Scale the Burton Bell Tower on a Wednesday night and you’ll pass a host of University students all communing in what Gottfried Leibniz once called “a secret in arithmetic of the soul.”
Junior tight-end Mike Massey burning incense and pounding drums for his musicology class on the fifth floor. The all-female Harmonettes perfecting their a cappella on the sixth. And then the eighth floor is where you’ll likely find the eight members of the Friars, the University’s oldest a cappella group, rehearsing for their 51st annual Study Break concert.
The group’s sesquicentennial last year will be a difficult act to follow – a sweeping, carefully organized Hill Auditorium performance that welcomed back 167 of the estimated 219 living Friars alumni. Five of the six living members of the 1955’s original octet even performed with last year’s class of Friars, taking the stage to a standing ovation from the 1,000-strong audience.
“The 50th last year was like watching the evolution of the timeline of the friars, or devolution depending on how it was (at) the moment,” said Steve Gilson, LSA senior and Friars baritone. “Observing everything in its chronological order helped us get a true sense of what we were actually a part of.”
For any student, it would be a surreal experience: a half-century of tradition pushed suddenly into consciousness.
Before the concert, Gilson said, members knew only of the Friars who came immediately before them.
“Basically, we knew of the guys (who) sang in the year before us and we heard stories of the guys that sang in the years before them,” Gilson said. “For all intents and purposes, the Friars did not exist before (who we knew).”
The Friars have complete control over what or who goes into the group, and it’s been that way since the first octet was chosen from the Men’s Glee Club in 1955.
“Literally, those eight guys who were the original members chose us by virtue of who they chose fifty years ago,” Gilson said. “That’s just difficult to wrap my head around.”
Imbued with this new outlook, this class of Friars perform a number of songs from the original setlist and vintage shtick.
“A lot of our favorite songs that we’re currently doing come from the ’60s and ’70s,” Gilson said. “While we kind of jokingly talk about going back to our roots, it’s the groups that really came before us that put us in the position we’re in now.”
With such a long history comes the advantage of equally hefty archive of songs. The group’s current repertoire includes “Mmbop,” “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring” and “Hey Ya.”
The Friars sing anything from classic barbershop to what any audience member may have heard on the radio.
For the most part, the Friars arrange their own songs or pull them from old archives. They often write parody lyrics to popular songs (such as “Northface Girl,” a send-up of Billy Joel’s classic “Uptown Girl,” about women in certain winter wear) and choreograph routines.
Check out how the Friars have fused their new sound with their old -and the group’s promises for a bear onstage – Saturday at the Study Break Concert at Rackham Auditorium at 8 p.m. Tickets are $6 (or $7 through Ticketmaster or the Michigan Union Ticket Office).