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Archiv für Juni, 2013

Bobby McFerrin, ‘The Garden’ (“VOCAbuLarieS”)

by Jeff Meshel  (ISR), originally posted on “Jeff Meshel’s World” on April 19th, 2010

Jeff Meshel portrait

Segments of songs from “VOCAbuLarieS”, Official clip of the song “Say Ladeo”

I’m probably going to step on some toes (again) this week. So I apologize in advance.

I really have no convincing defense against the charge that I’m a musical snob. Do you think it’s fun being a snob? Let me tell you, it’s not. We effete prigs get to sit in the corner and be judgmental while everyone else is having fun clapping hands and dancing. And what’s worse, is that this time I’m even stepping on my own toes.

Because Bobby McFerrin is a really nice guy. He’s neat and cool and creative and serious about his art. And about as talented in his craft as Michael Jordan and Leo DaVinci were in theirs. You know, the physical and technical and creative ability to do things that according to the laws of physics shouldn’t oughta be able to be done?

Just to get us on the same page – Bobby McFerrin (b. 1950) is hands-down the greatest vocal artist around today. Since 1982 he’s released about a dozen major CDs, focusing on a cappella vocals (both solo and multi-tracked) and collaborations, with classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma and with jazz pianist Chick Corea and others. He has the distinction of begetting not only a phrase, but also a cultural mindset with his most famous recording, ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’. He appears extensively as a solo artist and as a conductor/singer with many leading symphony orchestras. The guy doesn’t rest.


And everyone, including yours truly, is saying that his new CD, “VOCAbuLarieS“, released just a couple of weeks ago, is the CD we’ve been waiting for from him.

“VOCAbuLarieS” is seven tracks longs, a pastiche of some 1400 vocal tracks recorded by 50 singers–a tapestry of symphonic richness, much fuller than the 1997 improvised outing “Circle Songs”. It’s almost purely a cappella, with the exception of an occasional dash of soprano sax and a little support from some friendly bongos, congas, kalimbas and whatever.

The music is a dream–a snatch of lyric, a waft of melody, elusive, ephemeral, incredibly intricate and amazingly colorful and detailed, floating, free of the fetters of gravity. Like a dream, natural or chemically-induced, it is wondrous and ineffable. You wake up serene and smiling and peaceful and wowing–and then you try to tell the dream, and it dissipates, slipping through the gaps between your words.

So it is with “VOCAbuLarieS”. All seven songs are modal, and all morph from theme to theme, lilting and lovely and uplifting. The sound palette is that of the universe–McFerrin and his collaborator composer/arranger/producer Roger Treece have created a fusion of sounds drawing from South Africa (especially in “In the Garden”), Danish rhythm choirs (“Wailers”), world-mix (“He Ran to the Train”), Arvo Part neo-Gregorian (“Brief Eternity”) and Disney soundtrack (“Baby”). But all the tracks meld and slide from one world to another, and the overall effect is the space travel between them.

Outer space. No melody, no chord progression, no fetters. No gravity. Is being gravity-free an empirically desirable state? Isn’t ‘vapid’ a synonym for gravity-free? What about gravitas? Some grit? Some irony? Some intellectual toughness? “And there was day and there was night, And there was dark and there was light” and the melodic equivalents? Cmon! I’ll readily admit that Bobby McFerrin really is a spiritual person. But spiritual people usually make me uncomfortable.

I have some sense of the technical achievement of this CD. I’m probably the only person on my block who listens to the vocal jazz Scandinavian groups and choirs (Rajaton, The Real Group, and especially Vocal Line). That’s where I go to find rich group vocal experimentation. And “VOCAbuLarieS” has just upped the bar. In terms of the wealth and depth of vocal textures, it’s a masterpiece. I think any sympathetic lay listener will get that, and it’s no mean accomplishment. I myself am impressed, amazed, overwhelmed.

I’ve been having some issues lately about not going to concerts. A surprising number of artists I admire have or are about to visit our fair shores–Leonard Cohen, Elvis Costello, The Swingle Singers, Chick Corea. I’m not going to any of them. The shlep and the commonality turn me off. Like I said, an unsufferable snob. I’d certainly go see Bobby McFerrin in concert, even though his CDs get relegated to background music in my playlist universe.

