An eargasm. There’s no other way to describe the experience
of hearing the five-member a cappella group Pentatonix sing live.
Intricate harmonies buzz in a way not heard since the
Manhattan Transfer’s heyday. The band moves deftly among dubstep,
ballads, hip-hop — even a cover of Ray Charles’s “Hit the Road Jack” (a
song first recorded in 1960 as an a cappella demo).
The aural experience of seeing Pentatonix live is
exhilarating. The crowd is surprisingly mixed: anyone who thinks the
group’s fans would be all teenagers is in for a huge surprise. People of
all ages are obviously enthralled by the group’s vocal calisthenics.
Singing never had it so good.
Indeed, the heart of Pentatonix is the tight harmony and
syncopation among its five members: Mitch Grassi, Kirstie Maldonado,
Scott Hoying, Avi Kaplan, and Kevin Olusola. Hoying adds an angular
sound, especially when singing leads, while Grassi’s soaring tenor and
Maldonado’s warm alto easily shift positions.
“Kirstie and I have similar ranges and our timbre is also
very similar,” explains Grassi. “We can weave in and out of harmonies.”
the bass and a crowd favorite, adds a deep, rich, almost synthetic
sounding bottom. The secret weapon in all these polyphonics is
beatboxing Kevin Olusola, who will make you forget there are no
And then there is the sheer musicianship. Grassi, Hoying,
and Maldonado were choir nerds who met in high school in Arlington,
“A lot of us are trained,” notes Grassi. “We all did choir.
Scott’s trained in pop music, and Kirstie and I did a lot of musical
theater. Avi was classically trained in opera.”
Olusola is also trained in cello, which he brings out and
plays at one point while simultaneously beatboxing — or “celloboxing” as
it has been dubbed — and it brings down the house.
The full band formed when Hoying met Kaplan and discovered
the depth of his range. The original trio then also found Olusola, a
Yale grad, on YouTube — a prescient move, as YouTube would become
pivotal to the group’s eventual success. Today, their own YouTube
channel boasts more than five million subscribers.
First, the band established itself in 2011 by winning
The Sing-Off, a television competition for a cappella groups. With
only five members, the band seemed like a long shot against the
multi-member college groups at the season’s start. Yet, their infectious
sound, vibrant personalities, and inventive arrangements quickly won
over both the judges and the audience. By mid-season, their win seemed
Grassi observes some changes in their sound since then. “I
remember our arrangements on The Sing-Off being a little more
screamy and high,” he recalls. “We’ve kind of reined it in a bit. It
wears on our voices, and we don’t want to be just a group that can only
belt their faces off.”
The Sing-Off, the band turned to social media. YouTube videos —
like their stunning cover of Gotye’s “Somebody that I Used to Know” —
quickly garnered millions of hits (almost 25 million to date for the
Gotye cover alone).
Their range and vocal dexterity became undeniable, as video
after video scored big with their ever-swelling legion of fans: from
“The Evolution of Beyoncé” (a medley of their idol’s insistent hits) to
moving covers of A Great Big World’s “Say Something” and Lorde’s
An improbable mash-up of Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You
Love Me” and Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake” finds Hoying and Maldonado
sharing leads, Olusola rapping in the breakdown, and Kaplan bringing it
all home with a quiet hymn-like resolution.
“We have to rework these covers,” observes Grassi, “and not
just do carbon copies of a song.”
Their more rhythmic efforts — like a highly techno medley
of Daft Punk songs, with more than 54 million hits on YouTube — reflect
the freshness of their approach.
“We all love dance music,” admits Grassi, “me especially.
And I’ve always loved electronic music.”
The covers are offset by some crowd-pleasing originals
written by the band, especially the stomping “Natural Disaster” and a
shimmering ballad, “Run to You,” featuring close, anthemic harmonies.
In the latter the band simply stands there and the effect
is magical. “We
love movement and choreography for the sole purpose of accentuating our
live performance,” says Grassi, “but honestly, we aren't dancers. We're
singers! We always make sure the focus is on the vocals and that we
to the bone and then reinvented with Olusola’s mind-boggling rhythms and
Kaplan’s sonorous bass lines, each song morphs into a vocal showcase.
“What’s great about us is that we aren’t hiding behind
loads of production or a big wall of sound,” says Grassi. “It’s just our
voices — basically, we have to carry ourselves. I think that people
really respect that.”
In this sense, Pentatonix — their name taken from the
five-note pentatonic scale — seems to come out of the tradition of pop’s
powerhouse vocal acts: the early doo-wop groups, the Temptations, the 5th
Dimension, Take Six, the Manhattan Transfer. Yet, the quintet is its own
instruments and production.
Grassi views their uncanny success in terms beyond their
vocal origins. “We really pride ourselves in striving to be a band,” he
insists, “instead of just a novelty a cappella group.”
PTX — as their fans know them — has released three albums
on Madison Gate Records, a subsidiary of Sony. PTX Volume 1,
released in 2012, charted at #14 on the Billboard 200 and at #4 on the
digital chart. A Christmas collection — PTXmas — was released
that same year. In 2013, the band released PTX Volume 2, debuting
at #10 on the Billboard chart and hitting #1 on the Top Independent US
“We’ve carved out our own little niche in the music
industry,” comments Grassi. “There’s nothing similar to us right now.”
Freelance writer Mark Mussari is the author of
American Life and Music: from Elvis Presley to Lady Gaga (Cavendish