It's a Friday evening on the Stanford campus, and as the sun sinks behind the Dish, the members of one student choral ensemble make their way to rehearsal.
Inside the appropriately named Harmony House where they hold rehearsals, the living room is already full of sound: Members greet each other with exclamations of joy; they giggle and hug and chatter excitedly. Yet when it's time to sing, the room falls silent. Twenty-two college students form a circle, standing shoulder to shoulder. Tall and short, dark-skinned and light, male and female; together they form the very picture of diversity and solidarity. Then they begin to sing a song of yearning and power and defiance. Bass, tenor, alto and soprano notes dance in the air like sparks, making the small room seem to shimmer. As the energy of the song builds, its soaring harmonies reflect the lyrics.
"You can blow out the candle,/but you can't blow out that fire./Once the flames begin to catch/the wind will blow them higher," the students sing, closing their eyes at the crescendos as if savoring them before they fade.
With a few weeks to go before their 25th anniversary concert, the 22 members of Talisman are focused; they spend hours each week rehearsing their repertoire, repeating the tougher phrases again and again until they sound just right.
Outside on the steps of Harmony House, publicity director Charlie Yang chats about the ensemble's history. Founded in 1990 and inspired by the Anti-Apartheid Movement, Talisman began by singing the songs of that struggle and of the African diaspora. The group has since expanded to include world music from a range of cultures.
"For me, the greatest part of Talisman is the sense of catharsis," says Yang, a sophomore who's majoring in human biology and who joined the group freshman year. He goes on to talk about "Shosholoza," a Zulu call-and-response song traditionally sung by workers boarding trains and heading to the diamond mines.
"Parts of it translate to 'move forward' -- it embodies that sense of progress," Yang says with a tone of somber respect. "The way we start the song, you can actually hear the train whistle in the chord." He lists some of the other songs in the group's repertoire: African-American spirituals, Native-American songs, a traditional Korean melody, a Taiwanese lullaby. Because of the nature of their songs, Yang explains, Talisman is often invited to sing at religious events and even memorial services.
"Helping people process emotions and give them space to think is really cool," he says. "It's such a privilege."
In the 2012 film, "Pitch Perfect," a reluctant college freshman with dreams of a career in the music industry finds her tribe in a group of social misfits who like to sing. The film's success was as unexpected as its story of a ho-hum vocal group updating its repertoire and going on to win a national championship; Jason Moore's directorial debut became the second-highest-grossing musical comedy of all time.
If it seems unlikely that a movie about college kids' choral competitions should have won such mass appeal, it's just as surprising that a cappella itself ever captured the hearts of so many. Yet at Stanford as at so many other universities, colleges and high schools around the world, the art of the small, instrument-free vocal ensemble has grown from a fringe element to a thriving subculture. It's a pastime as expressive of school spirit as football, and even more inclusive. It's the art form that equally embraces the misfits and the popular kids, the class clowns and the serious students. In a cappella, there's room for pretty much everyone.
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