He does some remarkable things live. Here’s a very popular clip in which he “Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale” to the World Science Festival. It’s fine and funny, how he non-verbally ‘explains’ to scientists how the language of music works. But here’s a clip I like much more–a spontaneous, musical audience participation improvisation. It includes a similar demonstration of the innate hardwiring of the language of the pentatonic scale, but kicks it up a level into real music. Want some more? Here’s a mock-baroque duet with the Azerbaijani singer/pianist Aziza Mustafa Zada; my guess is that this is based on a piece I don’t recognize–no humans can improvise on this level out of their heads. Here they’re scatting on Carmen.

And here’s one I like even better, one of his better-known songs, ‘I Got a Feelin”. But you have to watch it to the end. He may be spiritual, but he apparently knows the world of the flesh as well, and has a very wicked sense of humor.

But, meanwhile, back at SoTW–the song we’ve picked is the fifth cut, ‘The Garden’ (of Eden). He wrote it for his 1990 CD, “Medicine Music.” Here’s the original version. It was kicked up a few levels by in 2008 by the incredible Danish jazz choir Vocal Line, under direction of the very talented Jens Johansen. Here they are showing their stuff in a live performance the song. It could well be that they’re backing Mr McF here. I did read that they’re going to NY to help him present “VOCAbuLarieS” in concert. Apparently there has been some cross-pollination going on between Mr McFerrin and Vocal Line. Sure wish I knew when and where and how that happened.

And I sure do hope that more of the very talented American luminaries interact more and more with the wonderful vocal group music that’s being made in The Northern Countries. In the meantime, we’ll enjoy the accomplishment of “VOCAbuLarieS”.

I’m sorry I didn’t have this CD to listen to back in my heady college days, when I was more in a state of head to float with it. Today, I’ll have to make due with being blown away by it, rather than moved. Well, ‘blown away’ isn’t such faint praise, is it?

Where good improvisations comes from

by Morten Mosgaard, Songs of the moment

Morten Mosgaard - Songs of the moment - Weekend 58

On the 20th of June a special Songs of the Moment Nordic concert will take place. On this occasion we bring you a short blog post trilogy by singer Morten Mosgaard, inspired by the work within the context of the group Songs of the Moment. The project is a collaboration between seven singers from Rajaton, The Real Group, and Voxnorth focusing on group improvisations and is funded by Nordic Culturepoint. Read more about the concert and support the world-wide livestream project here.

We know a lot about many things in this world, but there are still things which we can’t really understand fully. One of these things is the process underlying how our brain takes in information, stores this information for later use or how it makes use of this information in the present. This raises a lot of questions about inspiration, creativity, cooperation, communication, learning and so on. My favorite question is this: Do ideas come from within our minds, from outside or from a combination of the two? I see this as a very important question when doing improvisation; therefore, I will try to provide an answer in this article.

My experience

I see myself as a creative person, and through my work as a songwriter I have been trying to figure out where my ideas come from so as to make sure I can be creative when I need to.

It seems to me that I’m most inspired when I know what I want to do. You can say that having a mission makes it easier to be creative. Another thing I have learned is that when I want to get ideas, it helps searching for inspiration. It’s important to take in impressions to support the creative process. When I have a mission and I go to find inspiration, getting ideas becomes an easy task. This means that getting ideas has less to do with “being in the right mood” than with creating the right conditions for myself to be creative. Therefore, my answer to the first question is the following: Ideas come from a combination of what I know already and the inspiration I get.

To help creating the best conditions, I’ve invented my own little 3-step creativity model inspired by a lot of different learning and design theory combined with my own experience. The three steps are as following:MMoosgard pic1

1) Set the frame – what are your goals for the process?

2) Find inspiration – search the web, read magazines, talk to people, listen etc…

3) Combine the frame with the inspiration and what you already know to act upon it – for me, this part functions a little like Lego: I see which parts fit together in order to let it become something new and usable.

The musical creation

When I do group improvisations as we do in Songs of the moment, the model above is close to how I think my mind works during the sessions, except the movement between the steps seems to be very fast and often out of order – let me try to explain.

