Bobby McFerrin, Yo-Yo Ma, and Sergei Rachmaninoff

It’s been quite a hiatus – who knew residency could be busy? Today, my girlfriend sent me the most interesting collaboration I’ve seen since Martha and Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party: Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma performing selections from their collaborative album Hush on The Tonight Show.

It’s jaw-dropping this was a live performance! Between Bobby McFerrin’s perfect pitch while arpeggiating and Yo-Yo Ma’s dulcet handling of the melody, their version of “Ave Maria” is one of my all-time favorites. Meanwhile, I’m certain Two-Set Violin would be taken aback by McFerrin’s vocal agility in “Flight of the Bumblebee.” I ended up listening to the whole album as an energizing backdrop to pre-rounding.

This performance totally upended my view of Bobby McFerrin, who I previously only knew for the chart-topping “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Every time I heard that song on the radio, I found the faux Jamaican accent and vapid lyrics incredibly grating. After all “put a smile on your face/don’t bring everybody down like this,” is probably some of the least useful advice one can provide to somebody already struggling. Much to my amusement, McFerrin once said his accent in the song was actually “heavily influenced by Juan’s Mexican Restaurant, which was just around the corner from the studio.

However, after more listening, turns out McFerrin is a wizard. Not only does he have perfect pitch, but also has also mastered overtone singing, vocal percussion, and using the audience as an instrument. As Vox might describe – for McFerrin, the human voice is the ultimate instrument. Even “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was more impressive than first meets the ear. The song was the first (and only) a capella song to ever hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, with McFerrin producing all the sounds heard on the entire track.

A lovely demonstration of leveraging the audience’s musical intuition. For a different take on the audience-choir from Jacob Collier, watch here.

My favorite song on Hush was probably Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise. Having played it on violin as a child, I’ve always been quite partial to this piece. McFerrin relies on no vocal tricks – just the melody beautifully rendered – and the interplay between voice and cello is absolutely seamless. For some other gorgeous renditions, try this theremin version by Gregoire LeBlanc, cello version by Rostropovich (arranged by Heifetz), or original version performed by Kiri Te Kanawa.

Side Note: There was an interesting comment I saw from the Pentatonic Scale video that pointed out that “This is made more amazing after realizing he’s moving left to right in the traditional low to high pitches in the audience perspective, but contrary to his own. In other words, as he moves to HIS left, the “notes” raise in pitch, but this is to the right in the audience perspective, so he’s switching it in his own mind.” As someone that has played a little piano, my intuition agrees that left to right generally corresponds to moving from lower to higher pitches. However, I’m unsure if this is a generally agreed-upon correspondence (some kind of widely-used orientational metaphor a la Lakoff) or if it’s more a narrowly culturally bound construction.

What do CODA and Bachianas Brasileiras have in common?

Short Answer: Both are related to musicians with the surname of Villalobos. Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) is a music teacher in the Best Picture nominee CODA and Heitor Villa-Lobos composed the Bachianas Brasileiras.

Sorry for the long hiatus, I’ve matched at Wills Eye Hospital, eaten lots of fantastic BBQ in Texas, and taken up rock climbing in the interim.

I heard a segment on The Intelligence a few days ago about Brazilian modernism that was highly related to my most recent blog post about Tarsilo do Amaral, Antropofagia, and modernism in Brazilian art. In brief, the podcast/article traces the course of Brazilian modernism in the century since the Modern Art Week (an arts festival to Brazilians “as important as the…Armory Show”) – discussing the Antropofagia movement, the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer, and the evolution of bossa nova. Of greatest interest to this post, it notes that Heitor Villa-Lobos presented some of his works at the Modern Art Week as well.

As a young man, Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) rebelled against his mother’s desire for him to become a doctor. He instead become a “musical vagabond” that played guitar and cello to support himself while traveling around Brazil. During this period, he absorbed Brazilian folk music, especially the Afro-Brazilian music of the country’s north. After his travels, he enrolled in the National Institute of Music in Rio de Janeiro where he seriously studied classical stalwarts such as Bach, Wagner, and Puccini. Among an extraordinarily prolific output (with ~2,000 credited works), his Bachianas Brasileiras (1930-1945) are probably some of the best known. These works uniquely blended Western classical music with Brazilian folk and popular music.

