You may have seen them on Ring Road, stopping their march, flag emblazoned with the Circle of Fifths logo, serenading passers-by with their a cappella arrangements. You may have heard them in a room in Humanities Hall on certain nights, practicing in a classroom on the first floor. They’ve had gigs around UCI, going to festivals and competing in the International Competition of Collegiate A Capella in Tucson, AZ this year. They’ve even helped a guy propose to his girlfriend on the beach (she said yes).
Wherever they’ve been or wherever you hear them, you can always be certain that Circle of Fifths, UCI’s all-male a cappella group, will give a good performance their all.
Founded in 2005, Circle of Fifths got their name because the original group actually had five members, hence the word play with the musical term of the same name. Now there are 16 guys in the circle as the group finishes out its seventh year.
“For me a circle is a place where I have a camaraderie of people that enjoy the same thing that I do, and also a place where we can strive to make excellent music,” said Tim Ketenjian, a fourth-year business major and current president of Circle of Fifths. “It’s fun and it’s hard work at the same time.”
At their practices, which occur three times a week, one can see past the smiling performances and somewhat silly attitude that comes with being in an a cappella group. Behind each song is a meticulous rearrangement of the original song. When someone wants to arrange a pre-existing song for a cappella, it has to go through a process of rewriting instrumental parts for voice.
“The thing is that even if the audience doesn’t know the song, if you make a good arrangement and have a good soloist, sometimes it’s even better than playing known songs,” says Ketenjian. “People can have expectations for known songs.”
Within an a cappella group, there are four sections –– tenor 1, tenor 2, baritone and bass, in addition to a beat boxer. Even after everything is arranged, there’s still the process of making everything blend. As much as it would seem like it’s all smiles and bop-bop-bop, there’s a lot of consideration behind each of these voices.
Take character, for example –– each song has a specific character that the group has to embody. Serious ballads will sound different than lighter, funnier songs. But the way practices are run, it goes a lot deeper than that.
“1, 2, 3, 4…” artistic director Dexter Stevens counts off, before stopping a song at its transition. At these practices, the guys in Circle of Fifths stand in a circle, which isn’t just a symbolic formation –– standing in a circle rather than in rows allows them all to hear the harmonies better. In the corner, a keyboard provides reference notes so that everyone stays on key.
“It sounds a little schizophrenic,” Stevens says to them, repeating the lyrics. They’re crescendoing where there needs to be a plateau, and it doesn’t sound right. The booming, outspoken leader of practice, Stevens is a bass, but he also arranges about 80 percent of the music (the rest is usually arranged by secretary and baritone Curtis Hoffman). At practices, Stevens leads the group and tells them what needs to be fixed or what needs to sound different.
“You guys are going to hate me, but now it sounds too short,” he says for another part of the song. “It’s like you’re trying to prove how short you can make it –– it’s like the poof on the top of a Dr. Seuss character’s head.”
They go over these parts over and over, grueling on choreography, character, cues and dynamics for a reason –– this upcoming Saturday, Circle of Fifths is hosting their fourth annual a cappella festival. Called CAFE, or Coolest A cappella Festival Ever, this free event will feature 10 a cappella groups from five different schools. Because the event is on a Saturday, Circle is trying to promote it as much as possible, thus the impromptu performances on Ring Road.
“Festivals are a great way to reach out to the greater a cappella community and meet people from other schools,” says Ketenjian. “It’s a fun time because you get to listen to other groups, because everyone enjoys doing the same thing.”
CAFE is also going to be important not only as a great way to self-promote (the group is also in need of new members; at the end of this year, 9 of Circle’s 16 members are graduating, leaving a lot of room for new performers), but because this will be the first event at which Circle of Fifths will be selling their first album, “Not That Shallow.” This 10-track album was recorded this past summer and will sell for $15 at CAFE.
“A cappella’s very different because you don’t get instruments, so there’s nothing covering up what you’re singing,” says Ketenjian. “It makes you a better singer, and I think that’s the best thing –– everyone leaves Circle a better singer.”
The reason why a cappella festivals are so unique is this lack of instruments; it seems an obvious trait of the genre, but the hazard is apparent in practices, when the painstaking effort to make sure every bop has the right tone and volume in addition to pitch. The arrangements have to be spot on so that everything sounds good and looks good, not only to the people in the group but to the audience as well.
“With a lot of other forms of vocal performance, you have an accompanist which is filling in the gaps. With a cappella, you have to fill in all of the gaps. Sometimes silence is great, sometimes you can create a lot of music out of silence. But you still have to fill in all of the gaps with your voices. Your blend has to be super solid. Because if it’s not, everything sticks out. Everybody knows something’s off if one person’s off.”