by Emma Prevignano
The competition that inspired Pitch Perfect landed in Exeter: on Sunday 31 January the Northcott Theatre hosted the sold-out International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) quarterfinals. Bluebelles (Exeter), Out of the Blue (Oxford), Illuminations (Exeter), Aquapella (Bath), Sweet Nothings (Exeter), Bristol Suspensions (Bristol), and Semi-Toned (Exeter) competed to gain access to the semi-final that will take place in London on the 21st February. There, the highest scoring group will fly to the epic final in New York City.
The rules of the game were pretty straightforward: each group had 12 minutes to show off all their vocal talent. The rule: no instruments of any kind were allowed. Each performance was judged from a vocal, visual, and ‘subjective’ point of view by three experts in the field. The Exeter quarterfinals judges were Jonny Stewart, producer, engineer, live sound engineer, David Green, musical director, arranger, and singer, and Daniel Tate, professional singer and choral director. The event was presented by Bethan Jones, the University VP Education and Sweet Nothings alumna, and by Semi-Toned alumnus Ed Scott. Between the performances and the results, the audience was entertained by The Exeter Revue, the University’s comedy society.
The performances of the groups representing Exeter were all extremely enjoyable and showed the effort and the hard work that each member put into the preparations and on stage. The all-female jazzy Bluebelles, Exeter University’s newest a cappella group, kicked off with a powerful cover of Beyoncé, followed by a more atmospheric piece and by Jennifer Hudson’s ‘I Love a Perfect Man’. They closed their 12 minute performance with ‘Lollipop’. The second Exeter group to perform were the Illuminations, one of the most active groups on the Exeter’s music scene. On Northcott’s stage, they performed ‘American Boy’ (Estelle feat. Kanye West), ‘Shut Up and Dance’ (Walk the Moon), ‘Hold Back The River’ (James Bay), ‘The Call’ (Regina Spektor, written for The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian), and ‘Lips Are Movin’ (Meghan Trainor).
Sweet Nothings, one of the finest all-female a cappella groups in the country, were among the favourites. Their performance was a triumph of pop-music in all its shades: from the classical 1970s James Bond sound track ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ (Shirley Bassey), to the melancholic ballad ‘Gravity’ (Sara Bareilles), to a medley of Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone’ and ‘Just Dance’. Last but not least, Semi-Toned closed the competition. They were the only group to sing for twelve minutes without the slightest interruption, keeping the audience bated breath. The harmonisation was fantastic throughout the performance. They started with Stevie Wonder and went on to sing ‘Sweet Life’ (Frank Ocean), ‘Love is a Losing Game’ (Amy Winehouse), and ‘The Chain’ (Fleetwood Mac).
With four out of the seven groups coming from the University’s A Cappella Society, Exeter seemed destined to be the big winner of the event
With four out of the seven groups coming from the University’s A Cappella Society, Exeter seemed destined to be the big winner of the event. Indeed, the always outstanding Semi-Toned arrived first, but unfortunately none of the other Exeter groups conquered a place in the semi-finals. The bitterness for the results not being as good for Exeter as they could have been was eased by the extremely high level of the competition. The adversaries were good, that cannot be denied.
The second place was conquered by Aquapella from the University of Bath, the most eclectic group among those competing. They started off with a cover of Biffy Clyro’s ‘Machine’, made special by a moving and expressive solo, to overturn the scene with an amusing and brave version of ‘Tous Les Mêmes’, originally sang by the Belgian singer Stromae. They finished with a medley of Hozier’s ‘Take Me to Church’ and Christian psalms sang in Latin.
The Bristol Suspensions from the University of Bristol came in third place. The group is in their second year of existence, but they have already recorded an album, made a music video and taken part to a few competitions. Their performance at Northcott included covers of ‘Trouble’ (Iggy Azalea), ‘I Want You Back’ (Jackson 5), and ‘Cool Kids’ (Echosmith). The last group to qualify for the London semi-finals were Out of the Blue from Oxford University, one of the major all-male a cappella group in the UK. The past year they performed in Broadway, in Montreal, and toured around Europe; their music videos went viral on YouTube, receiving 13 million views. They donate all their profits after expenses to the Oxford children’s hospice Helen & Douglas House. On 31 January, they conquered the Exeter audience with their self-confident choreographies and arrangements of ‘American Boy’, and the last James Bond movie theme song ‘Writing’s On the Wall’ (Sam Smith).
