One of my favorite a cappella arrangers/innovators passed away very recently, and this week, I thought I would dedicate this blog post to him.
Ward Swingle, if you didn’t know, was the first/primary arranger and founder of the Swingle Singers. Though I have never met him personally, his impact on my a cappella career is profound.
His biography, “Swingle Singing,” is one of my favorite books, not only because it tells the story of how he formed the Swingle Singers, but it explains the arranging concept of “Swingle Singing,” a technique I use frequently in my arrangements. Here is how Ward Swingle changed my life:
1) Ward Swingle introduced me to a cappella
The very first a cappella song I ever heard was the arrangement of the “Superman Theme Song,” sung a cappella by the Swingle Singers. In terms of my musical life, no moment has ever made more of an impact than that one, because it showed me something new, something that could only be done with voices, and could be applied to any type of music, even instrumental music.
Now to be fair, Ward Swingle did not arrange that particular song. And it was my high school choir director, Kevin Badanes (currently with Avante, a FANTASTIC vocal jazz group), who played it for us. But without Ward Swingle, there would be no Swingle Singers. And with no Swingle Singers, I would not have had such an early infatuation with a cappella music.
2) Ward Swingle taught me how to arrange.
The technique of Swingle Singing, as outlined in his biography “Swingle Singing,” is an arranging technique of taking long, un-singable instrumental lines, and breaking them down, re-assigning specific notes to specific singers, and combining various parts to give the impression that the entire instrumental line is being sung by one person, even though several singers are piecing it together. It’s a trick that has been used by countless arrangers over the years, so much so that they probably don’t even know Ward Swingle invented it. But if you listen to the early Swingle records, you’ll hear a lot of jazz versions of Bach organ fugues, Mozart sonatas, and even the 1812 overture. Today, only a small handful of a cappella groups even cover instrumental music, but no one does it better than the Swingle Singers.
3) Ward Swingle introduced me to dissertations.
The very first dissertation I ever read, cover to cover, was a dissertation devoted entirely to the life and music of Ward Swingle, written by Kathleen Shannon. It was this dissertation that sparked the idea for an a cappella major, and it was this dissertation that showed me that anyone is within reach to talk to, even the people you idolize from afar.
Farewell Ward Swingle. I am certain that your music will live on forever.