Midweek Music Break: I Moderni, “Carol of the Bells”

[Video: “Carol of the Bells,” by I Moderni]

I Moderni — Italian for “The Modern” — was at the time they made this video an a-capella quartet who placed second in the fifth (2011) season of the Italian X-Factor series. (They’re now a trio.) I’m crippled in my search to learn much about them: every single thing I’ve found on the Web about them, so far, is in Italian. Of course I can use Google Chrome to automatically translate, but it’s tough going…

In any event, here’s their decidedly unconventional video take on this familiar onomatopoeic Christmas carol. The song has always struck me as almost obsessive, hypnotically so; it has “lyrics,” but after you’ve listened to or read even a few stanzas it’s hard not to think, like, It doesn’t matter what the words say. (Poe’s ode to bells can do the same number on you. Clearly, there’s something about bells…) In I Moderni’s video reading, the words go even further — into territory like this:

Let yourself to be taken over by the music, your attention to the the world will wander. This will allow the real truths of the world to come out and play, unobserved, unbound by the familiar, animated not by human preconceptions but by their absence.

I really like this. It’s not quite horror; these aren’t “Chucky”-type dolls. But it sure as hell doesn’t square with “reality,” whatever that is. The right word might be eldritch.

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Weekend Music Break: GQ, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön”

GQNot at all a men’s style magazine, GQ is a girls quartet, each described at the group’s Web site as “a recent graduate” of Baltimore’s Towson University. Although they often use the a capella descriptor for themselves, the phrase most others reach for seems to be barbershop quartet. Toe-MAY-toe, toe-MAH-toe maybe: they made their first public splash in 2012 by winning the regional Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Festival, “the premier American showcase for vocal harmony music” — regardless of specific genre label — and then went on to place second in the nationals, performing against groups who’ve adopted one or the other of those labels.

(Happily, as far as I can tell, no one — least of all, GQ themselves — uses the rather hokey term for a “women’s quartet”: Sweet Adelines. In a recent Tweet, one of the group expressed gratitude for the other three and for “our barbershop family.”)

The core of the Barbershop Harmony Society’s “definition of the barbershop style” goes like this:

Barbershop music features songs with understandable lyrics and easily singable melodies, whose tones clearly define a tonal center and imply major and minor chords and barbershop (dominant and secondary dominant) seventh chords that often resolve around the circle of fifths, while also making use of other resolutions.

That’s quite a mouthful, almost none of which makes sense to me (or, I’d wager, to many other non-musicians). But the sound and style of barbershop singing is instantly recognizable. Stereotypically, a bass vocalist provides a sort of beatbox bum-bum-bum-BUM rhythm in the background, while three foreground voices — a couple of tenors and a baritone — twine around one another and sometimes merge, for sustained notes, in a glorious three- or four-part harmony. The content of barbershop music also follows stereotypical paths: “traditional” popular songs, often from the early 20th century.

(“Down by the Old Mill Stream” is not only considered typical, but also a frequent target for humor, especially parody. See, for instance, this clip from Eddie Murphy’s 2003 film, The Haunted Mansion — in which four haunted statues perform the song.)

But GQ (and similar groups), while honoring the tradition, are also determined to break from it. They showcase offbeat and often very contemporary songs, and explore ways to adapt traditional techniques to “modern” ears. For example, GQ’s big hit at that 2012 regional competition was “Timshel,” by Mumford & Sons. (Here’s a video they made, sometime later.)

GQ’s second album just dropped this summer, as the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign. At the Kickstarter project page, they chose to feature the video below to demonstrate their approach, using the old swing hit — think the Andrews Sisters — “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön.” Among other attractions, the video offers a nice visual demonstration of classic barbershop style: adding a voice at a time, melding them into a single layer. I really like it.

[Lyrics]

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