Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Sacred Traditions, Gender, and the Choir that Ate Hot Chili Peppers

By Jacob Sagrans

On December 13, 2017, Danish entertainer Claus Pilgaard (stage name: Chili Klaus) released a YouTube video he made with the Herning Boys Choir, the main church choir in Herning, Denmark. Pilgaard explains that he grew up singing in the choir and is now returning “to add a little extra passion to the music.” He and the choir then begin singing the Christmas carol “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in a rather reserved manner. At the end of the first verse, the mood changes: the conductor holds up a chili pepper, the cue for the singers to take out their own peppers and ingest them. The description for the video alleges that they are ghost peppers, one of the world’s spiciest.<1> As the choir continues to sing, the boys increasingly feel the effect of the peppers: their faces go red, their eyes water, and they cough, pant, grimace, shift weight, and shake in discomfort. By the end of the performance, many are no longer able to sing, although some of the older boys manage to sing loudly and look unfazed. After finishing the carol, the singers frantically run off to get ice cream, milk, and bread in hopes of neutralizing the spice.

In the month after it was released, the video scored nearly 1.4 million views on Pilgaard’s YouTube channel. Classic FM also shared it with 2.5 million Facebook viewers. Popular newspapers, magazines, and websites ran stories on the video, including the Independent, People, and BuzzFeed. The video’s novelty and humor appealed to viewers. I also believe the video resonated by upholding sacred choral traditions, particularly the tradition of all-male sacred singing. In addition to seeing and hearing boys in a church, accompanied by an organ, we witness male bonding and competition through the challenge of singing after eating hot peppers. The stereotypical notion of a “real man” or “real boy” is one who is tough and can withstand pain, and the members of the Herning Boys Choir fit the mold by standing in place and singing (or attempting to sing) until the end of the carol. The choir, then, is not only exclusively male, but the singers behave as expected of boys and men (in other words, they “perform” masculinity in a traditional/stereotypical way). The overwhelming maleness of the choir can assure us that, at least in Herning, the long tradition of all-male sacred singing is continuing, despite greater participation of women and girls in church choirs and religious life as well as increasingly secular societies.

The ways in which the Pilgaard/Herning video evokes issues of gender and religious tradition become more apparent when it is considered in relation to similar depictions of other all-male church choirs. For example, in 2014, The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge released a prank April Fools’ Day YouTube video entitled “King’s College Choir Announces Major Change.” The college chaplain explains the “major change”: due to complex new regulations, the choir can no longer employ underage boy trebles. But thankfully, a chemistry professor came up with an ingenious solution to keep the choir all male—and no, not the surgery that produced the castrati that sang high parts in church choirs and opera in the 17th and 18th centuries. A quartet of undergraduate choral scholars demonstrate the “solution” by singing a verse from Allegri’s Miserere. Before the countertenor’s high C (a challenging note for even child singers and women), he breathes helium from a large yellow balloon, allowing him to reach the note, albeit with a comically squeaky sound. Over 3 million people have viewed this video, making it the choir’s most popular on YouTube. Like the Pilgaard/Herning video, the King’s College video is original and comical. It also draws attention to the all-male nature of the choir, although here the issues of gender and tradition are more explicit. The choir’s exclusion of female singers in an increasingly egalitarian age may be problematic, but the popularity of this video suggests that viewers/listeners value the tradition of all-male sacred singing and want it to continue.<2> Several other depictions of the King’s College Choir also reinforce the sense that the choir’s all-male composition means it embodies longstanding sacred choral traditions and that these traditions “should” be preserved.<3>

The Pilgaard/Herning video and the King’s College video are humorous and creative. They also bring our attention to the choirs’ male personnel and assure us that the tradition of sacred male choral singing is still going strong. It would be worth considering in more depth how all-male sacred choirs project their gender identity to foster a sense of tradition. One could look at other popular portrayals of sacred choirs of men and boys, such as the annual Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols service sung by the King’s College Choir and broadcast on radio and TV around the world. To what extent are all-male sacred choirs trying to reference concerns about gender and tradition (while also trying to be innovative)? How important are gender and tradition in attracting listeners to these choirs? How do sacred choirs with female singers negotiate concerns that they are breaking with tradition? More research is warranted, but based on what I have found so far, I believe that issues of gender and tradition greatly inform the modern performance and reception of sacred choral music.
<1>Pilgaard later admitted that some of the peppers were milder, specifically the ones given to the youngest boys.
<2>One could also read the King’s College video as saying it would be futile to exclude female singers “at any cost” and maybe someday girls and women will sing in the choir.
<3>See the discussion in my doctoral dissertation, pages 87–96.

