HomeConcert Review: Bobby McFerrin "VOCAbuLaries", 4.10.10

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When I walked into the Nob Hill Masonic Center in San Francisco on Saturday night (4.10.10), I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that a man named Roger Treece had spent seven years in the studio with Bobby McFerrin writing a piece to enable choirs and a cappella groups to sing in Bobby’s unique style. Yet despite having so little in the way of expectations, what I experienced that night wasn’t at all what I was expecting.

The performance was the premier of VOCAbuLaries, a collaborative project between Mr. McFerrin and composer/arranger Roger Treece. Since beginning work on the project, Roger has been singing with Bobby’s a cappella group Voicestra in order to learn his style and approach to singing first-hand. So he joined Bobby on stage for the performance not only to conduct the Pacific Mozart Ensemble, but also to do a fair amount of singing himself. In fact, at many times the line between singing and conducting blurred to indistinction. Completing the ensemble for the evening was another member of Voicestra, David Worm, adding some vocal percussion, and a “real” percussionist whose name I didn’t catch [ed note: Alex Acuña]. And, not to be forgotten, the audience itself.

The flow of the performance alternated between (relatively) structured sections featuring the Pacific Mozart Ensemble accompanied by some combination of Bobby, Roger, David, and percussion, interspersed with entirely unstructured interludes of Bobby improvising by himself or with a small handful of the other musicians, which frequently included the audience. Because of this it was hard to get a sense of which aspects of the performance to attribute to the seven-year project that was being premiered, and which to attribute simply to the spontaneity of the evening. That is, if I were to go see another performance of VOCAbuLaries, I still would have little idea what to expect.

But I think that was part of the point. For Bobby McFerrin, musical performance is not something that should be done the same way every time – it should emerge organically from the moment. That’s an idea not easily conveyed in a structured piece to be written down and published. And yet singers want sheet music of McFerrin’s music. So he created this body of music that will be commercially available for all to sing, but then demonstrated it in such an inimitable way that groups who choose to sing it will have no choice but to perform it in their own unique style.

Several weeks before the premier, CASA’s Amy Malkoff asked McFerrin about the piece: “This is my way of saying, ‘Come on, let’s hang out. Let’s sing together,’” he told her. And that’s exactly what the evening was. We were all – everyone on the stage and in the audience – hanging out and singing with Bobby McFerrin. One after another, he invited members of the audience to sing with him. And one after another, members of the audience sang beautifully and creatively and wowed their fellow audience members.

At one point Bobby started singing Bach’s “Prelude No. 1 in C major” and asked the audience to sing the familiar “Ave Maria” melody along with him. Feebly at first, but slowly growing in confidence, the melody began pouring from mouths all around the room. The magic of something so raw and sincere, so unrehearsed and of the moment, coming from every direction and every variety of person, is something difficult to explain, and still more difficult to achieve by even the most well trained, highly practiced ensembles.

And I think that was the other part of the point. Bobby McFerrin was demonstrating to the audience: that music can and should be made by anyone and everyone. With his incredible vocal talent, he inspired us and showed us how beautiful and impressive it can be when you really work to hone and polish your musical skill. But he also showed us how beautiful and impressive it can be when you just open your mouth and let your heart out. He showed us that music doesn’t have to be anything in particular. It just has to be.

About the author:
Charlie Forkish is an a cappella producer, arranger, and recording engineer from the California Bay Area. He is also the live sound engineer for the Harmonics at Stanford University, where he is pursuing a degree in Music, Science, and Technology. When not working on vocal music he can be found programming computers to do interesting things with audio.