a feature by Travis Hightower
“Does everybody know what a cappella means?” I ask the choir section of seventh and eighth grade students. They are gathered around a piano, with one of their number having just finished perfectly playing the haunting melody of “Say Something” by Great Big World. Her classmates are already demanding she play something else, so they can sing along, when I interrupt them with my question. These fourteen choir kids of course all know the answer. Even though I am only their substitute for the day, I should have realized they love music too much to be ignorant of this proud musical art form. One of them surprises me.
“Yeah, like Pentatonix and Peter Hollens,” says a girl smaller than the rest of her classmates. The little brown-eyed Latin girl gives me a cheerful smile as she wedges her way forward. She has been quiet until now, but her timing is perfect. I am set up to introduce Peter Hollen’s cover of Ed Sheeran’s “I See Fire.” I already have my phone out ready to play the video, and she eyes it with eager anticipation of what I have to show them.
“Exactly,” I say. “In fact, I wanted to show you Peter’s latest.”
I hit play, and all crowd tighter around the piano to view my small iphone screen. They are transfixed, and with good reason. With Peter’s version of “I See Fire,” he brings an already amazing and haunting song to a completely new level. Instrumentals from guitar and violin accompany Ed Sheeran’s amazing original version, but with creative use of 98 tracks of his own voice acting as his own personal choir, Peter adds an emotional build up to the song with a power the original version seems unable to match.
The video itself is simple in nature, with a motif of warm and flickering flames in front of Peter for many of the shots. The video presentation is in his signature multi-split screen style which shows him singing both the main vocals and supporting roles. This simplicity is both beautiful and demonstrative of Peter’s talent—the viewer realizes the incredible voice range and ear for music Peter must have to perfectly synchronize such a high number of tracks.
There can be no doubt about Peter’s musical prowess, as almost half a million subscribers to his youtube channel could attest. Yet what do seventy million views mean for Peter, who has been making videos since 2011? I caught up with Peter via email to ask the former star of the second season of NBC’s “The Sing off” his hopes for the future of A Capella music.
“I hope a cappella becomes a staple in the industry,” says Peter. “. . . something that isn’t considered a fad, or a gimmick, but an actual genre with multiple grammy-winning artists, and radio play. Pentatonix and other artists are teaching the industry that they have to pay attention and listen.”
Peter modestly does not yet list himself with the “other artists”, but the faces of the fourteen kids listening intently to his video tell a different story. The talented young girl at the piano attempts to pick up the song by ear, experimentally plucking away at a few keys by the second time the chorus repeats. A few start to sing along with Peter. A fourteen year old girl already taller than me tries to figure out Peter’s clap, snap and stomp pattern. It turns into a regular jam session. They have me play the video again to see if they can get the song down.
I explain the original version of the song will be featured in the movie The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smog, and that Peter has done another Hobbit song, one by himself and one with violinist Jun Sung Ahn. They soon add their number to the over 4.6 million views of Peter’s covers of “Misty Mountains”. Of course, the ones who knew Peter already don’t let me leave out his jaw dropping Epic Disney Medley collaboration with singer Alex G. before moving on to some Pentatonix.
After the jam session is over and the bell rings, I realize Peter’s hope for a cappella music is already taking shape in the youth who are discovering music like his. Artists like Pentatonix, Alex G, and Peter are indeed teaching the industry they have to pay attention and listen but they aren’t doing it with their talent alone. Peter sings a gorgeous song about seeing fire, but today I saw fire too. I witnessed Peter’s singing help ignite the passionate flame of quality a cappella music in the young hearts of our nation’s future, and I am sure it will be burning brightly for generations to come.
See the video “I see Fire” here
Author bio: Travis Hightower is the author of two novels, Prime Time Spies and Bastion of Terra. He has been writing for more than ten years and is an avid fan of independent music, has established connections with many prominent youtube stars such as Lindsey Stirling and Peter Hollens. He is a Texas Aggie and a father of three, residing in Houston Texas.