Jacob Sagrans studies sacred choral music and traditions, the early music revival, and music and medievalism. In 2017 he received a PhD in musicology from McGill University’s Schulich School of Music, where he wrote his dissertation on “Early Music and the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, 1958 to 2015.” Jacob has taught music history and music appreciation at McGill, Tufts University, and Brown University. An active chorister, Jacob sings in Coro Allegro, Boston’s acclaimed LGBTQ+ and allied classical chorus. See more here.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Putting it Together: The Anatomy of a Solo YouTube Cover

By William O’Hara

(Source: screen grab from
Flanked by two wrought iron lamps, a young woman sits in the center of the frame. To her right, a large glass holding two fingers of red wine sits among a nest of electronics: a small keyboard, a squat black “harmonizer” box, and a glowing, gridlike MIDI controller. The room is richly textured: with an expansive table of reclaimed wood and the exposed stonework of the wall hovering just out of focus, the woman's surroundings are far removed from the run of the mill "American Room" that often characterized early viral videos: beige, generic, poorly lit, and shot from the upward angle of an open laptop. This is YouTube 2.0, and the production values have risen exponentially.

Yet, as the film rolls, there is a palpable sense of being “before the beginning.” The woman looks askance at a second camera, which bobs as if its tripod is still being adjusted. She speaks into the microphone: “Yup, yup, is this thing on?” The harmonizer splits her voice into cacophony. “Yeah!” she sings triumphantly in response to her own question; given a pitch to grab onto, the black box's voices coalesce into a chord, supporting her cry with a deep bass tone and a piquant minor third.

The young woman is Kawehi (kuh-VEH-hee), a Lawrence, Kansas-based musician. Kawehi’s solo performances layer together loop upon loop, combining her voice with an array of  synthesizers, drum machines, and guitars. While she writes original songs, tours nationally, and has released several records, much of her initial exposure came from a series of well-choreographed videos of recognizable cover songs. Her cover of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” went viral in the spring of 2014, garnering extensive online coverage and more than 3 million views between Vimeo and YouTube.

Kawehi’s videos often start by showcasing her process: she builds the song piece-by-piece before it properly begins. The economy of pitches and rhythms used--Kawehi crafts her accompaniment out of only three notes--and the versatility with which those elements can be layered and re-contextualized by altering a single note, reveal the degree to which Kawehi has analyzed the song, paring it down to a skeleton and re-animating it one layer at a time. As shown in the video below, she artfully records the pieces of “Heart-Shaped Box” in reverse, assembling it “in plain sight” (or sound?), but in a manner that obscures what the final product will sound like until it is complete. Beginning with her voice (filtered through the harmonizer), she records the upper voices of the two-chord post-chorus interlude. Next, she fills in its bass notes with the keyboard, and then records the vocal percussion loop that will underpin the entire song. Cutting off her initial loops with a few keystrokes, Kawehi next records backing vocals for the verse (an acapella chant, made eerie by the vocoder’s minor third) and the chorus (the energetic “YEAH!” first heard at the beginning of the video). After recording another synthesized bass line, she performs the song’s famous guitar riff. Finally, with another off-camera keystroke, she silences the thicket of loops she has constructed; Kawehi sings unadorned, and the song as we know it begins.

Kawehi’s cover of “Heart Shaped Box” brings together at least two distinct brands of solo performance: the well-established practice of live looping, and the younger, distinctly YouTube-era trend of “full band” covers executed by single musicians.[1] The former tradition can be traced from fourteenth-century England (which saw performers playing pipes and drums simultaneously, one in each hand), through the more familiar “one (wo)man bands from the late-nineteenth century to the present.[2] With the advent of delay pedals, samplers, and other tools, contemporary carriers of this tradition include pop stars such as Ed Sheeran, the intricate improvisations of Reggie Watts, the layered collages of Zoë Keating, and the multimedia performances of artists Laurie Anderson, and Pamela Z. In fact, Susan McClary’s description of Anderson might well apply to Kawehi:

