The sound of 15 voices buzzes like a cloud of cicadas on a summer night. It expands and subsides, lingering in the air as a delicate reverence fills the room. Slowed down and stripped bare, the chorus of “How Deep Is Your Love?” becomes an intimate hymn suffused with subtle yearning and urgency. Bright, piercing vocals arch while soft beatboxing builds understated tension before resolving into silence.
With just over a week until the 2017 International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) Finals, Voices in Your Head has been rehearsing nearly every day, tweaking and perfecting its set. A surprising win at semi-finals means that the co-ed a cappella group, which has been preparing since January, will compete against nine other teams in New York on April 22. The bar has been set high—the last time the group competed, in 2015, it placed second—but the emphasis for the group has been in developing its skills.
“At the end of the day, knowing that our main focus for doing this competition is to get better as an ensemble, to get better as musicians” said fourth-year president David Gosz.
After nearly half the group graduated last spring, Voices planned to use this year to consolidate. “It never crossed my mind that I would be part of the generation that would also go to finals one day,” said first-year Hillary Yuen. Yuen, along with bass Eric Volpert, are two of the group’s six new members this year. Much of fall quarter was spent exploring the group’s new sound. “All of our new members stepped up in new ways to produce this piece of art that is better than we could have anticipated at the beginning of this year,” Gosz said.
Volpert, who listened to Voices's 2016 album LIGHTS three times on his drive to campus from Philadelphia, always knew—like Yuen—that he wanted to join Voices in Your Head.
“I came from this background of being a choral bass in a choir [where you have to] sing as loud as you can so people can hear you,” Volpert said about transitioning between two different performance settings. “[But in a cappella competitions] you have to be really in tune because the mics will pick you up.”
Singing together on stage, on top of hours spent in rehearsals working toward a common goal, creates a deep sense of mutual respect and camaraderie within the Voices cohort.
“Voices has been a rollercoaster ride...but it’s the best decision I’ve made since getting here” —third-year Ire Olagbami
“There’s just this element of creating art with someone else that creates a really strong bond between them,” Volpert said. The members go on a retreat twice a year and performed at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the fall. “My entire social life is pretty much Voices,” Volpert said. “I spend more time with them than I do with members of my house.”
In rehearsals, the atmosphere is focused but playful; members ask detailed questions, chat in between run-throughs, and dance around to loosen up. When trying to explain how to deliver a note, third-year musical director Will Cabaniss described it as “linear,” at which point others jokingly suggested that it was “logarithmic” or, rather, “sinusoidal.”
The group is able to channel its playful dynamic into silly traditions. A pre-show tradition to keep the jitters at bay is a group chant of “go ninja go”, which was transformed into “go ’bama go” when the group performed at a White House holiday party in 2015.
The 2012 ICCA arrangement of “We Found Love” was the group’s breakthrough moment. It crystallized Voices’s distinctive approach to a cappella—reworking and reinterpreting familiar songs for audiences, with a focus on intricate vocal arrangements and innovative textures. And for many current members, including Gosz and Cabaniss, it made them consider attending UChicago in the first place.
“We have a joke in the group that we’re not a collegiate a cappella group, we’re just a professional a cappella group that happens to be in a collegiate setting” said Olagbami, the group’s business manager.
This year’s set explores the limits of the human voice as a complex musical instrument. “Oftentimes in a cappella, we tend to forget the limits of our instruments,” said Cabaniss, who said that he aimed this year to play with timbre and texture. The arrangements span a variety of genres, from Top 40 pop to R&B to gospel-influenced songs, for a multi-faceted piece of art. Like a Möbius strip, it seamlessly twists on itself in perpetual motion. From the opening bars of Diplo’s “Revolution,” lifted by Yuen’s powerful soprano, to the leaden hopelessness of “Lost It to Trying” to the quivering optimism of “Angels,” the set is marked by an emphasis on unified sound.
“The strategy of the group has always been to use intricate arrangements and to use the group sound as the star of the show,” Cabaniss said.
“We always rely on blend, on tuning, and balance of our block” —fourth-year David Gosz
The accompanying choreography, created by second-year Al Daibes, the group’s creative director, is a similar study in contrast. Cubes dissipate, V-formations melt into lines, and singers sway in a circle or raise their eyes to the ceiling in unison.
“My choreography relies a lot on very clean mathematical movements,” Daibes said, in true UChicago fashion. “I had this concept of everyone standing in a cube and each part having different movements within the cube,” he continued regarding the first major formation of the set. “The disjointedness and togetherness of the music and group started to harmonize [layering] on top of each other to become one cohesive large movement.”
While the term “voices in your head” usually denotes isolation, Voices in Your Head delivers powerful performances through not one, but 15 voices. Voices channels their close-knit bond and passion for singing onto the stage, and it echoes wherever they sing, be it in Logan 701 or—in a week—New York’s Beacon Theatre.
Voices In Your Head placed second at the 2017 ICCA Finals. Will Cabaniss won "Outstanding Arrangement" for "How Deep is Your Love."