A heptad of undergrad vocal ensembles will harmonize beside the Hudson tomorrow (Saturday, October 1), in Wagner Park, from 1:00 to 4:00 pm. The free Dockapella music festival will feature voices that fly without instruments from Columbia, Princeton, Yale, and Brown Universities and Vassar College, as well as ensembles from New York University and the University of Virginia.
Music lovers are invited to bring a blanket and a picnic lunch to enjoy a cappella performances that range from reggae to Renaissance. A cappella music is undergoing a national resurgence, especially at the university level, where several thousand groups now perform, tour, and compete nationally. Since the 1980s, a cappella performances have shaken off their academic and religious roots, and embraced popular forms of music, such as folk and rap. And the seven ensembles that will sing on Saturday are all professional-caliber groups, having performed in national tours, backed up headliner acts, and been invited to recitals at venues such as Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall, and the White House.
The genre takes its name from an Italian musical phrase, a shortening of, “alla cappella,” which literally means, “as in the chapel.” This refers to the fact that, during the 1500s, chapels — unlike larger churches — had no organs. So music composed for performance in a chapel was intended for voices only.
Cultural historians assume that unaccompanied singing was the first music made by ancient humans, although this is far from certain: Some primates bang rhythmically on hollow logs in a way that strikes modern ears as musical, and porto-humans may have engaged in similar behaviors. These and other animal traits (such as the sophisticated singing of whales and birds) give rise to the belief that music originates with other species, and predates human history. But the consensus view about our kind is that early attempts to vocalize natural sounds (perhaps as imitations of the wind, or the cries of animals) may have contributed to the evolution of human speech.
Indeed, in “The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin went so far as to theorize that, “some early progenitor of man probably first used his voice in producing true musical cadences, that is, in singing” to express “various emotions, such as love, jealousy, triumph,” and, “it is, therefore, probable that the imitation of musical cries by articulate sounds may have given rise to words expressive of various complex emotions.” He added, “this would have been a first step in the formation of language. As the vocal cords were used more and more, they would have been strengthened and perfected through principle of the inherited effects of use.”
What is almost certain, however, is that singing in early societies led to the development of musical instruments, in much the same way that epic poems, originally composed for verbal recitation, such as Homer’s Odyssey, predate (and perhaps helped to catalyze) the technology of writing.
In short, what seven groups of college kids will be doing in Wagner Park tomorrow is not merely beautiful, but powerful: Singing (and doing so without instruments) may be part of what made us human in the first place.
Another reason to attend Dockapella is the chance to observe some deeply eccentric youth, several of whom may someday have a profound impact on the culture. The Yale group’s former members include Academy Award-winning director George Roy Hill (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Sting,” and “The World According to Garp”) and Bobby Lopez, who co-created the Broadway musicals “Avenue Q” and “The Book of Mormon,” and composed the song “Let It Go” for the Disney film “Frozen.” The New York University group, the N’Harmonics, pride themselves on “screlting,” which is a combination of screaming and belting out a song. The University of Virgina group, the Sil’hooettes, address all of their younger members by the first name “Homer,” until they are deemed to have earned the right of going by their given names. And the Yale contingent call themselves the Spizzwinks(?). The question mark within parenthesis is a bit of undergraduate whimsy, and the Spizzwinks think of themselves as a less-serious version of the Whiffenpoofs. All members commit to what the group calls the “Spizzwink(?) Promise”: that each will, “visit all six inhabited continents during his time in the group with travel and lodging funded through our yearly performance schedule.” The Spizzwink’s website describes this pledge as, “a central tenant of our group,” but they probably meant to say “tenet.”
For more information about Dockapella, please browse: bpcparks.org/event/dockapella/