I’ve heard Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 live twice in my life – once with Nicole Cabell and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2014- and the other time at a concert with a Stanford professor that refused to extend my funding for a research project. In any case, it’s quite sublime. For a recording helmed by Villa-Lobos himself:

CODA (child of deaf adults) is a coming-of-age comedy-drama directed by Sian Heder that is a remake of the 2014 French film La Famille Belier. Ruby (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of her family, struggles to balance her passion for singing with her responsibilities to her family’s fishing business. The cast is rounded out by her inspirational music teacher Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) and family (Troy Kotusr, Daniel Durant, and Marlee Matlin). It’s up for three Oscars (including Best Picture) in 2022. I would definitely recommend streaming on Apple TV or seeing it in theaters (for free!). You’ll never hear Judy Collins’ “Both Sides Now” the same after watching…

From CODA. Ruby’s audition for Berklee (actually filmed in Rockport, not Berklee).

Not totally related, but I also watched Soderbergh’s Kimi the other day in which Billie Eilish’s ‘Oxytocin’ was featured multiple times. Since then, another song from Happier Than Ever, Billie Bossa Nova has been totally stuck in my head. For some real bossa nova, I had a radio show from a few years ago also attempting to explore the evolution of Brazilian music here:

Track listings for the show can also be found on the website of WMBR 88.1.



What’s the difference between Turkish coffee and Bosnian coffee?

Short answer: Sugar is added later when making Bosnian coffee.

“We [Bosnians] serve [our coffee] without sugar in the coffee pot.. because we have a less bitter life than Turkish people.”

Bosnian guide

I had some delicious Bosnian food for lunch today! We tried a combination plate with ćevapi (kebab-like minced meat), pljeskavica (spiced meat patty), chicken kebabs, sausages, lepinja (flatbread), and ajvar (relish), as well as a gulaš (goulash). Not quite Bosnian, but they also had a lovely rose hip soda from Slovenia! Unfortunately I didn’t get a nice photo of the combination plate (so that’s an image from Yelp), but the other two are actually from today…

They also had some interesting decorations. One was an advertisement for a free concert by Bijelo Dugme (White Button), the most popular rock band ever from Yugoslavia. This concert was a comeback attempt by the band, and the last performance before the lead guitarist’s (Bregovic) army duty. Between 70,000-100,000 people showed up to Kosutnjak in Belgrade, and it is considered a seminal event in Yugoslav rock. Another was a little placard about the Sebilj in Sarajevo, an Ottoman-style fountain in Bascarsija Square (Sarajevo’s old bazaar). According to local legend, visitors who drink water from this fountain will return to Sarajevo. No doubt the restaurant wishes a similar effect from the poster…

The owner of the restaurant noticed I was taking some photos of the poster and came by to show us a can of Coke. He proudly told us that the can was an original Coca-Cola from the Sarajevo Olympics in 1984! Amazingly, the can still contained some liquid after 37 years, although it was quite soft (probably from loss of carbonation and direct corrosive effect of phosphoric acid).

After lunch, we went to the attached Bosnian market. While shopping, I made a major mistake asking if they had “Turkish coffee.” The owner was appropriately insulted but did patiently direct us to the Bosnian coffee. We ended up getting 4 bags (as gifts), so the encounter ended with all smiles and some free Bananko (a Croatian candy of chocolate-covered banana foam). This did have me wondering what the difference between Turkish and Bosnian coffee was though.

Bosnian coffee grounds. Source: my own phot

Turkish and Bosnian coffee are both strong, unfiltered, and prepared with the same grounds. The preparation begins by boiling cold water in a copper pot (known variously as a dzezve, cezve, or ibrik). Turks add sugar to their water, while Bosnians do not. Once the water comes to a boil, coffee grounds are then added. This causes the characteristic foaming of Bosnian/Turkish coffee. Some additional hot water can be used to help sink the grounds. Alternatively, the foam may be stirred down with a spoon and the mixture slowly heated again to generate more foam. Bosnian and Turkish coffee are both served with a glass of water. Bosnian coffee will additionally be served with sugar cubes and rahat lokum (sweet jelly cubes coated in sugar).

How Bosnian Coffee Is Different from Turkish Coffee | MyRecipes
Bosnian coffee. Source

Bosnian coffee should first be poured out from the dzezve, then a little foam spooned on top. The drinker can then take a small nibble of a sugar cube then drink some coffee to let the two mix together in one’s mouth. This contrasts with Turkish coffee, which has already been sweetened during the preparation. In addition, in Bosnia, the dzezve is brought to the table; whereas Turkish coffee is served in a single cup. As for the taste – the two honestly are pretty similar…one BBC article notes “Bosnian coffee tasted indistinguishable from its Turkish counterpart, which is to say it was potent, bitter and as thick as mud.”

