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TED Fellows Retreat 2015

Meklit Hadero: The unexpected beauty of everyday sounds

August 28, 2015

Using examples from birdsong, the natural lilt of emphatic language and even a cooking pan lid, singer-songwriter and TED Fellow Meklit Hadero shows how the everyday soundscape, even silence, makes music. "The world is alive with musical expression," she says. "We are already immersed."

Meklit Hadero - Singer-songwriter
Meklit Hadero is an Ethiopian-American singer-songwriter living the cultural in-between, both in her own luminous compositions and as a co-founder of the Nile Project. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
As a singer-songwriter,
00:13
people often ask me about my influences
or, as I like to call them,
00:15
my sonic lineages.
00:18
And I could easily tell you
00:21
that I was shaped by the jazz
and hip hop that I grew up with,
00:23
by the Ethiopian heritage of my ancestors,
00:26
or by the 1980s pop
on my childhood radio stations.
00:29
But beyond genre,
there is another question:
00:33
how do the sounds we hear every day
influence the music that we make?
00:37
I believe that everyday soundscape
00:42
can be the most unexpected
inspiration for songwriting,
00:44
and to look at this idea
a little bit more closely,
00:47
I'm going to talk today
about three things:
00:50
nature, language and silence --
00:52
or rather, the impossibility
of true silence.
00:55
And through this I hope to give you
a sense of a world
00:59
already alive with musical expression,
01:02
with each of us serving
as active participants,
01:05
whether we know it or not.
01:09
I'm going to start today with nature,
but before we do that,
01:11
let's quickly listen to this snippet
of an opera singer warming up.
01:14
Here it is.
01:18
(Singing)
01:20
(Singing ends)
01:35
It's beautiful, isn't it?
01:37
Gotcha!
01:40
That is actually not the sound
of an opera singer warming up.
01:41
That is the sound of a bird
01:44
slowed down to a pace
01:47
that the human ear mistakenly
recognizes as its own.
01:49
It was released as part of Peter Szöke's
1987 Hungarian recording
01:53
"The Unknown Music of Birds,"
01:58
where he records many birds
and slows down their pitches
02:01
to reveal what's underneath.
02:04
Let's listen to the full-speed recording.
02:07
(Bird singing)
02:11
Now, let's hear the two of them together
02:15
so your brain can juxtapose them.
02:17
(Bird singing at slow then full speed)
02:19
(Singing ends)
02:38
It's incredible.
02:41
Perhaps the techniques of opera singing
were inspired by birdsong.
02:43
As humans, we intuitively understand birds
to be our musical teachers.
02:48
In Ethiopia, birds
are considered an integral part
02:54
of the origin of music itself.
02:57
The story goes like this:
03:00
1,500 years ago, a young man
was born in the Empire of Aksum,
03:03
a major trading center
of the ancient world.
03:08
His name was Yared.
03:11
When Yared was seven years old
his father died,
03:14
and his mother sent him to go live
with an uncle, who was a priest
03:17
of the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition,
03:21
one of the oldest churches in the world.
03:23
Now, this tradition has an enormous amount
of scholarship and learning,
03:26
and Yared had to study and study
and study and study,
03:30
and one day he was studying under a tree,
03:33
when three birds came to him.
03:35
One by one, these birds
became his teachers.
03:39
They taught him music -- scales, in fact.
03:42
And Yared, eventually
recognized as Saint Yared,
03:47
used these scales to compose
five volumes of chants and hymns
03:49
for worship and celebration.
03:54
And he used these scales
to compose and to create
03:56
an indigenous musical notation system.
03:59
And these scales evolved
into what is known as kiñit,
04:03
the unique, pentatonic, five-note,
modal system that is very much alive
04:07
and thriving and still evolving
in Ethiopia today.
04:13
Now, I love this story because
it's true at multiple levels.
04:18
Saint Yared was a real, historical figure,
04:21
and the natural world
can be our musical teacher.
04:24
And we have so many examples of this:
04:28
the Pygmies of the Congo
tune their instruments
04:31
to the pitches of the birds
in the forest around them.
04:33
Musician and natural soundscape
expert Bernie Krause describes
04:36
how a healthy environment
has animals and insects
04:39
taking up low, medium
and high-frequency bands,
04:42
in exactly the same way
as a symphony does.
04:46
And countless works of music
were inspired by bird and forest song.
04:49
Yes, the natural world
can be our cultural teacher.
04:54
So let's go now to the uniquely
human world of language.
05:00
Every language communicates
with pitch to varying degrees,
05:04
whether it's Mandarin Chinese,
05:08
where a shift in melodic inflection
gives the same phonetic syllable
05:09
an entirely different meaning,
05:13
to a language like English,
05:15
where a raised pitch
at the end of a sentence ...
05:16
(Going up in pitch) implies a question?
05:19
(Laughter)
05:21
As an Ethiopian-American woman,
05:22
I grew up around the language
of Amharic, Amhariña.
05:24
It was my first language,
the language of my parents,
05:26
one of the main languages of Ethiopia.
05:29
And there are a million reasons
to fall in love with this language:
05:32
its depth of poetics,
its double entendres,
05:35
its wax and gold, its humor,
05:38
its proverbs that illuminate
the wisdom and follies of life.
05:41
But there's also this melodicism,
a musicality built right in.
05:45
And I find this distilled most clearly
05:50
in what I like to call
emphatic language --
05:52
language that's meant
to highlight or underline
05:54
or that springs from surprise.
05:57
Take, for example, the word: "indey."
05:59
Now, if there are Ethiopians
in the audience,
06:03
they're probably chuckling to themselves,
06:05
because the word means
