Songs old and new get a capella treatment by the Antidivas
Ruth Greenfield has a philosophy for her all-female a capella group, the Antidivas. In a culture that idolizes individual singers as celebrity figures, the members of her ensemble are more modest in their approach; they collaborate to make “something bigger than what one person can do alone,” she said. “I want to showcase the composers and the music rather than the singers—to let our voices be vehicles for someone else’s art.”
That’s been the mission since Greenfield formed the group with students at Inspire School of Arts and Sciences five years ago, including her daughter, Lucy—who also was part of the school’s first freshman class and is still a member of the ensemble. Greenfield, a music teacher at Chico Country Day School and a one-time regular in the local rock scene (see bands Uncle Rosco, Mimi Crevola), later expanded the group to include students from other schools, and then adults from the broader community.
Except for a couple of rock songs, Greenfield favors very old music for the ensemble. The current set list includes a traditional Scottish ballad, a Bach chorale, and a couple of pieces from the Middle Ages—all of which are rearranged, including percussion and instrumental parts, using strictly vocals.
“I love to have early music in the mix,” she said over coffee in downtown Chico. “It’s musically very pure and not very densely textured. The voices can sing without a lot of vibrato or heavy embellishments.”
It’s not that Greenfield dislikes pop singers’ vocal tricks; there just isn’t room for that when nine women are singing simultaneously. “It’s very close-knit,” she explained. “The harmonies are stacked right on top of each other. So, the purity of tone is really important.”
This year, for the first time, the general public is invited to the Antidivas’ annual performance, which takes place during another of Greenfield’s creations, the Snowball (at Chico Women’s Club on Sunday, Jan. 17). Originally offered as an alternative event for students who aren’t so stoked on high school dances, the Snowball became a hit with parents and other adults, too. “Now people in their 30s come and make a date night of it, dressed in formal attire of all eras,” said Greenfield. “We’ll waltz and swing and contra dance and do The Hustle.”
In addition to music obscured by time, the Antidivas’ program, titled The Quality of Mercy, will include more recognizable tunes from The Beatles, The Police, U2 and Björk. “I’m a rock ’n’ roll sort of girl, myself,” Greenfield said.
An album version of The Quality of Mercy, recorded at Faith Lutheran Church in Chico, will be available for purchase.
Listeners likely will be struck by the age range of voices. The group is composed of Greenfield and her sister-in-law, Laura Bogart; five college-age women and two high school students. Greenfield intentionally blends young and older voices both for musical effect and to encourage mentorship. “I wanted there to be more adult influence,” she said. “Not just me and the kids.”
The “kids” have to be at least 15 years old, however. That’s when the female voice “begins to mature and really take off,” Greenfield said.
Of the songs the Antidivas have recorded, Greenfield is most excited about “Mercy Street” by Peter Gabriel. Arranging a percussion-heavy pop song with only vocals, yet still “honoring the composer,” was a challenge, but Greenfield had a creative breakthrough when she realized that the Greek translation of “Lord, have mercy,” “kýrie, eléison,” is a percussive-sounding phrase.
“So, I put that phrase to the rhythm of Peter Gabriel’s drum kit. For the bass line, the girls use the same phrase low in their register,” she said. “It comes across kind of cool.”