Monday, March 1, 2010

Bobby McFerrin and other thoughts

This is clip of Bobby McFerrin performing along with the audience. He tells an anecdote in which he was encouraged to learn a Bach prelude (N1. from WTC book 1) and later on he learnt the Ave Maria by Gounod which as he says “sits in top” of the Bach prelude. In the concert he demonstrates both parts, and then sings along with the audience, him singing the prelude, and the audience on the Ave Maria.
McFerrin’s approach towards performing was first brought to my attention many years ago by the chair of the composition department at my college. He was very open minded and had just seen McFerrin live in Boston, and he commented on the experience. It did not mean much for me at that time.
(As a footnote for myself as a teacher, I realise that I tend to get discouraged when activities don’t work immediately, or when I see students not understanding yet; although it is not the main purpose of this brief discussion, this experience shows that as a teacher one must expect no reaction since it is likely that the lesson taught today may click in the mind of the students twenty years from now).
However, what I am able to appreciate now is the fact that McFerrin is pushing the envelope of established traditions and convections of performance. He is in effect creating a new art form in its own right. He is establishing an unprecedented—minimally preceded— relationship with the audience.
McFerrin’s casual attitude towards the audience, and overall manner, reminded me of Bersntein’s Young’s People Concerts. In a way, both performers make demonstration and communication with the audience, an element of equal value as the music making itself. This is an initial step to start blurring barriers between performer and audience, leading to and culminating in audience ‘s active participation.
Furthermore, there are two things that McFerrin does in this clip that are worth mentioning. One is that without rehearsal and with non musicians, he manages to put on the performance of great quality as everybody in the audience participates in music making of great calibre. The other salient aspect how he combines the resources available: his singing is virtuosic whereas he is accompanied by a very simple and well known melody; it is a situation in which everybody performs at the best of their abilities; he even addresses the fact that many people in the audience may not the Ave Maria, and therefore, it’s ok to sing slightly behind those know it better who act, as he points, as session leaders.
It is remarkable the simplicity an ease that he handles the situation with. One has to keep in mind that the performance is not rehearsed, and yet the outcome is captivating; the audience doesn’t lose the beat, the intonation is accurate; there is a sense of being in the present, of no anticipation or expectation, and no sense of fear.
This video triggered another memory. Many years ago, I went to a solo piano concert by Chick Corea who at one point in the concert did something similar to McFerrin. He told the audience to make certain noises for certain gestures; for instance, if he put his hand up, the audience would hum; if he moved his arm horizontally, the audience would make the sound of the wind, and so on. So, as he played the piano plucking the strings inside of the instrument, and stopping hammered notes with his hand, and other unconventional performing techniques, he would conduct the accompaniment from the audience. The result was his sort of alleatoric ultra modern sounding concerto for piano and audience soundscape.
I was thinking that there are some commonalities amongst these three performers. There seems to be an element of clarity and facility. All of a sudden, the seemingly impossible becomes attainable, and this is one of the great qualities of a great teacher. It does take an exceptional mind to conceive such ideas as these alternative performative experiences, and a lot of courage too. However, there seems to be no concept of the possibility to fail.

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