something like "No!"
06:07
or "How could he?" or "No, he didn't."
06:09
It kind of depends on the situation.
06:11
But when I was a kid,
this was my very favorite word,
06:13
and I think it's because it has a pitch.
06:17
It has a melody.
06:20
You can almost see the shape
as it springs from someone's mouth.
06:21
"Indey" -- it dips, and then raises again.
06:24
And as a musician and composer,
when I hear that word,
06:28
something like this
is floating through my mind.
06:31
(Music and singing "Indey")
06:35
(Music ends)
06:45
Or take, for example, the phrase
for "It is right" or "It is correct" --
06:48
"Lickih nehu ... Lickih nehu."
06:52
It's an affirmation, an agreement.
06:54
"Lickih nehu."
06:56
When I hear that phrase,
06:57
something like this starts rolling
through my mind.
06:59
(Music and singing "Lickih nehu")
07:03
(Music ends)
07:11
And in both of those cases,
what I did was I took the melody
07:14
and the phrasing
of those words and phrases
07:16
and I turned them into musical parts
to use in these short compositions.
07:19
And I like to write bass lines,
07:24
so they both ended up
kind of as bass lines.
07:25
Now, this is based on the work
of Jason Moran and others
07:29
who work intimately
with music and language,
07:31
but it's also something I've had
in my head since I was a kid,
07:34
how musical my parents sounded
07:37
when they were speaking
to each other and to us.
07:39
It was from them
and from Amhariña that I learned
07:43
that we are awash in musical expression
07:46
with every word,
every sentence that we speak,
07:49
every word, every sentence
that we receive.
07:51
Perhaps you can hear it
in the words I'm speaking even now.
07:54
Finally, we go to the 1950s United States
08:00
and the most seminal work
of 20th century avant-garde composition:
08:02
John Cage's "4:33,"
08:06
written for any instrument
or combination of instruments.
08:08
The musician or musicians are invited
to walk onto the stage
08:12
with a stopwatch and open the score,
08:16
which was actually purchased
by the Museum of Modern Art --
08:19
the score, that is.
08:22
And this score has not
a single note written
08:24
and there is not a single note played
08:27
for four minutes and 33 seconds.
08:30
And, at once enraging and enrapturing,
08:34
Cage shows us that even
when there are no strings
08:39
being plucked by fingers
or hands hammering piano keys,
08:41
still there is music,
still there is music,
08:47
still there is music.
08:49
And what is this music?
08:51
It was that sneeze in the back.
08:54
(Laughter)
08:56
It is the everyday soundscape
that arises from the audience themselves:
08:58
their coughs, their sighs, their rustles,
their whispers, their sneezes,
09:03
the room, the wood
of the floors and the walls
09:07
expanding and contracting,
creaking and groaning
09:10
with the heat and the cold,
09:12
the pipes clanking and contributing.
09:14
And controversial though it was,
and even controversial though it remains,
09:19
Cage's point is that there is no
such thing as true silence.
09:22
Even in the most silent environments,
we still hear and feel the sound
09:27
of our own heartbeats.
09:32
The world is alive
with musical expression.
09:34
We are already immersed.
09:38
Now, I had my own moment of,
let's say, remixing John Cage
09:42
a couple of months ago
09:45
when I was standing
in front of the stove cooking lentils.
09:47
And it was late one night
and it was time to stir,
09:50
so I lifted the lid off the cooking pot,
09:53
and I placed it onto
the kitchen counter next to me,
09:55
and it started to roll back and forth
09:58
making this sound.
10:00
(Sound of metal lid
clanking against a counter)
10:04
(Clanking ends)
10:10
And it stopped me cold.
10:13
I thought, "What a weird, cool swing
that cooking pan lid has."
10:15
So when the lentils were ready and eaten,
10:22
I hightailed it to my backyard studio,
10:26
and I made this.
10:30
(Music, including the sound
of the lid, and singing)
10:33
(Music ends)
10:50
Now, John Cage
wasn't instructing musicians
10:52
to mine the soundscape
for sonic textures to turn into music.
10:54
He was saying that on its own,
10:58
the environment is musically generative,
11:01
that it is generous, that it is fertile,
11:05
that we are already immersed.
11:09
Musician, music researcher, surgeon
and human hearing expert Charles Limb
11:12
is a professor at Johns Hopkins University
11:18
and he studies music and the brain.
11:20
And he has a theory
11:24
that it is possible -- it is possible --
11:27
that the human auditory system
actually evolved to hear music,
11:30
because it is so much more complex
than it needs to be for language alone.
11:35
And if that's true,
11:41
it means that we're hard-wired for music,
11:43
that we can find it anywhere,
11:46
that there is no such thing
as a musical desert,
11:48
that we are permanently
hanging out at the oasis,
11:51
and that is marvelous.
11:55
We can add to the soundtrack,
but it's already playing.
11:57
And it doesn't mean don't study music.
12:02
Study music, trace your sonic lineages
and enjoy that exploration.
12:03
But there is a kind of sonic lineage
to which we all belong.
12:09
So the next time you are seeking
percussion inspiration,
12:14
look no further than your tires,
as they roll over the unusual grooves
12:16
of the freeway,
12:20
or the top-right burner of your stove
12:21
and that strange way that it clicks
12:24
as it is preparing to light.
12:25
When seeking melodic inspiration,
12:28
look no further than dawn
and dusk avian orchestras
12:30
or to the natural lilt
of emphatic language.
12:33
We are the audience
and we are the composers
12:36
and we take from these pieces
12:39
we are given.
12:41
We make, we make, we make, we make,
12:42
knowing that when it comes to nature
or language or soundscape,
12:44
there is no end to the inspiration --
12:49
if we are listening.
12:52
Thank you.
12:55
(Applause)
12:56

