O Fame! if I e’er took delight in thy praises

I am taking a break from my CARA judging efforts while Mavericks downloads, a necessary effort in order to explore the Leap Motion. This is a good time to put down thoughts on a few conversations that have happened over this past week and how they relate to the judging process.

On Tuesday, Deke Sharon posted an article about The Problem with Excellence, a call to the members of the a cappella community to remember to be fans of the art. I recall Aaron Smith ’09, a Film and Media Culture/Psychology major, saying in his senior year that he could not watch a movie without watching for the edits, and I find that this is true with my own listen practices. An overdose of downloads are available on iTunes, with a slew of rough-cut rehearsal and performance footage available on YouTube. Does our desire for information, fueled by our participation in the information age, pull us away from the enjoyment of activities and ideas that were once our passions?

Which leads us to Cal Newport’s visit to Middlebury on Monday and Tuesday. Cal is an assistant professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, and an author of four books and the Study Hacks blog where he is “exploring how people build interesting and meaningful lives.” I felt like a case study candidate as I walked in on a discussion with Cal, having just spun plates for seven different activities which made it difficult to switch from passive to active listening. The conversation ranged from time management, to a shift from thinking about information literacies to attention literacies. My hope is to explore more of these ideas when I read his latest book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love,” the overview stating “what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.”

Now back to judging, where the need is to turn a critical ear to an art-form that has been a part of most of my life, and increasingly involved in it’s growth for 22 years. After all this time I count myself lucky that I am still able to find my body responding to a groove, whether from a surprising and effective change in tempo, or an interesting take on an old familiar.

Unlike a RARB review, each track and album does not need to be reviewed on it’s own merits, only it’s relation to the other nominees. Yet the RARB scoring system does provide a good framework for thinking about each listening experience. This is helpful because the nominators have done an excellent job this year, each field being very close and differentiated by details.

Arrangement categories are my favorite, I enjoy the challenge of extracting the creative orchestration elements from the execution and engineering. Are there interesting choices of style and style changes? Migrations and chord progressions that add to the song? Stacked vowel sounds and dynamics that add complex textures? Energy/intensity, innovation/creativity, and repeat listenability apply here. Overall I am looking for choices that bring a new perspective to the message of a song.

Soloist categories are the closest and some of the hardest to judge. Everyone in the category has developed their craft to become a great singer and a superb storyteller. Add to this that torch songs can be compared to rock anthems. The scholastic and collegiate sub-categores are the most encouraging, picturing where these young artists will take their voices.

Song categories incorporate everything. Here we get to take in the arrangement, soloist, execution, engineering, and song choice that make up the complete experience. Most tracks that have made it to this point have excellent engineering, we no longer point a mic at a group and pick up whatever is recorded. It is all captured, mixed and mastered, sometimes by multiple people. Spiralmouth was one of many groups who in 1999 showed that good engineering and excellent vocal execution can transform the experience between the headphones, we’ve adopted this and have taken it further. My winners in this categories are the ones that make me forget I am listening for excellence and allow me to enjoy the experience.


Note: The title of this post is taken from Lord Byron’s “All for Love,” a poem that because of my interesting study habits in high school I cannot disassociate from the Car’s Heatbeat City album.


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