MMoosgard pic2Everytime we start an improvisation, we try to set the frame by “finding” a common sound. This happens through singing, acting, or playing. You could say that finding a common sound is also to find inspiration by searching through sound – therefore the first step in an improv seems to be step 1 and 2 combined. Sometimes the inspiration can be a genre, a movement, a lyrical subject among other things. When the first inspiration has been found, the frame is set and then the improv really takes off – we combine & act. This is the part where you combine the frame you have set with the inspiration you’ve got; you should always relate to these elements throughout the whole improvisation. At this point in a good improvisation, every singer will start to explore the frame, the inspiration and the possibilities. This works just like the “responsibility” method I talked about in the last blog. Be aware that even though the frame is set, it doesn’t mean it can’t change during an improvisation.

To visualise how this works, I have created a model inspired by Humberto Maturana (among others). The model has three circles which can be read as domains or elements in improvisation. You can choose to be in one, two or all three of the domains at the time when improvising. To make a great improvisation you need to use all domains. Some might say that “when you achieve to be in the middle, you experience flow” – and yes – this model could be a way to describe how everything can feel like coming together in the present, where we as a group become one with the music.

So where did the good improvisations come from again?

The good improvisations come into being when a group is able to find a common “understanding” of what is going on in the music, or at least when the group members are not working against each other’s ideas – this requires that the group members are able to both listen and contribute to the music in relation to what is going on at the same time. As I see it, the most important part is finding the frame; from there the improvisation will grow, and this frame should be able to chance all the time depending on the music created together.

To show an example from our last Songs of the Moment Nordic project, we have uploaded a “song” which is a really great example of having already created a common ground, a musical framework, from where a song can grow.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on this subject, and feel free to experiment with the creativity / improvisation model.

Links:

3-step Model – http://cl.ly/image/0p1i1l0b0e2P

Improvisation Elements Model – http://cl.ly/image/1D2O0j1W1I14

Humberto Maturana – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humberto_Maturana

Article #1 – http://vocalblog.acappellazone.com/2013/06/why-everyone-should-do-group-improvisations/

Why everyone should do group improvisations

by Morten Mosgaard, Songs of the Moment (DK)

Morten Mosgaard - Songs of the moment - Weekend 58

The 20th of June is the date for the next Songs of the Moment Nordic concert. On this occasion we bring you a short blog post trilogy inspired from the work done in the group Songs of the Moment. The project is a collaboration between seven selected singers from Rajaton, The Real Group, and Voxnorth focusing on group improvisations and is funded by Nordic Culturepoint. Read more about the concert and support the world-wide livestream here.

 

I truly believe everyone can become a better singer through working with group improvisations. At least I think I have become a better singer because of my focus on improvisation. That’s why I want to share some of the reasons, as I see it, as to why everyone should do group improvisations. This is the first post about the subject, focusing mainly on what improvisation can teach us and how we can use this knowledge every time we sing.

One of the things I’ve experienced as a choir singer is that if the music should really come alive, everyone needs to take the full responsibility for the music. It took me some time to figure out what this responsibility meant for every single singer, but the answer came through a discussion with a friend of mine who is a classical pianist. I told him that I thought classical music lacked the inspiring energy from improvisation, which was the reason I loved jazz. Luckily for me, my friend disagreed and told me that classical music has a lot of improvisation in it – it’s just in another form. When you play a piano piece, the notes you need to play may be written all the way through, there may also be expressions and a convention about how you “play this composer” – but within that framework, you have all the room you need to make your very own interpretation. This perspective made me realize that improvisation doesn’t have to be free improv or a solo between two choruses, it could also be the exact way you chose to play one specific note.

 

 

This approach to improvisation inspired me to start working even more on detail than I did before; not in the organised way where the whole choir decides “to be quiet here”, “to make a crescendo here” and so on, but in the “I’ll try to listen and see what the others are doing, and I’ll make my voice do what the music needs to grow”-kind of way.

