Formed in Paris in 1962 by American Ward Swingle – originally as The Swingle Singers – The Swingles hold a unique position in the vocal music world. Not only have they been performing for more than 50 years, but the ensemble of seven vocalists, now based in London, has cut 50-plus recordings and won five Grammys.
“They were a cappella before a cappella was cool,” says Dr. Alan Stevens, associate director of choral activities in East Tennessee State University’s Department of Music. “They really started this idea of taking music and making it something it wasn’t originally. They would take a Bach piece and sing it on jazz scat syllables and swing the rhythm and make it into a completely different-sounding piece.
“They have also embraced the pop-a cappella world with beatbox and all of that style that has come out of the Pitch Perfect movies and the Sing-Off on TV. They really have been able to bridge both sides of the spectrum and sing all of it incredibly well.”
On Thursday, March 1, The Swingles – including Sara Brimer-Davey, an ETSU alumna and Greeneville native – will perform their “Folklore” program of contemporary arrangements of traditional folk songs from around the world, lullabies and laments, work songs and war songs, in Seeger Chapel at Milligan College. The concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. with East Tennessee State University’s Greyscale a cappella ensemble, which Stevens directs, opening the show.
In addition to Brimer-Davey, The Swingles includes Joanna Goldsmith-Eteson, Clare Wheeler, Oliver Griffiths, Jon Smith, Kevin Fox and Edward Randell.
“I’ve found that the ‘Swingle sound’ is difficult to explain in one sentence,” says Brimer-Davey, the group’s high soprano, a Greeneville High School, as well as ETSU, music alumna. “What I can say is that we value simplicity and silence as much as virtuosity and fortissimo …
“We tend to steer away from what is trendy at that moment, challenging ourselves to search for and then share music that is meaningful to us. We feel this has a direct effect on our performance and stage presence and allows for more connection with the audience.”
The Johnson City concert – actually sponsored by ETSU’s Mary B. Martin School of the Arts – will feature arrangements from the group’s Folklore CD and some Swingles classics. “We finished our album Folklore in early 2017, and the whole process was an incredible journey for us,” Brimer-Davey says. “We wanted to introduce ‘new’ old music to our audience and draw comparisons that show how similar cultures across the globe can be.
“We’ve been very proud to showcase songs from Afghanistan, China, England, Portugal, Russia, Bulgaria and many more, all with a Swingles twist, of course.”
Stevens says his student are already either lifelong fans of The Swingles sound or avid new converts. In recent years, the London-based ensemble has been featured on numerous film and TV soundtracks, including Sex and the City, Milk, Grey’s Anatomy, Glee and the recent film Downsizing. “It’s hard not to fall in love with them,” Stevens says.
Whether followers or just curious, concert-goers will get to see Brimer-Davey, the group’s “Southern belle and diva extraordinaire,” in one of her last Swingles performances – since she is leaving the group in May – and hear a one-of-a-kind live performance with true international flavor.
“I can guarantee that you will hear music that you have never heard before from places you’ve never been and it could be the start of something beautiful for you,” Brimer-Davey says. “Whether you are a diehard fan or have never listened to a cappella before in your life, you will learn something.
“We strive for excellence but what we care most about is communication with our audience. Come for the English accents if nothing else!”
For more information about ETSU’s Mary B. Martin School of the Arts or to purchase tickets, visit www.etsu.edu/martin, follow @artsatetsu or call 423-439-TKTS (8587). Tickets are $20 for general admission, $15 for seniors 60-plus and $5 for students of all ages.