For thousands of years, music has been a way in which humans communicate with one another. From the simplest wooden instrument to a priceless, delicately hand-crafted violin, people have sought to create and perfect ways of making music. Yet the simplest instrument of all, the human voice, is perhaps the most beautiful. A human’s vocal range is one of the greatest among animals, from the highest soprano to the lowest baritone. Like many other animals, including birds, humans can bring their voices together to create harmonies and melodies.
To start off the Halloween weekend, beginning at 8 p.m. last Friday, listeners arrived in Lang Concert Hall to hear a gathering of voices. Mixed Company, a Swarthmore a cappella group that includes men and women, performed to a rapt audience for more than an hour. They were joined by Counterpoint, a women’s group from Bryn Mawr and Haverford, who performed three songs in the middle of Mixed Company’s setlist.
A cappella is a particular musical style derived from Italian — the phrase “a cappella” literally means “in the way of the church.” During the Renaissance, the term a cappella was used to signify the kind of choral, all-vocal singing done in church as compared to singing accompanied by instruments.
Today, a cappella can be used to describe any song, performed alone or with a group, that does not include any instruments other than the human voice. Often, a cappella groups are associated with college organizations — one of the first a cappella groups was formed at Northwestern University in 1906. Mixed Company draws many at Swarthmore. “I decided to join Mixed Company because I was in a co-ed a cappella group in high school, and I really like the versatility that a full complement of vocal ranges can support,” said Kimaya Diggs ’15.
Given its relatively small student population compared to other colleges and universities, Swarthmore is teeming with a cappella and choral groups that perform a wide variety of musical styles. Chaverim, a co-ed, tri-college group, specializes in world music. Essence of Soul is a co-ed group at Swarthmore that focuses on music from the African Diaspora. Grapevine is Swarthmore’s all-female group, while Sixteen Feet is an all-male group.
As the first co-ed a capella group on campus, Mixed Company represents a middle ground, as all genders are represented, and is open to any kind of music. “I wanted to be in a group that was not pigeonholed stylistically,” said Steven Barrett ’13, a tenor. “That eliminated Chaverim and Essence of Soul in my mind. You’ll probably never see the former singing a Jackson 5 song and certainly never hear the latter singing ‘The Finnish Drinking Song,’ but you may have seen Mixed Company do both. So, I suppose what makes Mixed Company most distinct is that it is the most indistinct.”
In addition to the wide variety of music it performs, Mixed Company also allows members to write and arrange music, and typically four of the songs for a performance will be songs that members have newly arranged themselves, about half of each performance. “Overall, we try to balance our set list for a given concert; in other words, we try to have a number of upbeat, poppy songs, intermixed with slower, perhaps more ballady, music,” Barrett said. Mixed Company usually has about a dozen members, evenly divided between sopranos, altos, tenors and basses. New members audition in the fall, and this year, four new first-years performed alongside returning members in this October concert. The group practices together weekly.
Some members enter with plenty of experience — and didn’t expect to sing in college at all. “In high school, I sang in a jazz a cappella group with five other people, and I grew up singing trios with my sisters, so I’ve always loved a cappella,” Diggs said. “Weirdly enough, I came to Swat 100% sure that I wasn’t going to do college a cappella — I’d actually been swearing that I would never do it since I was in tenth grade. My hallmates signed me up to audition for [Mixed Company] without telling me, and after going to the audition I became more open-minded about it.”
However, others enter new to a cappella. “I was never in any music group before Mixed Company,” Nora Kako ’15 said. “I loved to sing at home, just around the house, but I never joined the choir at my school or sang in a musical. I thought college would be the perfect place to try out singing in a more legitimate form.”
On Friday, Mixed Company performed a number of songs, including some that featured first-year singers as soloists, as well as songs by more experienced members of the group. From a rousing version of Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” to a thoughtful cover of James Taylor’s “Carolina In My Mind” the concert covered the musical spectrum. “I really enjoyed all the songs in our concert, but I think my favorite song was ‘Don’t Know Why,’” Barrett said. “I think it was the most musically intricate and challenging of all the pieces we did. I really enjoyed singing it. Not to mention, we had a stellar soloist, the lovely Kimaya Diggs.”
Mixed Company will perform at the planned a cappella jamboree which is typically held every semester in the Lang Concert Hall, and features back-to-back performances of all of Swarthmore’s a cappella groups. “We definitely try to have variety, to keep it more interesting for the audience,” Kako said. “I hope students [on Friday] were reminded how much fun [Mixed Company] is, or were introduced to a cappella in a new and engaging way. Mostly, I just hope everyone enjoyed it!”