Fourteen years ago, my freshman year, I competed with the Chorallaries in the International Championship of Collegiate Acappella, ICCA. The first round is called the “quarterfinals”, and they are held all over the country (and um, maybe also England). The venue was The College of Our Lady of the Elms; I remember being confused when we arrived in the snow as to whether it was a school or a cathedral.
In our 12 minute slot, we sang 1000 Oceans, Wherever You Will Go, and It’s Raining Men, plus an interlude involving a pretend traffic helicopter. We took first place, and moved on to the semifinals. My senior year, we made it all the way to the finals at Lincoln Center.
Last night, the current Chorallaries competed at the ICCA quarterfinals, held before the grand curving pews of the Ethical Culture Society’s main hall, one stop from my apartment. (Most of the other groups were from NYU.)
In most ways, it was a very familiar scene. The groups performed pop songs of the day with a smattering of classics, with incredible energy and dynamic choreography. But some things had changed … most obviously, the technology.
When I started college, using amplification in performance was controversial. Some saw it as cheating, most saw it as challenging. Our first solo microphones were condensers, requiring 48V “phantom power” to bias the capacitor. They had to stay on their mic stand, and couldn’t be moved. We spent $800 on an 8-track mixing board with a SCSI drive and a CD writer.
At ICCAs, microphones were always a problem. The organizers decided the microphone setup, and that was it. Usually there were about 5 in total, some wireless and some not, some in front on stands and some overhead on wires or armatures.
At this ICCA quarterfinal, they solved the problem in a new way: by giving every single singer their own handheld wireless mic, even for groups of 20 singers.
As a matter of technology, this is pretty amazing. High quality audio from one microphone takes 48 KHz * 16 bits = 0.8 Mbps. For 20 microphones, that’s 16 Mbps of throughput … and it also has to be rock-solid reliable, even as people wander around the stage, and seriously low latency, ~< 50 ms. When I started, digital wireless microphones were Not A Thing, and most wifi networks only hit 11 Mbps at best. Today ... well, here we are. When technology advances, it changes art. In this case, it was the choreography that changed. Free from the requirement that the soloist stand at the mic up front, we saw every conceivable arrangement: soloists encircled by the group that paced around them, or hidden at the back of line. Singers facing every which way, no need to aim your voice at the overhead mic. It seemed like an explosion of creative geometries. On the other hand, having a mic in the first hand makes some things harder. Our winning performance of It's Raining Men involved not only some flamboyant clapping but, for the grand finale, a cheerleader-style lift. Groups that wanted to double down on dance in this cycle had to also figure out a way for the dancers to hand off their microphones and retrieve them. In another 14 years, I wouldn't be surprised if we've solved that too. The Chorallaries didn't win, but I suspect their performances were stronger than any of ours in our day. This is an art form that is still ascending.