Abundance of A Cappella at Penn Strikes Harmony and ‘Dischord’
A cappella is in the midst of a renaissance at the University of Pennsylvania.
With 17 individual, student-run organizations, 14 of which make up the A Cappella Council, known by the more tonal acronym “ACK,” the genre is thriving at Penn.
A central hub that supports the performing arts at Penn, the Platt House serves as a rehearsal space and a place to relax, socialize and generate innovative ideas for the next big show. More importantly, it provides performing arts students with a “home,” says Laurie McCall, the director of the Platt House.
“It helps to shrink the psychological size of Penn, making it a smaller place where students can be completely comfortable,” says McCall, who, along with associate director Maria Fumai Dietrich, provides advising support and assistance with securing show venues, as well as practice locations.
One reason a cappella is so popular, McCall says, is because it’s a “portable” creative outlet that can be practiced in any space and it offers plenty of variety, bringing together diverse voices in harmony without instrumental accompaniment.
The incoming chair of ACK is Anthony Anchelowitz, a junior cinema and media studies and communication major from New Hyde Park, N.Y. He is also president of Counterparts, a jazz and pop a cappella group that blends both male and female voices. The oldest co-ed a cappella on campus, it boasts John Legend as an alumnus.
He says the genre has become more popular over the past few years and estimates that nearly 200 students audition for a cappella groups at Penn each year.
“The genre has really grown,” says Anchelowitz. “Given the growing accessibility of professional audio and video equipment and the Penn student body’s passion and drive, future students will continue raising the bar.”
Today Penn’s a cappella groups have a refined sound and actively perform and record their work. They’re invited to sing at the White House and for professional and college sports teams, including the Philadelphia Flyers and Philadelphia Phillies.They also tour locally, nationally and internationally; produce videos and market and share their music via iTunes and Spotify.
Penn’s history of a cappella dates back to the 1950s, when the Penn Pipers detached from the Glee Club. Even though they perform a cappella, the Pipers are not a “stand alone” a cappella group and therefore, fall under the Singers, Musicians and Comedians Council, or SMAC, another organization in the Performing Arts Council.
Multiple a cappella groups at Penn developed during the 1980s, starting with Quaker Notes, an all-female a cappella. The first official a cappella organization established at Penn in 1980, they sing a wide range of contemporary tunes.
Known as the genre’s “badboys,” and named for the popular 1940’s Glenn Miller Orchestra release, “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” the Penn Six-5000 formed in 1982. It is an all-male comedy-focused a cappella that sings original parodies and Top 40 hits.
The Penny Loafers once sung doo-wop throwbacks of the 1950s and 1960s. Today, they’ve shifted toward indie, pop and dubstep. As one of the nation’s top collegiate groups, Off the Beat, a co-ed modern rock group, has earned 30 Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards.
At the end of the decade, tired of the barbershop sounds of yesteryear, a second handful of crooners from the Glee Club, the Pennchants, adopted to a new dress code and added fresh song choices and choreography. In 2001, the Pennchants officially broke free from the Club.
Matt Howard, a senior computer engineering major from Avon, Conn., joined Pennchants during his freshman year and now serves as its music director.
He says while it performs all kinds of music and even reaches back to the days of vinyl with classic rock hits, Pennchants places a heavy emphasis on bands of the late 1990s such as Maroon 5 and Blink 182.
“At Penn, it’s great how all the a cappella groups have their own niches and each makes its own contribution to the performing arts community,” Howard says.
“At colleges across the country, the popularity of a cappella soared in the 1980s and 1990s,” says McCall. “More recently, the TV show Glee, in concert with the Pitch Perfect movies, sparked a renewed interest in the art.”
A new wave of groups reflecting Penn’s diversity began with The Inspiration, an a cappella celebrating the legacy of the African Diaspora, focusing on music written and performed by artists of African descent. This trend continued through the 1990s and into the new millennium.Penn Masala, whose music was included in the movie Pitch Perfect 2, pioneered Hindi-English mash-ups merging Western pop with Eastern melodies. With nine full-length studio albums to their credit, their 2014 “Evolution of Bollywood Music” video went viral gaining over two million views.
ATMA, an all-female South Asian fusion a cappella, originated a style that spans all languages and genres, resulting in an unexpected synchronicity in its mash-ups. For ATMA’s fall 2016 show, it teamed up with African Rhythms, a student-run African Drum and Dance troupe.
President of ATMA junior Misha Khoja, a marketing and operations, information and decisions major at the Wharton School, from Ontario says the collaboration with African Rhythms created a new dimension.
“It was an opportunity to unite two rich and distinct cultures in a unique performance that celebrates diversity,” Khoja says.
The group has a substantial fan base in China, according to its president, senior Jason Choi, who is a native of Hong Kong and a dual-major focusing on management in entrepreneurship, along with innovation, marketing and operations at the Wharton School.
Choi says, “A cappella groups from both nations have reached out to us, looking to reproduce our sound.”
PennYo is also in the midst of making a music video featuring Penn’s Pan-Asian Dance Troupe and PennSori, an a cappella that unifies Koreans, Korean-Americans and Americans through blended music and witty skits.
The many niche a cappella groups at Penn also include two organizations that share their religious histories, beliefs and teachings through song. The first spiritual group on campus, Full Measure A Cappella dates back to 1991. A decade later, the co-ed Jewish a cappella, The Shabbatones, debuted.
While each of the groups embraces engagement in different ways, one of the newest groups, Disney A Cappella, stands out as a community service-centered organization. Established in 2011, its mission is to spread happiness in the community through regular performances in local hospitals and schools.
Breaking out on one’s own is not an unfamiliar concept in the sphere of a cappella and three independent organizations at Penn include Dischord A Cappella, Keynotes and Penn EnChord, a Western-Chinese fusion group that welcomes members from nearby colleges and universities.
McCall says what’s exciting about Penn’s a cappella scene is its variety and its longevity, “They all have staying power and they do all the right things so that their sound is excellent.”