When six members of a collegiate a cappella group were getting ready to graduate from the University of California at Berkeley in 2013, they decided to put together one last medley of songs before going their separate ways. Performed in Mandarin, the medley of 30 songs showed the evolution of pop music in China. They called themselves Calculasian because their alma mater’s nickname is “Cal” and, as member Chen Chen puts it, “Well, we were basically all nerds.”
To the group’s surprise, the video became an instant viral sensation. Within two days, they’d garnered more than 10,000 views on YouTube and 100,000 on the Chinese video platform Youku. The six singers, who at the time were spread out across California, New York, Taiwan, and mainland China, started to wonder if they could make the long-distance relationship work.
They began recording tracks and shooting videos individually, then piecing them together digitally. Though their initial videos were well received, the members of Calculasian quickly encountered some challenges.
“When we’re together, it works a lot better,” Chen says. “If one person doesn’t know what to do, we can step in and inspire each other. It’s always good to brainstorm together. Right after we arrange a song, we can sing together and test the arrangements.”
Chen says when the group manages to be in the same room, it can also be nerve-wracking.
“When we do get together,” she says, “we also feel so pressured to use every spare moment to its fullest.”
Even though they live in different parts of the world, the members continue promoting Calculasian. Chen and Alex He, both based in Shanghai, connect with the group’s fan base, most of whom are in Asia. Ziming Li, who works full time as a musician in Los Angeles, mixes the group’s song alongside more experienced producers.
At last month’s Shanghai Creator Awards—sponsored by WeWork—most of the group reunited to perform for packed house. Two members sent in recorded tracks, while the other four appeared onstage. The crowd of just over 2,000 people was by far their biggest audience yet.
With their prize money of about $18,000, the members of Calculasion hope to explore more traditional Chinese music.
“We want to be different,” says Chen. “One idea is to incorporate more music from China’s various ethnic minorities, to capture the diversity of music here.”
More than anything, they want to share the magic of a cappella music to a wider audience.
“We all hang on to the feeling we first had when singing together in college,” Chen says. “When you’re in a circle with other friends and singing together and producing something that sounds so good, you’re in complete harmony.”