College musicians...let's see...you've got your poets-turned-pop stars, your edgy indie/punk rockers, your righteous rappers, your dorm-born bands. You've even got your music majors with tens of thousands of followers (or more). Which is why none of us at Quadio were surprised when excellent versions of all of the above entered our March Music Madness competition this year.
No, what surprised us was that it was an a cappella group that won. And guess what? It surprised them even more.
Rewind the tape, please!
Quadio's March Madness is our own version of basketball's epic tradition. This year, artists from the NCAA's Sweet 16 schools battled it out on our Instagram stories to take home the title. The final four was composed of rockers, rappers, and pop stars from Gonzaga University, Florida State University, and Loyola University Chicago. And also, the Supernovas, Villanova University's 13-member coed singing troupe.
"What? This is so sick!" That's what one member, Bryan Ruz, recalls thinking as the votes started pouring in for the Supernova victory. "We're a tiny a cappella group."
And not just a tiny group, but one flourishing at a school that literally does not have a music program. Indeed, none of the Supernovas plan a career in music; think biochemistry, nursing, and the ROTC. The Supernovas are, for all intents and purposes, an extracurricular activity.
Its members will tell you that makes the group all the more important to them. It's the place they've been able to find artistic expression, solace, a community, a home. And you feel that in their music. It's authentic, original, and heartfelt, so much so that the group makes it to the final rounds of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella year after year. This year, in a blessing-in-disguise twist, the ICCA competition was forced to move online because of COVID. The Supernovas had to film a video of their set, making a normally temporary, minutes-long live performance available for all to see. Their emotional, expertly crafted video, a three-song-long set that charts the journey of a toxic relationship, put them more on the map than ever before. Watch it and you'll understand why. (We’re not crying, you're crying, okay?)
For this week's 10-in-10, written in celebration of the Supernovas' March Madness victory, Quadio spoke with freshman Mason Olshavsky, sophomore Madeline Wujek, junior Emily Cavanaugh, and junior Bryan Ruz.
A cappella is oddly counter-cultural -- at least in the college music scene, it's as if there's the cult of a cappella and then there's everything else. How did each of you find your way into it?
Madeline: I've been playing piano since I was about three years old and so that was more of my focus for my entire life. I did choir in high school. When I came to college, my orientation counselor forced me to audition because her roommate was in a group that I didn't end up in, but that was how I got into a cappella, and I'm really glad she did that. I love piano so much, that's where I started and that's where my roots are, but this is something I never would have tried and it's been such a step outside of the box.
Mason: I was also a choir kid, like Madeline. I do musical theater as well. I got into a cappella in high school. I went to a big school so there was always a lot of competition to get into the pop a cappella group becauseit was only a few select kids that got to do this fun thing. You get to sing songs from pop culture and be creative and there's choreography. Who doesn't like choreography? So I was in that group, and I've loved it ever since. None of us study music -- I'm a biochemistry major -- and yet we're still in this group and making music together. So I think that's a testament to a cappella, that you want to keep it in your life, even if music isn't your main focus.
Bryan: I'm a nursing major, which is really stressful, so in college I've used a cappella as an outlet. Also, I did a lot of sports in high school, and a cappella is the only group that competes. So I'm able to express myself musically as well as feed that competitive drive. Our group especially -- we all push each other to be better students, better musicians and better competitors. That's made me fall in love with a cappella even more.
Emily: I was vocally trained in high school and I taught myself guitar. When I came to college, I went into ROTC, so a cappella was the way that I could stay connected to music, which was always so important to me. I think pretty much everyone in our group could have taken a musical route, but instead went to a college that doesn't have a music program, and we all relate because of that.
Villanova doesn't have a music program, period?
Madeline: There are a few classes and then they have a lot of extracurriculars that they try to provide us with, but there's no major or minor. I’m studying neuroscience.
Mason: Villanova being a basketball school, I think a lot of energy is funneled into that program, but they did just build a brand new performing arts center. So, I think they're definitely trying to put more of a focus on the arts, so that's pretty cool.
Given Villanova's focus on basketball, did you expect your community to be behind you in such a big way? The Villanova Barstool Instagram account even posted encouraging people to vote for you.
Bryan: Our group chat was blowing up throughout the whole thing, because we were just like, "What? This is so sick!" We're a tiny a cappella group. But I think more people had exposure to us this year, because the ICCA was moved online. Normally our performances are in-person, but because of COVID, we had to create a video of our set, which made what we do accessible to a lot more people.
Let's talk about that set. It won first place in the ICCA Mid-Atlantic Quarterfinal 3, but more importantly (in our opinion), it won you March Madness!
