This blog has been incredibly cathartic for me during the year. It has given me the opportunity to refine the tangle of thoughts I have rolling around in my head into tangible threads. With that clear mind comes the realization that I don’t have a limitless supply of hard-hitting concepts to share, it takes time to develop my thoughts. Yet these concepts are still very important to me, even if I’ve already articulated them.
In Beauty, I wrote about how art and nature can nourish the soul, while The Killing of All Possible Futures is about destroying the lives that you don’t want. Fences deals with moving forward and pursuing creativity in the absence of boundaries or direction, and Sonder 008 comes with a reminder on the importance of artistic security. These ideas are all interconnected in my mind, and so in this post I’d like to highlight their interdependency by viewing how they relate to a single subject. A case study, and our subject today is Avi Kaplan.
If you’ve heard that name before, it’s probably because he is the founding bassist of Pentatonix, an acapella group. Their career began with a 2011 Sing-Off win that subsequently catapulted Pentatonix into the spotlight, gaining immense popularity due to their brilliant arrangements, creative song choices, and unmatched vocal prowess that only improved year after year. The whole world wanted to hear Pentatonix, and Pentatonix obliged. In the next six years they would go on five national/international tours and make hundreds of appearances on radio shows, late night TV, and award ceremonies. In that same time frame, they produced around eight albums, including the double-platinum That’s Christmas To Me which became the highest charted holiday album since 1962. They picked up quite a bit of hardware as well, nabbing three Grammy’s in their sprint to the nexus of the musical world.
However, in the midst of immense success, Avi made the shocking decision in 2017 to leave the group. The split was widely-regarded as amicable, so then what could be such a strong motivator that it would cause Avi to leave behind this enormous success?
I’ve struggled with this decision a lot. It has been the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make in my life. Before I explain why, I want you all to know that the past 6 years have been the most unbelievable years of my life. The things we’ve accomplished, the places we’ve seen, the people we’ve touched with our music… It surpasses anything that I could have ever dreamed up for my life. I believe one of the big reasons why we have been so successful and accomplished all that we have is because of the unbelievably fast pace that we keep. Throughout my journey with PTX, this pace has always been a struggle for me. It’s been hard for me not to be with my family and friends when I need them or when they need me. It’s been hard to not be able to escape into nature when I’m feeling overwhelmed or just need some time to myself. Through all of this, I’ve done my best and I’ve kept pushing myself to keep up. Really, the reason why I’ve been able to push so hard and for so long has been because of you guys. You all have inspired me and lifted me up every single day and, for that, I am eternally grateful. I do love you all so very much, but I’ve come to a point where I just can’t keep up anymore and I would never want to inhibit any type of success that we have because I truly do believe in everything that we’ve done and everything that they will do. I just know that I can no longer continue at this pace and so I have to do what’s best for the group and I have to do what’s best for me. I do want you all to know that I’m still going to be doing music and I’m going to be doing it with my whole heart. I will ALWAYS do my best to lift others up with my voice. I hope that you’ll all support my decision and that you can understand where I’m coming from. And regardless of anything, I just want to thank you for all that you’ve given to me. I have been so unbelievably blessed and humbled to be a part of all your lives in any way and I wanted you to hear this from me. From my voice. And from my heart.I love you all deeply and I thank you for everything. Truly.
In spite of this lovely statement, this decision doesn’t yet make much intuitive sense. If I were to put it harshly, leaving one of the world’s most successful bands because you are tired might seem ill-advised and short sighted.
Amidst a cloud of confusion and disappointment from fans, Avi began to release his own music – and it was enlightening. Each new song he creates splits the haze of misunderstanding like a lightning bolt. The comment sections on his every video are overflowing with person after person experiencing a paradigm shift in their view of Avi Kaplan, of both his decision and his art.
I’ve chosen two videos that I think demonstrate the change in Avi’s output most succinctly, but I encourage you to listen to many more. Listen and fully enjoy them both, then read on. Notable moments include a bass solo in “Gold” at 2:11 and a beautifully raw vocal at 1:19 in “It Knows Me.”
What is fascinating about the juxtaposition in these two videos is not some shallow battle of aesthetic, not pop versus folk or acapella versus instrumental. What is fascinating is what I believe to be the palpable difference in Avi’s level of artistic honesty. Pentatonix’ cover of “Gold” is enjoyable, impressive, and just cool. Avi provides a phenomenal bass, and it is a remarkably intimate presentation. There are no negatives about this performance, nor does it scratch the surface of the massive contributions Avi has made to Pentatonix. In comparison, however, his limitations in that role become obvious.
Kaplan’s artistry in “It Knows Me” is completely changed. After being artistically drained for years, the rejuvenation present in his new music is astounding. To me it is a shocking transformation, that of a bird spreading its wings and leaving its previously contented nest to answer the inexorable call of the great blue beyond. A voice freed from shackles; a creative spirit uninhibited by fences.
The lyrics are honest and personal, heartening and uplifting. The instrumentation is rustic, and combined with the vocal style it seems to be coming from Avi’s musical roots, a homely canvas on which he is able to share what he needs to say. I feel the music states its own case, and that the reason for Avi’s decision is made clear through his artistry. He felt so strongly the urge to create his own art that he gave up what many people dream of in order to begin that work.
Each concept I’ve written about is present in this situation. Kaplan willingly destroyed what was his definite future, turned off the path he was currently walking. He broke free of any fences surrounding Pentatonix and willingly started wading through the field to create his own aesthetic, sound, and identity. He did so wonderfully and quickly, demonstrating that this was not a manufactured rebranding but rather a reflection of his soul. He gave up the artistic security that came with Pentatonix, a group that he likely could have performed the world over with for life, a group which provided a premium platform from which to share music with the world. A group of friends and colleagues with years of shared experiences. It must have hurt terribly to leave, we can see that pain in his statement. But his strength of conviction pushed him through that pain towards art that is beautiful, honest, and edifying. Art that transports the listener into the heart of a mountain, the depths of a forest, and the soul of Avi Kaplan.
Listening to his music produces an admiration in me of the beauty that can result from originality. It seems to instantly show me the holistic results of creating art that is honest and true. The strength required to do what Avi has done is inspiring. May we all have the strength to pursue our art as recklessly and honestly as the ‘lowly’ bass singer from Pentatonix. The strength to kill the futures we do not desire, the endurance to put one foot in front of the other in the endless field, and the honesty to find what is beautiful. Crest the mountain, seize the shadow, grasp the sand, traverse the field. Rebuke the dark, look to the sky, seek the light, and never yield
Go down a rabbit hole with Avi’s music, starting with my personal favorite, “Full Moon.”