Arts & ENTERTAINMENT

A cappella group Oxford Gargoyles use their voices as jazz instruments

Somewhere between a choir and a jazz band, the group, formed 17 years ago at Oxford University, will perform in Hong Kong and Macau this summer

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 July, 2015, 9:16pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 July, 2015, 9:16pm

A cappella groups are all the rage these days, thanks to the popular Pitch Perfect films. The Oxford Gargoyles, a singing group from Oxford University, however, have long made a cappella their own through a mixture of black-tie class and groovy jazz numbers.

The 14-member, mixed-gender Gargoyles have been growing in popularity since forming 17 years ago. While Oxford is known for its Anglican Church choir, the Gargoyles were founded as an outlet for jazz music, and remain the only jazz a cappella group on campus. For their annual international tour, they will return to Macau and Hong Kong for the second time.

Throughout the years, the group have found a distinctive voice, and one of their most recognisable features is the mimicking of walking jazz basslines. By voicing instrumentals — such as the bass and percussion beats — the Gargoyles style is somewhere between a choir and a jazz band.

"We are not singing lines you would hear in a choir, which are smoother and have more choral vowels. But we also don't sound like a jazz band," member and tour manager Sam Galler says.

This diversity in sounds and vocals has given the group much creative licence for adapting popular songs. While the Gargoyles' singing style is mainly jazz-based, the group draw inspiration from other genres by rearranging pop, rock and soul music into a vocal jazz style, Galler says. Songs the group have rearranged include Dancing in the Moonlight and Love me or Leave me.

Magnificat and Funk Dimittis, a song the group is particularly excited to perform, is a jazz-funk version of Anglican evensong pieces that juxtaposes Anglican melodies with pop quotes and soul-funk influences. The song, arranged by music director Jacob Swindells, pays homage to Oxford's rich Anglican music tradition and encapsulates the group's diverse artistic range.

The group will also debut fresh arrangements of The Beatles' Let it Be and Shania Twain's Man, I Feel Like a Woman.

As part of a growing a cappella culture both on campus and on the global scene, the Oxford Gargoyles have made it part of their mission to showcase their particular style. Through their performances, the group hope to inspire others to join or form a cappella groups that represent a diverse range of styles and genres. They themselves were inspired by Swedish vocalists The Real Group and American a cappella gospel music group Take 6.

In Asia, a cappella singing has also begun to take off and Galler believes its global popularity is due to the lower barrier of entry. Hong Kong, for example, has its own four-man outfit, the Yat Po Singers. "Forming an a cappella group doesn't cost much. You can incorporate different voices and different genres," he says. "It's a very flexible style of performing."

The Gargoyles are involved in a variety of local gigs, on top of their annual international tour. They have their own concerts and are invited to perform both on-campus and at various charity events. For the past eight years, the group have also participated in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In the past two years alone, they've racked up six five-star reviews for their performances at the festival.

Apart from performing in Hong Kong, Macau and Japan (the latter will be their first visit to the country) on their international tour, the Gargoyles will also act as ambassadors and teachers of a cappella. In partnership with the Chinese YMCA of Hong Kong, they will be holding a choral workshop for local Hong Kong schoolchildren and will also perform as the guest choir of the 2015 World Youth and Children's Choir Festival, hosted by the Hong Kong Treble Choirs' Association.

July 11, 7.45pm, School of the Nations Concert Hall, Macau. Inquiries: nasda2014@hotmail.com

July 15, 8pm, Sha Tin Town Hall, 1 Yuen Wo Road, HK$160-HK$360 Urbtix. Inquiries: 3761 6661

July 16, 8pm, agnes b. Cinema, HK Arts Centre, 2 Harbour Road, Wan Chai, HK$240 Urbtix. Inquiries: 3761 6661

July 17, 7pm, Grand Hall, Lee Shau Kee Lecture Centre, University of Hong Kong, Pok Fu Lam. Inquiries: 2705 2155; imaffairs@ymca.org.hk