Swingle Singers give Bee Gees, Bach the a cappella treatment

The Swingle Singers, the London-based octet that performs everything from Bach’s fugues to the Bee G
The Swingle Singers
The Swingle Singers

SCHENECTADY — Imagine Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” without the cannon, Bach without the harpsichord or a Beethoven symphony without strings. Or hearing any serious music without instruments.

If you can, then you must be thinking of the Swingle Singers, the London-based octet that performs everything from Bach’s fugues to the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” with only their voices. The group, which has been turning classical melodies into a cappella songs for 45 years, will be promoting its newest album, “Beauty and the Beatbox,” with a tour of the United States.

On its first stop, at Proctors on Saturday night, the ensemble will handily intone the rhythms and harmonies of its vast repertory — including Henry Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament”; Ravel’s “Bolero”; Count Basie’s “It’s Sand, Man”; and Nat King Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right.”

This eclectic playlist is one of the reason bassist Tobias Hug joined the Swingle Singers in 2001. “I always loved crossover,” said Hug. “Pop, big band, classical, jazz, Latin.”

First hearing

However, he did not conceive of a vocal orchestra until he saw the Swingles a decade ago. “The first time I heard them, I was thrilled; my jaw just dropped.”

Swingle Singers

WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday

HOW MUCH: $35, $30 and $25

MORE INFO: 346-6204 or www.proctors.org

Now, he looks forward to dooing and dahing in the Swingles’ interpretation of the theme from “Starsky and Hutch.”

“It’s contemporary and funky,” said Hug, who hails from Germany. “But I think my favorite moment in the show is Bach. He has some great bass lines.”

He refers to “Bachbeat,” an inventive interpretation of the composer’s spirited “Badinerie.” It’s just one of many Bach works in the Swingles’ playbook. The group’s first album, in 1963, titled “Bach’s Greatest Hits,” won a Grammy Award for Best New Artist. The group won another Grammy with its follow-up album, “Jazz Sebastian Bach.” Ward Swingle, founder of the singers, explained how Bach formed the backbone of the group.

“I got out Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Clavichord’ and we began reading through the preludes and fugues just to see if they were singable,” wrote Swingle in his biography. “We soon found, like many before us, that we were swinging Bach’s music quite naturally. Since there were no words, we improvised a kind of scat singing a la Louis Armstrong, which we later reduced to simple doos and boos, dahs and bahs so as not to get in the way of Bach’s counterpoint. We took advantage of two characteristics common to both jazz and baroque music: rhythm and improvisation.”

Hug said the union between the Swingles and Bach is natural because “his music is formal, but there is room for improvisation. I think if Bach were alive today, he’d be a jazz musician.”

Of course, some music buffs feel this is a travesty. One critic noted that “It sounds like one of those novelty records that try to make their mark with funny noises. That grinding noise you hear is Bach turning in his grave.”

But others, like Ivan Hewitt of London’s The Telegraph, has written “The Swingle Singers pitched those mysteriously lovely chords with laser-like precision. . . . On a purely musical level, its performance was a triumph.”

With eight singers, as opposed to the four to six that make up most a cappella groups, the Swingle Singers attain a polyphonic scope that is richer and deeper. It’s also easier to divide up and arrange the instrumental lines.

Tailored scores

No matter the style, classical, jazz or pop, all of the music is carefully crafted for the voice. Hug said the music is rescored to the singers’ ranges and strengths. As bassists, Hug and Kevin Fox act as the percussion. The pairs of altos, tenors and sopranos then layer their rhythms with melody or harmony.

“We transcribe the music to where we are comfortable,” said Hug.

The producers added some formal wear — gowns for the women and tuxes for the men — along with some simple choreographed steps. The package makes for a polished concert.

Hug, who performed with nearly 60 choirs including Jazzchor Frieburg and SiX before joining the Swingles, said performing with this group is richly satisfying as he is continually called on to present an impressive display of vocal gymnastics.

“I hope we inspire people to sing, Bach or jazz,” said Hug.

“We want to touch, entertain, uplift. We’ve been working hard to put on this show. I think it is like nothing anyone has ever heard before.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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