The Oxford a cappella scene is one of the oldest and most developed in the country – and so even if the idea of a bunch of well tuned and ferociously cheerful young men and/or women slamming out a mashup of Katy Perry hits is your idea of hell, it’s unlikely that you will have been able to avoid it. With the jazz-fuelled Oxford Gargoyles recently making it onto BBC Choir of the Year and all-male sensation Out Of The Blue gracing the semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent back in 2011, it seems that a cappella in Oxford is going strong and here to stay. Its strength is due not only the abundance of musically minded and vocally-acrobatic participants, but also to the spirit of friendly competition between the groups which comes to a head at the end of Hilary as the ‘Voice Festival UK’, affectionately termed ‘V-FUK’, arrives in town. For the uninitiated, V-FUK is as close as it gets to Glee, with regional rounds pitting local groups against each other before the cream of the crop head to London to compete in the national final. I had the privilege of being welcomed into a rehearsal with Oxford’s oldest group, the mixed-voice Alternotives, to find out how they were preparing for the a cappella event of the term.
Witnessing an a cappella rehearsal from the outside is an experience like no other; the buzz-words, injokes and “technical” terms come thick and fast and there is a lot of debate and collaboration. It would perhaps be cruel of me to repeat all the best quotes from this rehearsal verbatim, but a few favourites include “No, it’s Italian vowels for this one”; “And when the sopranos come in, they can just be… you know… ethereal”; and finally, whilst Musical Director Jessie and song arranger Slade make a final few edits to their opening song, “Oh no, they just cut the bit we can sing”.
Despite the rigours of their preparation, the Alts still found time for some one-on-one chats. Group veteran Dom Burrell, now in his third year of a cappella, gave an insight into his time in the group: “It’s changed a lot in three years, and I’ve been lucky to be a part of that.” The Alts have definitely branched out in recent years. When I first saw them they were clad in “black with a splash” and had a sort of geek chic charm. Last year they jetted off to the USA in their now signature hand-dyed purple, and they’ve developed a gutsy, soul-tinged sound without losing their sense of fun and comedy which sets them apart from the rest of the Oxford crowd. Dom’s attitude to voice festival is pragmatic but optimistic: the group as a whole, he says, is looking forward to having three songs perfected and also seeing the others at the top of their game.
On the whole, the group seems reluctant to rate their chances in the coming competition, but the atmosphere at the end of the rehearsal was definitely one of quiet confidence – and rightly so. When asked for one word to sum up how they were feeling about the impending challenge, answers ranged from “pumped” to “intrigued”.
Ed Crawford, however, who will deliver the solo for the set finale, was unable to confine his feelings to one word. Tasked with delivering the sexy, seductive ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You’, his thoughts on the challenge he faces to help propel his group to success were concluded thus: “I hope there is a female judge… or at least a gay man.”
The alts set promises to be musically impressive, wittily delivered, beautifully sung and of course outrageously flirtatious. You won’t want to miss them. They take to the stage this Sunday in the Oxford Town Hall.