On Thursday, The Swingles — including Sara Brimer-Davey, an East Tennessee State University 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.
The performance in Seeger Chapel at Milligan College begins at 7:30 p.m. with ETSU’s Greyscale a cappella ensemble opening the show, a news release says.
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,” said 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.”
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,” said Brimer-Davey, the group’s high soprano. “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 Swingles, Brimer-Davey said, has always used amplification, and in recent years, has written some of its own music and incorporated live looping, recording several bars live during concerts and playing them back later in the song to multiply the sound.
The Johnson City concert, sponsored by ETSU’s Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, will feature arrangements from the group’s “Folklore” CD, as well as some Swingles classics.
“We finished our album ‘Folklore’ in early 2017, and the whole process was an incredible journey for us,” Brimer-Davey said. “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.”
The international musical smorgasbord, as well as the legendary international group, made The Swingles an irresistible choice for ETSU’s School of the Arts, the news release says.
“It’s a good opportunity for us to present an internationally known vocal music group, as well as welcome back one of our ETSU music alumni,” said Anita DeAngelis, director of the Martin School of the Arts. “We are working with our ETSU vocal music program on this event, as well as vocal music at Milligan College, to connect the artists with younger singers. That impact on students is so integral to our mission at the School of the Arts and the Martins’ legacy.”
Constant learning and sharing that education is crucial to The Swingles, as well, Brimer-Davey said. “We ourselves are still learning and growing as musicians. It’s part of our job to open up new ways of creating and expressing while reinforcing — and sometimes teaching for the first time — the basic foundational skills of singing.”
Stevens said his students are already either lifelong fans of The Swingles 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 said. “They are so engaging when they perform and their music is so interesting.”
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 to begin “a new chapter” in her life, 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 said. “Whether you are a diehard fan or have never listed 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 or call 423-439-8587. Tickets are $20 for general admission, $15 for seniors 60-plus and $5 for students of all ages.