Madeline: I think we went into the ICCA hoping that it was a good enough caliber, and anticipating that a lot of people would do the same thing that we did with the box format. But honestly, with the resources we had, it was the most creative thing we could do. Everyone ended up doing very different things -- we all watched all of the videos that were submitted by all the other groups just for fun. Getting to see a permanent version of everyone's work was really special. And like Bryan said, people knew our group before and knew that we competed, but this time, they got to see it firsthand.
How did you choose the songs for the set?
Emily: The four of us are the ICCA committee, which we elect every year, and we're in charge of developing the set. I was director and choreographer, Mason was the mixer and producer, and Madeline is our music director so she arranged most of it -- our third song, we all arranged together. At the beginning of the semester, we decide if we want to compete, it's usually a yes, and then we go to the group and say we need a storyline. All of our sets tell a story, and people can suggest songs and also themes and stories. So then we go through them all together, people vote, give their thoughts on each one, and then we as the committee deliberate on what we think is best and come up with a final product.
What was the theme this year?
Madeline: We decided to chart someone navigating a toxic relationship because that's a very common thing for people our age to experience, I think, trying to find yourself and trying to work your way through something that's toxic. So we started the set on more of an angry and bitter note, and then we focused on growing throughout it until it ended at a place of resolution.
How do you divvy things up?
Madeline: With that set, I arranged it so every person had their own line. Each was a line unique to them, and so at that point, it didn't really matter if we only had two altos because each one would be singing something different. So I strayed from voice parts for that. There's a rough quota we try to keep just for balance purposes. I wouldn't say that there's a set amount of people we need in each part. We usually just see who's graduating and what we'll need, and then keep that in mind during auditions, but there's always ways around it.
What's your favorite song you've performed?
Emily: One hundred percent "Stayaway" by MUNA, which was in our set. That was always my favorite song and I was so happy it finally made it into an ICCA set because I think it's so raw and it's really about being pulled back to someone and you feel that emotion with the person singing.
Mason: As a freshman, obviously I haven't done too many things with the Supernovas just yet, but I think "Diamonds," which is also in the set. Every time we transition to that song, I just want to just vibe and groove, and Bryan sings the solo on that one, and holy moly does he destroy that. So I just have the best time singing that when we get there.
Bryan: I would say the set as well, but just to go a different route, also "The End Of Love" by Florence and the Machine, which is a song we performed my and Emily's freshman year. It's very nostalgic to me, but it also shows the growth we've had in our group. We were all very musical back then, but I think we have elevated this group into something that is competitive and also current -- it's music you just want to listen to. It doesn't sound just like a cappella, if that makes sense.
Madeline: "Stayaway" is also one of my favorite songs, but I think this is a universal experience for all of us -- when we sing it, we get really into it, and when you sing that much emotion with something, it gets really tiring. So "Diamonds" is always a fun little break in the middle of "Stayaway," just light and fun and a good mental break.
Bryan, this is something you touched on -- a cappella as "current." It feels like there's a new genre of music every day. Young artists are experimenting with sound more than ever. Do you ever feel like a cappella is passé? Or is it timeless?
Bryan: I think that it's evolving into something that's going to become relevant. Madeline and I were listening to our group from 2007 or something, and it's very doo-woppy and very campy, and it's cute, but I think it's been evolving. There are professional groups like Pentatonix and other mainstream a cappella groups that are really innovative in how they make sure that the music is something people want to listen to as well as something that can be competitive with pop music or EDM music or rap music today. So I think that's something that our group is focusing on as we're developing stuff for Spotify, as well as other things in the future.
Emily: I think it's timeless because just as an instrument through time is used in different ways, it never becomes obsolete. So for instance, a saxophone in the 1930s was used much differently in music than it is now. I think a cappella is the same way. I mean, you have Pitch Perfect, which gave way to really popular music a couple of years ago, and people aren't really using doo-wop syllables anymore -- it continues to be elevated into something that's always going to be relevant, I think.
Are you recording new music?
Mason: It was this year that we actually began to record our material and the ICCA set was the very first thing we've ever recorded and produced somewhat professionally. So we definitely see that opportunity of being forced to put something together virtually as a blessing because now we know that we, without too many materials or resources, can make a professional-sounding set. So we've decided as a group that we're going to move in that direction and establish a presence on Spotify, and that schedule is being developed as we speak. We're currently recording two of our other songs from this year. Within the next few weeks, we're going to be putting that together, sending that to a distributor, and then getting it on Spotify.