Popular television show Glee and the Pitch Perfect movie series have recently brought attention to a cappella groups, inspiring many to learn the “cup song” or practice harmonizing in the shower. However, closer to home than New Directions or the Barden Bellas is The Pitchforks, Duke’s own all-male a cappella group. Despite being the oldest a cappella group at Duke, The Pitchforks have some new tricks this season.
“Singing is what brings us together, but it is much more than singing that keeps us together.”
Josh Kalejaye, this year’s President of The Pitchforks, tells me that the group has changed significantly since he joined it his freshman year. This year in particular, the group has gone through a big transition. Josh reveals that the group’s ambition has intensified, allowing them to work together and sound better than ever before.
Ben Ward, who had served as The Pitchfork’s adviser and mentor since co-founding the group in 1979, passed away in 2013. Ward was a genius, musically and academically, as made evident by his playing the organ at Martin Luther King’s funeral and attending Yale University shortly afterward at age 14. Ward’s passing greatly affected The Pitchforks, who struggled to understand their group identity in his absence.
“Ben was a lot of what The Pitchforks was, and without him we had to try and figure out who we were,” Josh says.
“It felt like we were in a bit of a rut and needed to make some changes,” Josh explains.
Nicholas, a fellow senior member of The Pitchforks, says, “It was something we’d been talking about for years, and finally had the impetus to do something about.”
Walking into the room I am immediately aware of one such change. The boys are all wearing new blue velvet blazers. The garment was selected as an identifiable visual trademark, and is just one aspect of The Pitchfork’s rebranding process.
“Ben was a lot of what The Pitchforks was, and without him we had to try and figure out who we were”
“Prior to this year we wore navy blazers, all of varying shades, which was very generic. With our new look you’ll be able to immediately say, he’s a Pitchfork,” Josh says.
The group tells me they are more musically determined than ever before. This year The Pitchforks performed eight news songs at their Fall Classic, compared to the three to five songs they typically average in a year. The Fall Classic coincided with the release of “Camden Town,” the group’s newest EP (“Extended Play”). While previous albums focused on particular themes, the 2012 album Refraction’s being moving on from a relationship, this album captures the group’s experience of the last few years in The Pitchforks. Their next album, planned for Fall 2016, will be a tribute to Ward.
Prior to The Pitchfork’s rebranding, many of their songs had been recycled over and over again throughout the last 20 years. The group’s current set is their most original arrangement to date and fulfills the boys’ goal of creating a sound specific to the group’s members at this point in time. Kyle Alderdice, the group’s music director, describes this music, created by the group together, as feeling a lot less stale.
“It feels a lot less pretentious, yet we are a lot better than we’ve been before,” Kyle says.
Kyle also shares that learning the music together, as opposed to the younger boys learning songs already familiar to the older musicians, has contributed to a more collaborative and tight knit group dynamic. The group’s new mode of song selection is in sync with this more collaborative style. While song selections used to be based on a voting system, The Pitchfork’s current set is comprised of songs to which specific members felt emotionally connected.
“We’ve realized that if someone has a vision for a song that they want to share with the group, it generally makes for a much better arrangement,” Kyle says.
Kyle believes that selecting songs that are meaningful to soloists or arrangers not only enhances musical fulfillment, but also allows the audience to really feel the emotion in the set. I’m going to take that as a caution and come equipped with tissues, considering I cried at my first Pitchfork’s concert.
“With our new look you’ll be able to immediately say, he’s a Pitchfork”
“The music doesn’t feel empty. While we still want songs that are trending, we aren’t singing a stupid pop song. The songs mean specific things to soloists or arrangers,” Kyle says.
Nicholas Wetherbee, a senior Pitchfork, believes that the group’s song selection has hit a really nice balance between songs they really love performing and songs people really enjoy listening to. Previously, the group gravitated towards one end of the scale. Nicholas reveals that songs striking this balance tend to be more upbeat and happy—they are fun to both perform and listen to. Of course the group’s signature slow and beautiful song styles are also included in their EP album.