 

The Voxnorth experience

If you see every sound you make as a chance to improvise just a tiny bit, then the piece you’re performing comes to life in a whole new way. When I was still a part of Voxnorth, this was the very exercise that I was doing in “The Four Loves”; that is, to stay focused and mentally present throughout the whole piece (A Roger Treece Suite thats 24 minutes long). This was also the approach we were working on when we were performing my tune “Frit Fald”. The idea with the arrangement was to have a kind of musical framework for the tune, and nothing else than this framework (notes) was decided beforehand. The dynamics, tempo or sound could then change from venue to venue in this different approach to group improvisation. “Frit Fald” was by far my favorite tune to sing in Voxnorth because it was never the same and therefore always gave the impression of a living organism. Every time we would sing it, we would start “the framework”, and, like a true explorer, I would work my way into the song to see where it would take us this time. As far as I can recall, we always turned up the volume on the last part of the “ah”-piece in the interlude, but it just seemed to make sense every time. Some of the times I was thinking “let’s not go up”, but I would let the music and not my thoughts decide where to go. When the tune was at its best, it was the result of a great collaboration between me, as the soloist, and the guys who accompanied me. Sometimes it would be like an unpredictable roller coaster where you never knew what was going to happen. For this to succeed, the tune required full attention from all of us.

 

Ways of practice

There are different ways to practice this “responsibility” for the music. First of all, the responsibility is all about singing what seems right for the situation. This is not necessarily what you decided at the rehearsal, so the responsibility entails being aware of where the music is going and making sure that what you sing is what suits the music better. This might sound a bit challenging, but it’s most of all about listening to the music and making sure that what you sing fits what everyone else is doing in terms of timing, pitch, loudness, sound, and expression.

My favorite way to practice the responsibility is through group improvisation. Group improv only works when each singer takes responsibility for the whole piece. This could also mean not to sing if that’s what the music needs. As I see it, the goal is to make each other sound better within the group than we sound alone. It’s my impression that this happens in lot of the improvisations we do in Songs of the Moment. I was amazed by how well every singer would take the responsibility for each tune during our last concert and amazed by how well it worked with people shifting in taking the lead when it was needed. It was the perfect example of “The unpredictable roller coaster”.

Take a (small) look at some of the musical moments at the last Songs of the moment Nordic concert in this video made for our coming project:

 

Links:

IndieGogo – http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/songs-of-the-moment-nordic-goes-world-wide-web/

The Four Loves – https://vimeo.com/24276162

Frit Fald #1 – https://soundcloud.com/voxnorth/frit-fald-live-i-musikhuset-i

Frit Fald #2 – https://soundcloud.com/voxnorth/frit-fald-recorded-live-in-g

Aarhus Vocal Festival 2013

by Jeff Meshel, originally posted as letter to Vocal Blog founder Florian Städtler (on the day of Florian’s birthday) on Jeff Meshel’s World on May 23rd 2013.

 

Dear Florian,

Morning Warmup

AAVF 2013 is chronologically over, but still pumping in my veins and breathing in my soul.

It was a wonderful, educationally enriching and communally loving experience. It would be impossible to give you an overview, but I’ll try to relate to you some of my personal experiences, in hopes that the subjective view will give some sort of representative impression of what went on.

It was all pretty well organized, user-friendly. My hotel was only a five-minute walk from the site, which was a big advantage. The biggest problem was not enough hours in the day—wanting to simultaneously attend all the workshops, watch the small group and large group competitions, hear the midday concerts in the foyer, grab some food, and schmooze!!

Concerts

Level Eleven

Pre-FestivalSono and Naura were both new for me, young Danish groups of about 20 singers, both really high quality, interesting repertoire, flawless performance, charming appearance, setting the bar high for the rest of the festival.

Friday – The Mzansi Youth Choir and the Boxettes gave two very different examples of how far contemporary a cappella can go and still knock out the crowd. The Girls Choir of Mariagerfjord were ‘just’ another one of those perfect Danish choirs.

Saturday – Since first hearing them in Vasteros in 2008, I’ve become an impassioned devotee of Vocal Line, so it was of course a really great thrill to hear them again. The combination of Vocal Line, VoxNorth and Eivør wasn’t easy for me. It was a new aesthetic, speaking in a musical language I was less familiar with. It sounds fascinating to me, and I plan on exploring it in the future (in the present, actually—I’m listening to Eivør as I write!)

SundayWeBe3 was a totally new treat for me, improvisation at its purest, and you know I’m a purist ;-). The Real Group and Rajaton both gave short but absolutely first-rate sets, showed why they’re the acknowledged leaders of our cult. It’s the third time I’ve heard both, and maybe the best. Level Eleven had some high points, and promises more to come in the future.