Two of the Exeter groups left out from the semi-finals were rewarded with special awards: Izzie Ballantine-Dales (Illuminations) won the Outstanding Soloist award and Alison Sinclair (Sweet Nothings) won the Outstanding Vocal Percussion award. Other awards were assigned to Aliak Bedirian of the Bristol Suspensions (Outstanding Arrangement) and to Erin McCullogh of Aquapella (Outstanding Choreography).
The event was a real success: everything ran smoothly, the audience enjoyed the show, and Exeter won the first place of the quarter-finals as well as two special awards, confirming its position as one of the best – if not the best – universities in the country for a cappella music.
The Exeter Groups
by Tom Lenton
Opening the show were The Bluebelles: an all-female group who perform female barbershop arrangements. Starting their set with a jazzy rendition of ‘Love on Top’, soloist Emily Hughes was sublime. And the arrangement was admirable in the amount of space that it afforded her. The simple, soft, rich, legato texture that underscored her at the beginning was beautiful, and never threatened to intrude on Emily as the focal point: a point that alone deserves great praise in such close harmony arrangements. This kind of sensitivity, used intelligently throughout their set, did a great deal to act as a point of contrast to the jazzier, more up-tempo tutti sections of the pieces. Out of all of the groups on the night, The Bluebelles were probably the most dynamically sensitive, the most careful to let soloists take their moment and have space in the arrangement, and the most tender. Unfortunately this seems to have betrayed them. As well as not progressing to the next round, they were the only group on the night to not pick up an award. One can’t help but feel that this is because of the elements that made their set brilliant: it was sensitive, modest, and gentle, but not highly energetic or boisterous. But, so long as The Bluebelles keep doing what they are doing, they will continue to enjoy a lot of success.
Next up from the Exeter A Capella crowd were Illuminations, and once again it is worth saying that Illuminations are entitled to feel frustrated. Coming immediately after Oxford’s Out of the Blue, they may have been nervous to realise they were both performing ‘American Boy’. But, Illuminations did it better, with a better balance of contrasts and generally more cohesiveness. However, Out of the Blue progressed and Illuminations did not. Regardless, this quality was exemplary of their whole set. What Illuminations achieved over many of the other groups was range, admittedly helped by the fact that they are a male and female group: Exeter’s only mixed group in the competition, for that matter. They had fantastic choreography, fantastic arrangements, and a wonderful amount of range within these elements. But, beyond this, they also had stand out performances, with Izzie Ballatine Dykes being given the prize for the best solo of the night. So it proved to be another excellent set, and Illuminations should be very proud.
Their set was energy filled, boisterous and loud, filled with confidence
Sweet Nothings were next, and once again delivered. Like The Bluebelles, they are also an all female ensemble, but they focus more closely on contemporary music. Though once again, there was plenty of variety. The set was full of bravado, opening with a rich and seductive arrangement of ‘Diamonds are Forever’. The highlight, though, perhaps came with their version of ‘Gravity’ by Sara Bareilles; although soloist Alison Sinclair won the award for best vocal percussion (which was probably the easiest award to give, she was excellent), it was her frail performance here that really endured.
The arrangement left her incredibly isolated, with each other member very happy to sit back and let her stunning lead breathe. It was a gentle solo with touches of exasperation and pain, which were all the more stunning on a night mostly characterised by confidence and projection. Towards the end of the piece, the choreography demanded that every member apart from her stand at the very back of the stage, whilst she was singing alone at the very front. It was a simple but beautiful touch. So, after a set like that, Sweet Nothings will also be upset to have not progressed.
Semi-Toned closed the show, providing exactly what we have come to expect from the all male outfit. They walked out donning purple velvet jackets, and that pretty much set the tone. Their set was energy filled, boisterous and loud, filled with confidence. They took the bold approach of combing all of their material into one continuous arrangement: a brave move, given the real risk of the songs becoming a homogenous, bulbous whole. But, it paid off, and they walked through to first place, and will now progress to the semi-final in London. The audience seemed pretty happy with that result, and Semi-Toned must be feeling nothing but appreciation for the awesome reception they received.
So whilst Semi-Toned will be performing in London this month, the other groups shall be left behind. But, if nothing else, it was a wonderful opportunity for the slightly smaller groups to play to a large crowd, and to captivate that crowd, too. The reception for each group was nothing short of spectacular, and the room was electric for hours. It is a shame that the results worked out the way they did, and that it didn’t provide further opportunity to give the underdogs a little bit more of the moment they all deserve. All in all though, it was a night in which Exeter’s A Capella scene did the university proud, and that should hopefully be enough.