When the musicians in an ensemble listen closely to each other, no matter whether in a jazz group or a string quartet or just among people singing together, the sounds they make carry discernible traces of the sounds they hear. If the performance catches fire, the result is to make something audible that otherwise would have remained unknown, and perhaps unknowable.
In 1998, Bobby McFerrin led a group of improvising vocalists in what he called “circle songs”; the performance was broadcast in a public television series, Sessions at West 54th.
According to McFerrin, the circle song is a “search process” that requires the audience to show “a lot of patience” while the singers” meander a lot.” Like James Baldwin’s fictional session on “Am I Blue,” discussed just above, the performance of the circle song takes the form of a quest for an emotional and social truth. But in this case there is no preexisting point of origin and the end remains unknown until the moment it arrives. The songs take off from a sound that McFerrin invents on the spot and they continue until it feels right to stop.
The improvisations ground themselves in ostinatos, which they often build up in layers. The singers call at will on melodic riffs, percussive effects, and drones. They observe no limits on the form of vocal utterance. They follow and discard the norms of “good singing” with equal freedom. They separate register from gender with abundant use of falsetto. They separate song from language by abundant use of vocalise and scatting. They separate their music from any single identity by mixing styles freely, a technique that extends to the multiracial makeup of the ensemble.
In one song, for example, the singers’ meandering draws a circle around a man singing the phrase “I need you” in a voice that vacillates between tenor and falsetto. The sound has a gospel feel, but it is not clear, and remains uncertain, who “you” is: God, a beloved, the other singers, or the human community symbolized by the singing group. It could be any or all of them.
After a while, the singer closes in on the word need and intones it in falsetto for a long moment. McFerrin responds with a falsetto of his own, even higher to my ears, which blossoms into a series of solo vocalises alternating with the group singing “hey, hey.” The effect is more operatic than anything else, the sound of a genderless diva. The rising gleam of the high solo voices is ecstatic in itself and riveting for the ensemble.
As the vocalises succeed each other, they may come to be heard as answering to the need expressed by the sound that called them forth. It is important that there is more than one; the need is great, and the answer must be ample. (Difficult, too, as McFerrin suggests at one or two points by dropping to the low end of his range in a harsh crackle.) Afterwards the music is free to settle on a new ostinato until it fades out with the ensemble’s female voices vocalizing “oo -wah”: a pulsation that leaves widening musical silences between successive cries.
In the course of their improvisation, McFerrin and his singers not only engage in reciprocal listening but also make the process itself audible as a source of knowledge and pleasure – and perhaps, here and there, of an opening to the hovering nimbus of the audiable.
This short excerpt from his book The Hum of the World is published here with kind permission of the author and his publisher University of California Press.