Quasimodal: Collaboration and Love in A Capella

On our first day back to campus, I had the chance to sit down with Quasimodal, Wesleyan University’s oldest co-ed a capella group. It was unseasonably cold and rainy, and I was feeling somewhat unsettled by all the shifts that my senior year brings. I arrived at Zelnick Pavilion a few minutes early, quietly found a seat along the wall, and listened as the voices of Quasimodal arose from their small circle. I was immediately overcome with a feeling of warmth. After they finished rehearsing, I joined the group in a circle on the floor for a conversation about their creative process, collaboration, the necessity of trust, and what we can expect to hear from them at The MASH this weekend.

Linne Halpern: How does collaboration play into your work? Do you find collaboration to be more integral to your creative process than it would be for other artists, even bands?

Katherine Paterson: We’re all using the same instrument as opposed a band where you’re all playing different instruments that might have different languages or vocabularies. While people are trained in different vocal styles here, it’s really interesting to work with a group where all sixteen of us are using our voices. It allows for us to figure out our instruments together in a way that can further our art.

Nick Doelger: I don’t think collaboration just plays into our work; I think collaboration is our work. It’s so democratic: there’s no leader, no president. I was really surprised when I first joined the group and realized that everyone had an equal share because I’d never really seen anything like that before. It’s the best.

Molly Bogin: Something that is really cool, especially when you’re in a group this big–coming from different places–is that everyone brings something completely different to the table. You have different people dealing with the arrangement, dynamics, and timing of the music. It’s a unique thing that I don’t think many other musicians experience.

Linne Halpern: That’s so interesting because we named Reverberations with the idea of art and artistic responses ‘reverberating’ off of themselves and creating new forms of art. So along the lines of what you’re mentioning—because you guys are working with covers, other artists’ original materials—the concept of a cover feels similar to a ‘reverberation,’ a ripple, a response to another artist’s work. Do you find your work to be in dialogue in this way?

Christopher Desanges: Whenever we work on a song, I tend to forget about the original artist and really make it into our own song. When we’re trying to figure things out, it feels like an open canvas. If a song that we’re working with comes on in a context outside of Quasi, it is interesting to hear how dramatic the differences are from what we hear and what we create. Even if we do try to incorporate the general feel of the song, it still changes in so many ways.

Joey Cahn: Something that is super interesting about a cover is that, depending on who’s hearing it, it’s interpreted so differently. There are plenty of songs that we’ve sung that I had never heard before. In that way, our Quasi-versions of those songs are my entry point to them, and they remain what those songs are in my ears. It’s different from when we’re singing “I’m Sprung,” and in my head, I know it’s a T-Pain song.

We try to do a mixture of more well-known and less well-known songs so that people can have those various interactions with what they hear from us. They’ll hear something they may be familiar with, but done in a different way, and then they’ll hear something that will sound like an original to them because the song is totally new to their ears.

Marni Loffman: What it feels like to respond to the work probably feels different for the people arranging it. There are a few different levels at which there is a conversation with the original piece of music—I haven’t arranged, so I’d be interested to hear from the perspective of an arranger. Some arrangements happen in collaboration as well. For our group, on the level of the arrangement, it’s mostly just transcribing. We’ll go through, note for note, a blueprint for the raw rhythm of the thing. As we figure it out as a group, it’s more of a process of layering than of responding. We find ways to layer over that original body of the piece. We’ll change up the order, play with lengths of verses, and add in an extra bridge. The way I see it is that a lot of the work, of response or of building on the music, only happens once it gets to the group.

Molly Bogin: As a freshman, I was terrified of the idea of arranging a song, but by the end of freshman year, I was like, ‘ok, I can listen to a very basic song and transcribe what I am hearing.’ By junior year, I was thinking it would be cool to listen to a song that was simple and come up with my own harmonies to put in there and bring to the group. That felt like a personal moment of growth for me, and I brought it to the group and the experience grew even more because, all of a sudden, those notes were being sung by actual people.

Also, a capella has become so universal at a point. I have looked up other group’s arrangements of songs to see if there is anything that they’re doing that I feel really into. On YouTube, and people will ask for other people’s arrangements. It’s a lot of ebb and flow of the same music.

Linne Halpern: Right, like you’re almost in conversation with a much larger community.

Molly Bogin: Exactly.

Linne Halpern: How important is building trust and affection towards each other to be able to create a community where this kind of creative energy can thrive?

Sam Friedman: Super important. The most important thing about Quasi is trusting and loving each other. That we all like each other as people is what allows us to trust each other to take risks when we’re creating, or to trust people to take the leads on certain things, or to take a backseat. And the songs really don’t sound good if we sing them in a bad mood. They don’t work out as well as they do when we’re actively communicating.

Leo Miranda: Something that Sam made me think of is—and I’m not really a spiritual person—is that as you sing with people or make music with people, you gain a sense of community that also feeds into your liking of the people. So you like the people already and then you sing with them and then you like them more. It grows into something bigger than oneself. I get the same feeling singing in Quasi things, especially during rehearsals, that I do when I’m at the Bayit [Jewish program house on campus] singing the Hebrew prayers with my friends there. In Quasi we do the same warmups everyday; on Shabbat, we do the same prayers every week. I have that same feeling with both those two groups of people because of my appreciation of both the work the people.

Ava Thornton: There is also something distinctly vulnerable about singing without accompaniment. It’s really easy to be flat or sharp or just sound weird. If you don’t trust the people that you’re doing that with, it makes it infinitely more difficult to feel safe to do. Like Sam said, we don’t sound as good when we’re down. In general, if you’re not enjoying the group of people that you’re with, then the result not going to be the best, especially if you’re doing something creative. It’s also more fun to sing with friends rather than just human bodies. I find that the feeling of singing harmony is, by itself, such a distinct feeling and really wonderful. But the feeling of singing in harmony with people that you really love is just really really special.

Linne Halpern: What can we expect to hear from you on Saturday or from you this year?

Christopher Desanges: One goal for the year is that we should work creating a piece of music that’s totally different from what the original song was–experimenting with the meaning of the song and how the song feels.

Sam Friedman: On Saturday at The Mash, you can expect to hear some tasty, sweet, little jams, that we’ve just been kissing and hugging for so many months. These songs come straight from the heart, straight from the brain, and straight from everywhere in between.

Linne Halpern '18 is an English and American Studies double major at Wesleyan University. She is co-founder and editor of Reverberations.

Quasimodal will be performing on the Olin Stage at The Mash Music Festival on Saturday, September, 9th, at 4:40 pm.