Week 23: “Vocalise” by Rachmaninov (as performed by Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma)

Family road trips have changed over the years. Today, things like iPods, PSP’s, and TV screens embedded into headrests make long car trips much quieter than they used to be, if perhaps more disconnected. When I was a kid, no such luxuries existed, and so we depended for entertainment on a collection of audio cassettes, democratically chosen so that no matter what was playing, everyone disliked it equally.  Our line-up of holiday tapes was therefore pretty eccentric; it included Paul Simon, the Nylons, a Welsh folk group from the 60s, a bit of classical, and Bobby McFerrin.

We first discovered Bobby McFerrin when he broke through with “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, a song that my mother found delightful, but which has always been at the top of my list of nominees for Most Annoying Song in the Universe. Don’t get me wrong; I think Bobby McFerrin’s a brilliant musician. When it comes to making music out of hiccups, nobody’s better. But when he put out a collaboration album with cellist Yo-Yo Ma in 1992 and it immediately joined our holiday rotation, I was not thrilled.

But then we listened to it, and I was captivated. I don’t think our red Hyundai Pony had ever had such great music come from its cheap little speakers. And the tune that got me the most was their version of Rachmaninov’s “Vocalise”.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Yo-Yo’s performance. It doesn’t seem fair that some people are blessed with extreme skill AND a cool name.

2. Bobby and Yo-Yo trading the melody. They do this all over the album, notably on a Bach prelude. I like it here because McFerrin sings the line so delicately, showing that he doesn’t have to rely on vocal tricks to grab your ear.

3. The way the chords keep sinking. Bobby and Yo-Yo give a great performance, but let’s not forget about the composer. For much of the song, the lower cello part is perpetually falling by whole tones, while the melody follows the downward trend with its lilting motif, like honey dripping down a wall. Then, near the end, a moment of hopefulness as the volume rises along with the cello’s melodic line…but rather than living happily ever after, Rachmaninov leaves us on the non-committal, neither-major-nor-minor first and fifth of the chord.

Recommended listening activity:

Looking out the window on a long car trip and watching the telephone poles go by.

Buy it here.