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.

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?

References

  1. https://www.shmoop.com/study-guides/movie/the-lost-weekend/behind-the-scenes/music-score
  2. https://lightintheattic.net/releases/3080-the-day-the-earth-stood-still-1951-original-soundtrack
  3. https://www.indiewire.com/2021/07/loki-theremin-natalie-holt-1234651381/
  4. https://electronics.howstuffworks.com/gadgets/audio-music/theremin.htm#pt2
  5. https://www.britannica.com/art/theremin
  6. https://www.yourclassical.org/story/2016/07/15/theremin-movie-music
  7. https://www.runleiarun.com/ghostbusters/chapter6.shtml
  8. https://www.youtube.com/c/Gr%C3%A9goireBlancTh%C3%A9r%C3%A9min/featured

Answers:

  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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