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Meklit Hadero - Singer-songwriter
Meklit Hadero is an Ethiopian-American singer-songwriter living the cultural in-between, both in her own luminous compositions and as a co-founder of the Nile Project.

Why you should listen

Meklit Hadero's music is imbued with poetry and multiplicity, from hybridized sounds of Tizita (haunting and nostalgic music) drawing from her Ethiopian heritage, to the annals of jazz, folk songs and rock & roll. Hadero describes her music as emanating from “in-between spaces,” and the result is a smoky, evocative world peopled by strong bass, world instruments and her soothing voice.

In the Nile Project, founded along with Egyptian ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis, Hadero set out to explore the music of the Nile basin, pulling influences from countries along the river, from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, and finally to Egypt. The project brings together hip-hop, traditional and contemporary music, with instruments and traditions old and new. As she says, "My work on a lot of levels is about multiplicity." Their new record is Aswan

About her own music, here's what people say:

“Soulful, tremulous and strangely cinematic, Meklit’s voice will implant scenes in your mind — a softly lit supperclub, a Brooklyn stoop, a sun-baked road. Close your eyes, listen and dream." -- Seattle Times

"Meklit… combines N.Y. jazz with West Coast folk and African flourishes, all bound together by her beguiling voice, which is part sunshine and part cloudy day.” -- Filter Magazine

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