Woog's World / His book strikes a chord
Published 6:19 am, Thursday, April 26, 2012
If you saw an elementary, middle school or Staples theatrical production -- or went to any event involving a piano -- from the mid-1980s through 1997, you remember the name Josh Duchan.
The vastly talented musician -- who also performed in Staples Players main stage and Black Box shows -- wrote the musical score and conducted the pit orchestra for a musical version of "The Tempest." He went on to the University of Pennsylvania -- majoring, of course, in music -- and even after graduating summa cum laude, returned to Westport to help out with summer theater events.
Josh earned his master's and Ph.D. in music at the University of Michigan. He taught at Kalamazoo College and Bowling Green State University and now serves as assistant professor of music at Detroit's Wayne State University.
After gaining experience in Staples' elite a cappella group the Orphenians, Josh joined Penn's Counterparts. He loved singing the jazz and pop arrangements, and when he got to Ann Arbor he realized that a cappella was a great way to make new friends quickly. Amazin' Blue -- a coed group -- did exactly that.
At Michigan, Josh built on his previous experiences, learning to arrange, direct and record music. He used his a cappella groups as subjects for term papers as a college senior and grad student, but did not expect to actually study the music until a Michigan professor -- a man who literally wrote the book on American music history -- suggested Josh use the topic for his doctoral dissertation.
"Study the music I already love? No problem!" Josh laughs.
A new book -- "Powerful Voices: The Musical and Social World of Collegiate A Cappella" -- grew out of that doctoral dissertation. Josh drew on his own experience singing in groups, but also traveled to Boston -- what he calls "the quintessential college town" -- for a year of field research. At Brandeis, Boston, Harvard and Northeastern Universities, he attended rehearsals, performances and recording sessions. He conducted interviews with singers, and spent time in university archives mining the genre's history.
Though a cappella is thriving right now all across the country, no one had ever actually studied it. Josh's book is the first stab at its history, as well as a consideration of issues like gender and technology that currently buffet the scene.
Josh's Ph.D. in ethnomusicology -- the study of music as part of culture -- positions him well to consider those issues. Of course, he notes, "doctor dissertation language is often quite technical." He worked hard to make his book "much more readable."
Woven through "Powerful Voices" is the idea that collegiate a cappella is an extension of a very old tradition of singing on American college and university campuses. However, Josh says, "it could not sound, look or feel the way it does without the advent of rock `n' roll, and the popular music that followed." He hopes readers will use his book as "a sort of window on this world, whose inhabitants do some pretty amazing things with just the human voice. But they also construct elaborate social networks that spread new musical ideas around the community rather quickly."
Josh wrote "Powerful Voices" for three audiences simultaneously. The first is the community of scholars of which he is a part -- men and women who study music in a variety of ways.
The second is the a cappella community. It grows by the thousands every year. With an estimated 1,200 groups across the United States, that's a lot of potential readers who might want to read a thoughtful take on a world they love.
The third audience is "more general readers who will be fascinated with the uncommon vocal techniques a cappella singers use to make music, as well as finding out how important issues play out in these musicians' lives as they travel through the rite of passage known as college."
Though it's been years since Josh attended a Staples concert, he hopes that a cappella is -- or will soon -- thrive here. Alice Lipson's choirs -- especially the Orphenians -- had an enormous impact on his musical education.
"Students in Westport really aren't that far from some great college groups at Yale, Wesleyan, Columbia, NYU and elsewhere," Josh notes. "So inspiration is nearby."
And, with the recent explosion of a cappella-related popular culture, like "Glee" and "The Sing-Off" on TV and a 2009 Ben Folds album featuring a cappella groups, the genre is hot right now.
After reading "Powerful Voices," readers will see why. Then, perhaps, they'll put down the book, put on their headphones, and listen to some of the best, most fun, and cleverly creative music around.
And, thanks to Josh Duchan, they'll understand exactly where it came from, where it is today, and why it makes them smile.