[H]er compositions rely upon precisely those tools of electronic mediation that most performance artists seek to displace. … most modes of mechanical and electronic reproduction strive to render themselves invisible and inaudible, to invite the spectator to believe that what is seen or heard is real. By contrast, in Laurie Anderson’s performances, one actually gets to watch her produce the sounds we hear. But her presence is always already multiply mediated: we hear her voice only as it is filtered through Vocoders, as it passes through reiterative loops, as it is layered upon itself by means of sequencers. … The closer we get to the source, the more distant becomes the imagined ideal of unmediated presence and authenticity.[3]

Kawehi’s videos also open up onto a separate tradition that has developed on YouTube over the past decade: solo musicians using multitrack recording and visual effects to “clone” themselves into entire ensembles. Searching YouTube for “solo cover” or “solo full band” turns up hundreds of videos. Many of them use Brady Bunch-like tiling, echoing visually the parallel construction of a multitrack recording. They vary widely in the genre (heavy metal and video game soundtracks are particularly popular), and complexity, from guitar/bass/drum combos recorded in bedrooms and basements, to entire acapella choirs and virtual armies of synthesizers and guitars, as in the example below.

As scholars like Kiri Miller and Phillip Auslander have emphasized, musical performances are always a matter of both authenticity AND artifice, particularly when they are being presented digitally.[4] Kawehi presents a kind of cinema verite, letting us see behind the scenes by frequently leaving a few trailing seconds at the beginnings and ends of videos. She sometimes broadcasts live “vlogs” (video blogs) to her fans, such as a 2016 pre-tour video in which she describes all of her equipment, and responds to fan chats in real-time. At the same time, her performances themselves are carefully staged, framed, and lit: polished productions far beyond the casual, bedroom-and-basement fare so common to YouTube.

Pop arrangements are supposed to unspool slowly, over three or four minutes. The introduction showcases the chord progression, and perhaps a hook. The first verse is spartan; harmonies enter at the chorus, if not later. Backup singers, countermelodies, and horns join in. A guitar solo might signal a song’s moment of maximum excitement, while an extended fade-out (often featuring every instrument laying around in the studio that day) seems to imply that the jam could go on forever, if not for the limitations of time and tape.

Kawehi playfully inverts this rising action. Every riff she records is a piece of
Chekov’s Gun, disassembled on the table for cleaning; the entire introduction is a structure of promise that lays bare the anatomy of the song: a musical analysis performed as entertainment. The iconic guitar riff, for example (the first recognizable fragment of the song that we hear), foreshadows the climactic moment of the chorus, when she will sing along with it in unison: a moment made all the more intense because we heard its piecemeal construction earlier in the video. Kawehi manipulates these musical pieces with the nonchalance of an expert, her economical fingers dancing across the neon grid of the MIDI controller. Not a cycle is wasted as she hums and beatboxes, blending mechanical synth pads with the pitch-bent simulacrum of an electric guitar. With her economical use of pitch material and deft manipulation of Ableton, Kawehi acts as much a DJ or a conductor as she does a singer.

Cover songs are ripe for this sort of treatment, and rather than striving for fidelity -- as the complex “full band” covers found elsewhere on YouTube do -- we see in minimalist covers like Kawehi’s, the transformative potential of arrangement. The pleasure of a cover song lies in juxtaposing familiar melodies or well-known lyrics with unfamiliar textures, timbres, or tempos. The frisson of recognition collides vertiginously with an unfamiliar affect, or the unexpected intimacy of an acoustic vocal: a phenomenon also exploited to great effect in movie trailers and comedy acts. In his book Listen: A History of Our Ears (2008), philosopher Peter Szendy evocatively calls this kind of double listening plastic, or even elastic.[5] Indeed it is: in Kawehi’s cover, we can often hear both Nirvana’s original, and her deconstruction of it. The song is stretched, squeezed, and molded into something new. As Kawehi teaches us how to re-listen to a familiar song, the original is left forever changed and enriched.
[1]For more on live looping and other techniques of electronic performance, see Mark Butler, Playing With Something That Runs: Technology, Improvisation, and Composition in DJ and Laptop Performance (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
[2]For more information, see The Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World, Volume 2: Performance and Production (London and New York: Continuum, 2003), 48-49.
[3]Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 137.
[4]See Kiri Miller, Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); and Phillip Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (London: Routledge, 2008).
[5]See Peter Szendy, Listen: A History of Our Ears, trans. Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 35-39.


William O’Hara is Assistant Professor of Music at Gettysburg College, and taught previously at Tufts University. He received his PhD from Harvard in 2017, and from 2013 to 2016 was an editorial assistant for JAMS.