Touché

Monday – The group that completely blew me away was Jesper Holm’s Touché, as I had never even heard them recorded, let alone live. I knew they were a 12-voice group singing Count Basie big band charts and complex Gene Puerling arrangements from Singers Unlimited. What I wasn’t prepared for was the total, absolute technical perfection Jesper has achieved with these guys. Brassier than Basie, subtler than the Singers Unlimited, and purer than Gene Puerling, their mastery of these genres was TOTAL. The delivery was crystal-clear, as pure as glacial water. Even the soloists sang with superhuman control. And I was particularly impressed by how steeped these kids are in the vocal jazz tradition. They really do know where they’re coming from. And I can only dream where they’re going. More about that below. Just to make you even sorrier you weren’t here, I’ve posted the entire set as soundcloud links on Jeff Meshel’s World.

 

Reach Out and Touch a Star

Jens, Jeff, Line, Jim

It’s a strange situation at these festivals – you listen to the artist at home, think about their music; read about the upcoming concert; buy a ticket, buy a plane ticket and reserve a hotel; travel, with all the anticipation and excitement and build-up; and then an hour after the show you’re drinking a beer with the artist, with him telling you how he felt about the show. We’re used to admiring our ‘idols’ from afar. The warmth and intimacy of a festival such as this is a big part of its utter charm.

I met a guy on the train who was coming from Belgium to hear Bruce Springsteen in Denmark. They say Bruce is a really nice guy, but you’re watching him with 20,000 strangers from 3 kilometers away, with 500 armed guards in between you and him. Here, an hour after the show, you share a beer with the artist and hug him and thank him for the fine show, and he tells you how excited he was… Who de boss now?

Workshops

Line Groth Riis & Anders Hornshøj, “Just Sing It”

They started with the incomparable dynamo Line Groth Riis leading 800 people singing two ultra-cool arrangements, with really fine, overpowering results. Go beat that. And that’s just for starters.

The Single Singers had to prepare four songs, three of which were quite difficult, in two rehearsals with no clear conductor. No mean feat that! It seemed quite impossible at the beginning, but somehow it worked at the end. The really great thing that happened there for me was singing Vocal Line’s version of Peter Garbiel’s “Don’t Give Up” with Jens Johansen himself conducting! So, that was a thrill in and of itself, but the really inspiring aspect was singing the song, being part of the tapestry of that beautiful, divine arrangement. I had listened to the song many, many times, but there’s nothing like singing it from within. (Guess what is going to be Song of The Week on my blog tomorrow?)

Jim Daus Hjernøe workshop

I joined five other workshops, each one an education in and of itself.
The amazingly talented Roger Treece, the man behind Bobby McFerrin’s “VOCAbuLarieS” was really pushing the envelope of grasping how rhythm and pulse work. It was sometimes a stretch to follow him, but yet a lot of fun.
Everyone was raving about Jim Daus Hjernøe’s workshop in Sweden, and I finally caught up with him here. “Rhythm and Groove” was uplifting, mind-expanding. He made so much sense out of central elements I’d never been aware of previously. I told him that in my next incarnation I want to come study in Aarhus. He responded that they have a really good remote learning program. If only I had the courage! Me, studying with these giants?

Single Singers rehearsal

I attended Katarina Henryson and Anders Edenroth’s “All Ears” workshop. I’d heard them go over the same material before more than once. And you know what? It gets better each time. Eighty strangers walk into a room, mostly fairly talented amateur singers. Then Katarina and Anders start teaching you the Art of Listening. And at the end of two hours we did a group improvisation – with our eyes closed!!! – about seven minutes of beautiful, transcendent, magical music. Just mind-boggling. Just these two hours were worth the 12-hour trip.
And Jesper Holm’s Advanced Vocal Technique. The program said ‘Harmonic complexity, swing feeling, jazz phrasing, sound and blend.’ Yes, that’s what he did. But I was reminded of the Yeats’ poem: That girls at puberty may find/The first Adam in their thought,/Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,/Keep those children out./There on that scaffolding reclines/Michael Angelo./With no more sound than the mice make/His hand moves to and fro./(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream/His mind moves upon silence.) The absolute precision of his approach showed again that ‘God is in the details’. It was a truly inspiring workshop experience. Jesper is my new role model for doing a job well. And I’m proud to count him as a new friend.