Bekrija si cijelo selo viče (The bohemian is shouting at the whole village) by Bijelmo Dugme. From the album Šta bi dao da si na mom mjestu (What Would You Give to Be in My Place).

Note: I don’t really (yet) understand the proper use of diacritical marks for Slavic languages, so sorry for missing a bunch of these!



How are the scores of The Lost Weekend, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Loki related?

Short answer: They feature the theremin.

Yesterday, I came across this incredible collaboration between Gregoire Blanc and a glass harp-playing duo from Poland. I mostly associate the sound of the theremin with “Good Vibrations” and science fiction soundtracks – so it was refreshing to hear it in a different context. The two ethereal instruments in harmony perfectly fit into the whimsical world of Miyazaki…

Carolina Eyck playing the theremin. Source

The theremin is a unique instrument that can be controlled without physical contact. It was invented in 1920 by a Soviet physicist and cellist, Leon Theremin (aka Lev Termen), who was researching proximity sensors. It consists of a box with radio tubes producing two ultrasonic sound waves. One oscillator operates at a fixed frequency, and the other oscillator’s frequency varies based on the performer’s distance from the instrument. Together, these oscillators use the heterodyne principle to generate an audible signal. Pitch is controlled by moving one’s hand away from an antenna on the right of the box, while the amplitude is controlled by a loop (the pitch circuit). Harmonics can also be filtered out to generate a variety of tones.

Theremin and Clara Rockmore.

After inventing the theremin, Termen was sent on a world tour by Vladimir Lenin to share the modern Soviet sound (and to spy on Western countries). Theremin then patented his invention in 1928 and granted commercial production rights to RCA. Although not a commercial success due to the Great Depression, the theremin did fascinate audiences in both American and abroad. Clara Rockmore, an early virtuoso of the theremin, helped to further popularize the instrument. In addition, Rockmore worked with Theremin to improve the instrument; changes included increased sensitivity to allow for rapid staccato, increasing the range, and aesthetic changes to make the performer more visible.

The theremin’s breakthrough in film scores came with the works of Miklos Rozsa, a Hungarian composer. Rozsa first pioneered the use of the theremin with Hitchock’s Spellbound. Perhaps the greatest effect was with The Lost Weekend, a poignant tragedy about a writer, Don Birnam, struggling with alcoholism. Initially scored to a jazzy soundtrack, test audiences assumed the film was a comedy. Rozsa’s score changed this perception, with its tense, jarring score reinforcing Don’s anxiety and desperation.

Later on, the theremin became associated with science fiction movies of the 1950s. In one of the most famous examples, Bernard Hermann worked with thereminist Samuel Hoffman to create the menacing soundtrack to The Day the Earth Stood Still. The typecasting of the theremin as “flying saucer sound” (along with the rise of the synthesizer) probably lead to its decline. However, it can still be heard in a variety of more modern soundtracks including Frank and Loki (on Disney+).

Ondes Martenot. Source

As an aside, the opening of the Ghostbusters soundtrack does not actually feature the theremin. Instead, Elmer Bernstein used the ondes Martenot (musical waves), an electronic instrument played with a keyboard and a ribbon. It was patented the same year as the theremin and appears like a cross between an organ and a theremin. This allowed more accuracy, as well as preset timbres. In addition, the groundbreaking Moog synthesizer was also invented by theremin enthusiast Robert Moog.

If you’re looking for some more beautiful theremin music, Mr. Blanc playing the main theme of “Schindler’s List” is a must-listen. In my opinion, it is almost comparable in emotional depth to even Itzhak Perelman’s rendition.

Bonus Quiz

  1. Who sang “Good Vibrations”?
  2. Who directed The Lost Weekend?
  3. How many Oscars did Miklos Rozsa win?
  4. Which director is Bernard Hermann best known for collaborating with?
  5. Who composed the soundtrack to Schindler’s List?




  1. The Beach Boys
  2. Billy Wilder
  3. Three. For Spellbound (1945), A Double Life (1947), and Ben-Hur (1959).
  4. Alfred Hitchcock (including Vertigo, Psycho, and North by Northwest).
  5. John Williams
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