and where fearful and, for eight lucky people, lip-synching a stage performance to a backing track! I found myself next to LACF’s Festival Patron, choirmaster and broadcaster, Gareth Malone, and was delighted to see him getting stuck in as we swam, flew, stomped and sizzled our way through the session.
The second workshop was a sit-down affair in which beatboxer supremos, Grace Savage and Hobbit, talked us through the basics of beatboxing. Not being as au fait with the contemporary a cappella scene as I might hope, it took me a while to work out why beatboxing had been given such a prominent spot in the festival until I realised that a cappella groups performing any kind of music with a groove need a ‘rhythm section’ and beatboxers provide that. I counted about 120 participants in the workshop and it was great to see everyone having a go at this most challenging of musical forms. As before, people were keen to get stuck in and the hall was soon full of impromptu vocal drum grooves and faux-electronic whistles and woofs. The audience had its fair share of beatbox aficionados, all keen to jump on stage and improvise with Grace and Hobbit, and, for me, this encapsulated the spirit of LACF – an event where lovers of a cappella can congregate to listen and learn, share and network and, above all, perform. You could almost feel the thirst for knowledge in the Q&A section and there was no sense that people felt intimidated – rather, this was a friendly community of a cappella brethren, united in the study and practice of group singing.
L-R: Grace Savage and Hobbit improvising with a member of the audience
Post-workshop, we hung out to three more showcase performances by NoVI, The Rolling Tones and The Gold Vocal Collective before making our way into Hall 1 for the final concert by The Swingles. Founded by Ward Swingle in 1963, this London-based group performs everything from Early Music and Bach to contemporary folk, pop and jazz. With effortless blending and consummate control, they are hugely impressive and well deserving of their reputation as masters of their craft. For me, the path they tread between their obvious classical training and the need for vocalese to sound ‘cool’ can be a little unconvincing at times but this is more than made up for by their ability to bring nuance to their dynamics. So many of the other performing groups ‘belted’ their numbers that it was a joy to listen to quiet as well as loud singing!
Contemporary a cappella group, The Gold Vocal Collective
The group was joined on stage towards the end of the night by many of the other festival headliners – including Musae and New York Voices – as well as Gareth Malone. The warm camaraderie between the performers and the audience confirmed that LACF is a labour of love and a place of sanctuary for the a cappella community. Roll on next year!