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TEDxAmsterdam

Claron McFadden: Singing the primal mystery

November 11, 2010

"The human voice: mysterious, spontaneous, primal." With these words, soprano Claron McFadden invites us to explore the mysteries of breathing and singing, as she performs the challenging "Aria," by John Cage. (Filmed at TEDxAmsterdam.)

Claron McFadden - Soprano
Amsterdam-based singer Claron McFadden sings many of the major oratorio works, but is perhaps best known for her readings of modern and contemporary music. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
(Applause)
00:15
(Singing)
00:17
(Applause)
02:17
Host: Folks, you've just met Claron McFadden.
02:26
She is a world-class soprano singer
02:29
who studied in Rochester, New York.
02:32
Her celebrated operatic roles
02:34
are numerous and varied.
02:36
In August 2007,
02:38
Claron was awarded the Amsterdam Prize for the Arts,
02:40
winning praise for her brilliance,
02:43
her amazing and extensively wide repertoire
02:45
and her vivid stage personality.
02:48
Please welcome Claron McFadden.
02:51
(Applause)
02:53
Claron McFadden: The human voice:
03:04
mysterious, spontaneous,
03:07
primal.
03:10
For me, the human voice
03:12
is the vessel on which all emotions travel --
03:14
except perhaps jealousy.
03:17
And the breath,
03:21
the breath is the captain of that vessel.
03:23
A child is born,
03:27
takes its first breath --
03:30
(Breathing)
03:33
and we behold the wondrous beauty
03:40
of vocal expression --
03:44
mysterious, spontaneous
03:47
and primal.
03:50
A few years ago, I did a meditation retreat in Thailand.
03:53
I wanted a place
03:56
that I would have total silence
03:58
and total solitude.
04:01
I spent two weeks at this retreat
04:03
in my own little hut --
04:06
no music, no nothing, sounds of nature --
04:08
trying to find the essence
04:11
of concentration,
04:13
being in the moment.
04:15
On my last day,
04:17
the woman who looked after the place,
04:19
she came and we spoke for a minute,
04:22
and then she said to me,
04:24
"Would you sing something for me?"
04:27
And I thought, but this is a place of total quiet and silence.
04:29
I can't make noise.
04:32
She said, "Please, sing for me."
04:35
So I closed my eyes,
04:39
I took breath
04:41
and the first thing that came up and out
04:44
was "Summertime," Porgy and Bess.
04:48
♫ Summertime and the living is easy ♫
04:52
♫ Fish are jumping and the cotton is high ♫
04:57
♫ Oh, your daddy's rich and your ma is good-looking ♫
05:00
♫ So hush little baby ♫
05:04
♫ Don't you cry ♫
05:06
And I opened my eyes,
05:09
and I saw that she had her eyes closed.
05:12
And after a moment, she opened her eyes
05:15
and she looked at me and she said,
05:17
"It's like meditation."
05:20
And in that moment I understood
05:23
that everything I had gone to Thailand to look for,
05:25
to search for,
05:28
I had it already in my singing --
05:30
the calm, but alertness,
05:34
the focus, but awareness,
05:38
and being totally in the moment.
05:41
When you're totally in the moment,
05:45
when I'm totally in the moment,
05:47
the vessel of expression is open.
05:49
The emotions can flow
05:51
from me to you
05:53
and back.
05:55
Extremely profound experience.
05:57
There's a piece by a composer,
06:01
an American composer called John Cage.
06:03
It's called "Aria."
06:06
It was written for an amazing singer
06:08
called Cathy Berberian.
06:10
And the thing about this piece that's so special --
06:13
if you see it behind me --
06:16
it's not notated in any way.
06:18
No notes, no flats, no sharps.
06:22
But it's a kind of structure,
06:25
and the singer within this structure
06:28
has total freedom
06:30
to be creative, spontaneous.
06:32
For example,
06:35
there are different colors
06:37
and each color gets a different type of singing --
06:39
pop, country and western, opera, jazz --
06:43
and you just have to be consistent with that color.
06:47
You see there are different lines:
06:51
you choose in your own tempo in your own way
06:53
to follow the line,
06:55
but you must respect it, more or less.
06:57
And these little dots,
07:01
these represent
07:03
a sort of sound
07:05
that's not a vocal, not a lyrical way
07:08
of expressing the voice.
07:11
Using the body -- it could be sneezing, it could be coughing,
07:13
it could be animals -- (cough) exactly --
07:16
clapping, whatever.
07:19
And there's different text.
07:22
There's Armenian, Russian,
07:24
French, English, Italian.
07:26
So within this structure one is free.
07:29
To me, this piece is an ode to the voice
07:32
because it's mysterious -- as we can see --
07:36
it's quite spontaneous,
07:41
and it's primal.
07:44
So I would like to share this piece with you.
07:47
It's "Aria" of John Cage.
07:49
(Singing)
07:59
♫ No other way ♫
08:38
♫ Dans l'espace, so help ♫
08:40
(Singing)
08:43
♫ To have the fruits ♫
09:48
(Singing)
09:50
(Applause)
10:32

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Claron McFadden - Soprano
Amsterdam-based singer Claron McFadden sings many of the major oratorio works, but is perhaps best known for her readings of modern and contemporary music.

Why you should listen

Claron McFadden is a soprano who studied voice at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Her celebrated operatic roles are numerous and varied. She sings many of the major oratorio works, but is also in demand for her interpretation of modern and contemporary music.

Her many recordings include Birtwistle's Paul Cèlan Songs, Haydn's Orfeo and Handel's Alexander Balus with the King’s Consort. In August 2007 McFadden was awarded the Amsterdam Prize of the Arts, winning praise for her brilliant coloratura, her wide repertoire ranging from Monteverdi to Bernstein and contemporary composers, and her vivid stage personality.

The original video is available on TED.com
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