J.J Moncus, a freshman member of the group, considers The Pitchfork’s ability to highlight the details and subtleties of a song that may have previously gone unnoticed, to be a key talent of The Pitchforks at the moment.
“Redefining a song that has been listened to by so many people one way is really exciting,” J.J says.
The boys are complementing their new sound with choreography, raising the quality of their live performances to match that of their records. Josh tells me that nearly half the set for their parent’s weekend show was choreographed. The choreography allows the group to interact and engage with their audience more. Watching the boys practice their new moves, it is also very apparent that they are genuinely having a good time. The challenge of singing and dancing simultaneously has clearly been overcome.
“We spend so much time performing that we wanted to step up our game in that respect,” Josh explains.
This year, the group has advanced in other dimensions beyond music, and has evolved into a more collaborative and tight-knit unit. In the past, group leaders made the majority of decisions without considering the opinions of other group members.
“We’ve realized that if someone has a vision for a song that they want to share with the group, it generally makes for a much better arrangement.”
“As a freshman I felt more like a voice singing than a full member of a team. My voice was an instrument, used by the group leaders,” Kyle says.
Now rehearsals are much more conversational and collaborative. They no longer focus on one or two people’s agendas. As a result, Kyle considers the group to be not only healthier socially, but also more impressive musically.
“The music doesn’t feel empty. While we still want songs that are trending, we aren’t singing a stupid pop song. The songs mean specific things to soloists or arrangers.”
This healthier group dynamic is particularly critical in light of The Pitchfork’s increased rehearsals, which see the boys spending even more time together. While the group is a much bigger time commitment this year, everyone really enjoys being at practice.
However, being a member of The Pitchforks extends far beyond a cappella. Various members have stressed how they are such a diverse group of people who might never have connected and become friends without The Pitchforks.
“Singing is what brings us together, but it is much more than singing that keeps us together,” Ethan Dunn, a senior, says.
For many of the boys, the only thing they have in common is being able to sing.
“Group appreciation of each other’s differences has really grown this year,” Kyle elaborates.
Despite the great diversity of personalities comprising the group, they all consider the social aspect of The Pitchforks to be one its biggest takeaways.
“These are some of the best friends I’ve made in my four years at Duke. Hanging out with these guys has been formative,” Ethan says.
All of the boys are in agreement on this, and it is further confirmed by their interactions, which Nicholas describes as characterized by a “sibling dynamic.” From my observation of the group during their photo shoot, it is incredibly apparent that they truly enjoy each other’s company.
“Joining The Pitchforks has been the best decision I’ve made since coming to Duke, and has shaped my Duke experience more than anything else I’ve chosen to do,” David Pfeiffer, a freshman member of The Pitchforks, says.
At the end of the day though, the boys don’t take themselves too seriously.
“It can be hard for people to take us too seriously, when half of our sheet music is “da” or “dn,” but fortunately neither do we,” Nicholas laughs.
“I will always feel a tie to The Pitchforks, even after I graduate, as long as the group continues to exist at Duke.”
Throughout their photo shoot, in between accomplishing candidacy for the camera, the boys laugh and goof off.
“We really have a lot of fun here,” David says.
In their time at Duke, their albums provide The Pitchforks with the opportunity to produce something tangible that they can be proud of for years to come.
“I will always feel a tie to The Pitchforks, even after I graduate, as long as the group continues to exist at Duke,” Nicholas says.
New Year. New look. New moves. New sound. New dynamic. New Album. So what does the future have in store for The Pitchforks? Just as the sound of this upcoming EP is very specific to The Pitchforks who recorded it, Kyle hopes that future groups will create music that fits them specifically, which they can be proud of.
To learn more about the Pitchforks, follow or like them on:
Editors: Vivian Zhang and Raina Bisson Orr
Photographer: Melanie Park
Special Thanks to: Griselda Pereyra