Recording as Social Practice [in USA college-based a capella ensembles] #arp13

The Whiffenpoofs of Yale, c.1909 (and still going strong today)

Joshua S Duchan – Recording as Social Practice

[abstract] While much scholarship has considered recording processes and practices from technical, musical, and economic perspectives, less often studied is its social practice: how and why are musical materials recorded, under what circumstances, and under which aesthetic and social principles? This paper addresses this lacuna by taking as its case study collegiate a cappella, a genre and practice in which peer- led groups of student singers take popular songs and arrange, perform, and record them a cappella. Often claimed to have begun with the founding of the Whiffenpoofs at Yale University in 1909 (although there is plenty of evidence of such groups throughout the nineteenth century and earlier), the genre has more recently started to inch from its meager subcultural beginnings toward the mainstream in a variety of media, including Mickey Rapkin’s trade book, Pitch Perfect (2008), Ben Folds’s album, Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella! (2009), NBC’s singing competition program, The Sing-Off! (2009– 2011), and a recent feature film, Pitch Perfect (2012). As amateurs and students performing vocal-only cover songs with heavy doses of instrumental imitation, these musicians are clearly positioned—in terms of identity and musical technique—outside the community typically featured in most academic scholarship on recording practice. For many collegiate a cappella groups, one of the most important benefits of membership is the opportunity to record an album. The process of doing so is deeply musical and at the same time intensely social. This paper considers both aspects while focusing on the social practice of recording: the motivations for undertaking recording projects; the ways in which bodies and voices are organized—musically, physically, and conceptually—during the process; and the ways this organization both reflects ideologies central to the culture of production specific to the genre and, concurrently, have a defining impact on the resulting musical product. Several years of ethnographic fieldwork with a cappella groups in a variety of colleges and locations across the United States provide the data, which are analyzed musically, anthropologically, and sociologically. In particular, this study investigates the ways in which social organization and leadership structures impact the experience of recording and the recorded product. As amateur groups of student musicians, a cappella groups typically elect their own officers, resulting in a system of peer-leadership in which authority is distributed among a few individuals, who then guide the rest of the membership. What roles do these leaders play as the group prepares for its recording sessions and during the sessions themselves? What are the methods by which regular members accept or resist the authority of their peers? And how is it borne out in musical terms? Thus, this paper sits at the intersection of performance and interaction, structures of authority and methods of resistance, and musicality and sociability. The conclusions we can draw from the ethnographic data available in specific a cappella contexts can then be reinterpreted more broadly to better understand the wider culture of production within this emerging genre in both musical and social terms. 

Josh opens with a review of recent ‘exciting years’ in college-based a capella ensembles, mostly in the US but also in Europe, Canada and elsewhere. He notes that the tradition has an early (ongoing) example in the Whiffenpoofs at Yale. He uses this example to frame his subject – the social practice of performance in the studio, and he draws on his own ethnographic research, working with similar college-based harmony ensembles, including Amazing Blue, Treblemakers and Counterparts.

He discusses motivations for recording, and notes that there is little monetary incentive for individuals in these amateur ensembles to record their work – monies through MP3 sales etc tend to go back to the project. He notes other motives such as pride in the (CD) product, and infers that this is a representation of the social groups that are formed at college – “you work your ass off, and in the end you’re so much the better for it”. He describes the permanence of the recording as a (literal) record of the social college experience. Participants describe memorable moments and feelings of connection associated with the recording.

We now look at how [I presume cover version] repertoire is selected. The paper notes that musical excellence is not the only driver – it is a stated intention to maximise the nostalgic potential; he describes these as ‘yearbook albums’. Some groups are more selective than others. In some projects only a few arrangers or soloists make the cut, which has an interesting implication for the social aspect of the documentary process [I hoped Josh had gone further into psychology literature or group dynamic theory here – perhaps he will when he publishes].

He cites instances where production values play a non-documentary part – for example a capella drum parts may be processed in a drum-like way. There is a simplified discussion of individual tracking and microphone spillage, contrasting authenticity vs musicality regarding the purpose of the recording session. The creation of recordings that sound different from a live performance creates an aesthetic distance between the final recording and the actual ensemble’s live sound. He looks at ‘Amazin’ Blue’, who track vocals one at a time in the studio, making a deliberate distinction between their live and recorded sounds.

I infer that Josh is suggesting, reasonably, that the more ‘as live’ tracking sessions have a more powerful function as social documentary/yearbook. He discusses fragmentation of the performance space and what this means for control of the musical product. There is a brief reference to the role of the musical direction as producer, and the social interactions that take place in the control room.

A final slide looks at the ‘Limits of Representation’ – the extent to which the recording is, can be or should be an authentic representation of the ensemble’s character or the experience of its members. As a participant-researcher, Josh’s own work with Amazin’ Blue was an attempt to be more inclusive; he asked the singers to create flowcharts for the recording sessions, for example. There is a reference to self-tracking and file transfer, with post-production being achieved sometimes on campus in the Music Technology department. Once again, power often ends up in the hands of a small number of dedicated individuals.

He concludes with a discussion of the dilemma these bands face – between authenticity and excellence. If college is indeed a liminal period, then an overproduced album might not record participants’ memories properly. If group leaders are empowered to make creative decisions, the social bonds are having a very real musical effect on the outcome. Recording is not just the capture of sound but the encoding of an experience.

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