People

I met SO many people—friends from Vasteros 2008, friends from Stockholm 2012, more recent Facebook friends, and new friends from Aarhus – too many to mention. I made a list of about 25 people that I had memorable interactions with, but I’m not going to list them because I know there were another dozen that are escaping my fuzzy brain, and hopefully another dozen that I’ll get to know now by writing. I did notice that the hugs have gotten tighter over the years, that each subsequent meeting with these fine people deepens the connection from the cordial to the friendly to the beginning of real involvement.

As you know, I do a lot of talking and thinking and writing about music, and I was fortunate enough to have three serious, focused, professional conversations.

The first was with Peder Karlsson. I first met Peder at Vasteros in 2008. I had brought a group from Israel and had briefly corresponded with him via email. On the first day I was nervous, confused, excited. Peder walked by, and I asked him timidly where the Whatever Room was.
I was a novice, a nobody, an attendee from afar; he was The Star. He looked at my nametag, looked at me, let out a shout of “Jeff!” and gave me a bearhug. I knew something different was going on in this community. Then in 2012, our second meeting, we became a bit friendly.
So now in 2013 I told Peder that I wanted to Skype with him about the history of TRG. He said, “Now!” For an entire morning, Peder told me about the origins of The Real Group’s music. There was a bit of an argument: I was maintaining that TRG invented our contemporary a cappella, while Peder was (over-modestly, I think) asserting that TRG drew from a number of different existing sources. In any case, we both agreed that this is fascinating piece of AC folklore, and it will be my pleasure to work our discussion into a printed interview in the near future. Oh, and now I can comfortably say that I feel Peder is a friend.

This is just one example of many–too many (and too personal) to recount here.

By the way, the origin of TRG’s music issue has riveted me for a long time and spilled over into several other conversations I had. Bill Hare had a lot of first-hand knowledge to share, and Jonathan Minkoff was gleefully maintaining that just about everything I think is diametrically opposed to the truth. Fortunately Judy Fontana was there to keep us from trans-Atlantic blows, suggesting the theory that vocal percussion was developed simultaneously on either side of the ocean. I’m gonna be thinking about that, Judy!

The second conversation was with Roger Treece, whom I’d asked in advance to meet with. I was aware of his work on “VOCAbuLarieS”, and really wanted to hear how Vocal Line was connected to that project. I also wanted to learn more about where Roger is applying his very prodigious talents these days. We had a great, honest, intimate talk which I hope to write up in one form or another (assuming that the glass of water I spilled on the table didn’t erase the file on my recorder). I sincerely hope Roger finds the perfect venue in which to work in the future, because I think his talent is unlimited and he can be a formative voice in a cappella in the next generation.

The third conversation was with Jesper Holm. I’d met Jesper very briefly in 2012, barely long enough to discover that we have a lot of overlapping interests and that I possess an obscure Singers Unlimited CD that he covets. I gladly brought it to Aarhus as an offering, looking forward to getting to know him a bit. We talked for less than an hour, but reached incredibly interesting places. We discussed the very substance of vocality, where group vocal jazz is today, and where it might go in the future. We also raised some ideas about utterly new vistas to explore, and concrete plans about how to do that. We were talking about inventing a new musical language. My blood is still pounding over that conversation. I hope that when the clouds clear, the substance remains and that Jesper sets out on that very profound journey.

What I’ve Taken Home

Oh, just so many ideas. And techniques for making better music. And exposure to new types of music. And hopes and plans for the future. And friendships. Membership in a most special community. And a whole lotta love.

I was at the original Woodstock festival. Given the choice of going back there or going to the next AAVF—no competition, man. Hands down, it’s Aarhus. Something is very sweet in the state of Denmark.

Really, I have only one serious complaint about the festival. You weren’t there, Florian. You and my old buddies Kongero and my new buddies The Swingles and my future buddies The Idea of North.

So I guess we’ll just have to make plans to meet again in Aarhus in 2015.

Till then,

Jeff

Please feel free to visit Song of The Week, where you’ll find lots of postings on a cappella and other musical genres.