When award-winning a cappella ensemble The Idea of North presents Harmonic Histrionic, the singers will be journeying into uncharted territory for the group, with an ambitious program that spans Gergorian Chant to music of the 21st-century.

“The late 19th-century was the earliest we’d ever done before this time,” the ensemble’s Artistic Director and alto Naomi Crellin tells Limelight. “Both Emma, our soprano, and I have studied classical voice and been in classical choirs and ensembles in our youth, and so for us it’s a return to that era – but we’ve had to teach the boys [bass Luke Thompson and tenor Nick Begbie] how to sing like that.”

The Idea of NorthThe Idea of North. Photo supplied

The new program will debut in Hobart as part of the Festival of Voices before moving to Sydney’s City Recital Hall, and some Harmonic Histrionic numbers will also no doubt make it into their performances on the Bravo Cruise of the Performing Arts in November – though the group likes to stay flexible, feeding off other performances programmed and reading the room. “Having over 100 songs in the repertoire makes this possible, and keeps us on our toes!” she says.

The Idea of North, which was formed as an a cappella jazz quartet in 1993, has gone through a number of line-up changes in the last few years, with long-time bass Andrew Piper (a founding member) and soprano Sally Cameron (with the group for ten years) leaving in 2017. Such a significant change in line-up was a challenge for the ensemble. “Mostly because two members left at the same time, and that’s never happened before,” Crellin says. “In the past we’ve had one member exit and be fairly seamlessly replaced by the incoming person – because if you change a quarter of the group that’s not as noticeable – but we changed half.”

The ensemble has also grown, with the recent addition of Japanese vocal percussionist Kai Kitamura, who met the group at the Vocal Asia Festival in Gwangju in South Korea in 2014. “We went to his vocal percussion workshop, and he came to our harmony singing workshop, and we all kind of just musically fell in love with each other,” Crellin says. “We came up to each other and talked excitedly and ‘let’s go and have a jam session!’ It was like something from Pitch Perfect.”

Kitamura was already a fan of the group, having performed Idea of North numbers with his university a cappella group, Street Corner Symphony in Tokyo. “He knew a lot of our repertoire, and so we would just break into a song and he would add a vocal percussion track to it,” Crellin says. “And it was just amazing, it was an augmentation that we’d only ever dreamed of.”

“Nobody does what he does in Australia. There are beatboxers, but it’s a very different style – Kai’s vocal percussion is based on the acoustic drum set, so his goal is to sound like a real drum kit, whereas other beatboxers have a lot more of an electronic drum machine type approach,” she says. “For our music, because we’re jazz-based, we need somebody who has that level of understanding of the genre and also the light and shade that comes with that level of playing as well.”

Kitamura has a long history with jazz percussion, dating back to his childhood. “When I was four years old I just started to imitate the sound of the drum kit, because my father loved to listen to jazz,” he tells Limelight.

The aspiring vocal percussionist even went to university to study jazz, purely to improve his vocal percussion technique. “When I was 20 years old I decided to go to the music school to learn drums, because my skill was very limited at the time. I had lots of rhythmic patterns but it didn’t work in an actual ensemble. So I had lots of difficulties and I had lots of questions.”

These days, when he’s not performing with The Idea of North, Kitamura bolsters the rhythm section in jazz groups performing in Tokyo venues too small to fit an actual drum kit. “There will be a real pianist – an upright piano – a real bass, and a vocal percussion drum,” Crellin explains. “He’ll do three one-hour sets in one night – so an Idea of North show is easy!”

While Kitamura still lives in Tokyo – visa delays has meant the ensemble is flying him out to Australia a dozen times a year until he and his family can move here permanently – he is now a core member of The Idea of North, which has become, for the first time, a quintet.

For Crellin and the ensemble, all these changes were an opportunity to wipe the slate clean. “When you’re only replacing one member, the new person coming in is just kind of fitting in to what already is. But when half of the group is different, and then when we add Kai as well, we’ve can’t sound like we used to, so we don’t have to try to,” says Crellin. “We have opportunities to evolve like we never have before, so it was actually a really exciting time – at the same time as being terrifying because you never know what’s going to happen. It was thrilling.”

Having Kitamura on board full-time also means a wider range of music for the ensemble. “It opens up a whole other field of repertoire that was previously unavailable to us, that just kind of sounded lacklustre without that driving beat,” Crellin says. “Our original bass singer Andrew Piper was really great at combining bass and vocal percussion, so he actually did both – he would do a bass-line that had notes and drum bits in it – but of course only being one person with one mouth, he could only kind of do half of each role.”

“Because Kai sings as well – he has a beautiful baritone voice – we now can have a five-part ensemble,” she says. “A jazz chord has a minimum of four notes, usually, and often many more, so our jazz harmony is richer and more authentic. We don’t have to imply so many things. It’s like having a bit of a super power and Kai is our secret weapon – or not so secret weapon now!”

That weapon will be trained squarely on the new program, Harmonic Histrionic – though Crellin admits that while Kai will sing in the Gregorian Chant, he has less to do in the earlier numbers. “They didn’t have much vocal percussion in the 15, 1600s,” she laughs, explaining that he’ll be saved more for the second half. “He has some, shall we say, cameo appearances in the first half. He’ll kind of flit in and out and add texture and a little bit of novelty at times – but I don’t want to give too much away.”

The ensemble will present the music chronologically, beginning with the chant, and each subsequent number skipping forward a century, until the singers reach the 20th century. “Once we hit the 1900s it’s a song from every decade,” Crellin says.

The program will touch on some key moments in music history, including the transition from monophony (one voice) to polyphony (multiple voices), the dawn of jazz, and eventually the rise of vocal percussion. “Even though we’re using Kai’s vocal percussion right back to the early jazz, the actual art of vocal percussion didn’t really come into the vocal harmony world until about the 80s,” Crellin says. “That gave a cappella, especially, an evolution point that it’s never gone backwards from.”

For Crellin, a favourite part of the program is the emergence of jazz. “Harmonically it was such a rich and interesting time,” she says, and it’s from this bracket that she picks a highlight on the program: “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows, which is based on a Chopin piano piece, Fantasy Impromptu, but it was written in those early vaudeville, jazz times,” she says. “It’s just giving that little nudge away from all of the rules and morphing into this new harmonic freedom, and I just love it to bits.”

While the song is also a favourite of Kitamura’s, he picks one of the most recent numbers on the program as his highlight. “A rhythmically very fancy arrangement is Don’t Feel Like Dancing [by the Scissor Sisters],” he says. “That’s very cool.”

The Idea of North performs Harmonic Histrionic at the Theatre Royal in Hobart as part of the Festival of Voices on July 10 and at Sydney’s City Recital Hall on August 8. The Idea of North performs aboard the Bravo Cruise of the Performing Arts November 12 – 19