Meklit Hadero The unexpected beauty of everyday sounds

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Meklit Hadero: The unexpected beauty of everyday sounds Oct 2015


As a singer-songwriter, people often ask me about my influences or, as I like to call them, my sonic lineages. And I could easily tell you that I was shaped by the jazz and hip hop that I grew up with, by the Ethiopian heritage of my ancestors, or by the 1980s pop on my childhood radio stations. But beyond genre, there is another question: how do the sounds we hear every day influence the music that we make? I believe that everyday soundscape can be the most unexpected inspiration for songwriting, and to look at this idea a little bit more closely, I'm going to talk today about three things: nature, language and silence -- or rather, the impossibility of true silence. And through this I hope to give you a sense of a world already alive with musical expression, with each of us serving as active participants, whether we know it or not.


I'm going to start today with nature, but before we do that, let's quickly listen to this snippet of an opera singer warming up. Here it is.




(Singing ends)


It's beautiful, isn't it? Gotcha! That is actually not the sound of an opera singer warming up. That is the sound of a bird slowed down to a pace that the human ear mistakenly recognizes as its own. It was released as part of Peter Szöke's 1987 Hungarian recording "The Unknown Music of Birds," where he records many birds and slows down their pitches to reveal what's underneath. Let's listen to the full-speed recording.


(Bird singing)


Now, let's hear the two of them together so your brain can juxtapose them.


(Bird singing at slow then full speed)


(Singing ends)


It's incredible. Perhaps the techniques of opera singing were inspired by birdsong. As humans, we intuitively understand birds to be our musical teachers.


In Ethiopia, birds are considered an integral part of the origin of music itself. The story goes like this: 1,500 years ago, a young man was born in the Empire of Aksum, a major trading center of the ancient world. His name was Yared. When Yared was seven years old his father died, and his mother sent him to go live with an uncle, who was a priest of the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition, one of the oldest churches in the world. Now, this tradition has an enormous amount of scholarship and learning, and Yared had to study and study and study and study, and one day he was studying under a tree, when three birds came to him. One by one, these birds became his teachers. They taught him music -- scales, in fact. And Yared, eventually recognized as Saint Yared, used these scales to compose five volumes of chants and hymns for worship and celebration. And he used these scales to compose and to create an indigenous musical notation system. And these scales evolved into what is known as kiñit, the unique, pentatonic, five-note, modal system that is very much alive and thriving and still evolving in Ethiopia today.


Now, I love this story because it's true at multiple levels. Saint Yared was a real, historical figure, and the natural world can be our musical teacher. And we have so many examples of this: the Pygmies of the Congo tune their instruments to the pitches of the birds in the forest around them. Musician and natural soundscape expert Bernie Krause describes how a healthy environment has animals and insects taking up low, medium and high-frequency bands, in exactly the same way as a symphony does. And countless works of music were inspired by bird and forest song. Yes, the natural world can be our cultural teacher.


So let's go now to the uniquely human world of language. Every language communicates with pitch to varying degrees, whether it's Mandarin Chinese, where a shift in melodic inflection gives the same phonetic syllable an entirely different meaning, to a language like English, where a raised pitch at the end of a sentence ... (Going up in pitch) implies a question?




As an Ethiopian-American woman, I grew up around the language of Amharic, Amhariña. It was my first language, the language of my parents, one of the main languages of Ethiopia. And there are a million reasons to fall in love with this language: its depth of poetics, its double entendres, its wax and gold, its humor, its proverbs that illuminate the wisdom and follies of life. But there's also this melodicism, a musicality built right in. And I find this distilled most clearly in what I like to call emphatic language -- language that's meant to highlight or underline or that springs from surprise. Take, for example, the word: "indey." Now, if there are Ethiopians in the audience, they're probably chuckling to themselves, because the word means something like "No!" or "How could he?" or "No, he didn't." It kind of depends on the situation. But when I was a kid, this was my very favorite word, and I think it's because it has a pitch. It has a melody. You can almost see the shape as it springs from someone's mouth. "Indey" -- it dips, and then raises again. And as a musician and composer, when I hear that word, something like this is floating through my mind.


(Music and singing "Indey")


(Music ends)


Or take, for example, the phrase for "It is right" or "It is correct" -- "Lickih nehu ... Lickih nehu." It's an affirmation, an agreement. "Lickih nehu." When I hear that phrase, something like this starts rolling through my mind.


(Music and singing "Lickih nehu")


(Music ends)


And in both of those cases, what I did was I took the melody and the phrasing of those words and phrases and I turned them into musical parts to use in these short compositions. And I like to write bass lines, so they both ended up kind of as bass lines.


Now, this is based on the work of Jason Moran and others who work intimately with music and language, but it's also something I've had in my head since I was a kid, how musical my parents sounded when they were speaking to each other and to us. It was from them and from Amhariña that I learned that we are awash in musical expression with every word, every sentence that we speak, every word, every sentence that we receive. Perhaps you can hear it in the words I'm speaking even now.


Finally, we go to the 1950s United States and the most seminal work of 20th century avant-garde composition: John Cage's "4:33," written for any instrument or combination of instruments. The musician or musicians are invited to walk onto the stage with a stopwatch and open the score, which was actually purchased by the Museum of Modern Art -- the score, that is. And this score has not a single note written and there is not a single note played for four minutes and 33 seconds. And, at once enraging and enrapturing, Cage shows us that even when there are no strings being plucked by fingers or hands hammering piano keys, still there is music, still there is music, still there is music. And what is this music? It was that sneeze in the back.




It is the everyday soundscape that arises from the audience themselves: their coughs, their sighs, their rustles, their whispers, their sneezes, the room, the wood of the floors and the walls expanding and contracting, creaking and groaning with the heat and the cold, the pipes clanking and contributing. And controversial though it was, and even controversial though it remains, Cage's point is that there is no such thing as true silence. Even in the most silent environments, we still hear and feel the sound of our own heartbeats. The world is alive with musical expression. We are already immersed.


Now, I had my own moment of, let's say, remixing John Cage a couple of months ago when I was standing in front of the stove cooking lentils. And it was late one night and it was time to stir, so I lifted the lid off the cooking pot, and I placed it onto the kitchen counter next to me, and it started to roll back and forth making this sound.


(Sound of metal lid clanking against a counter)


(Clanking ends)


And it stopped me cold. I thought, "What a weird, cool swing that cooking pan lid has." So when the lentils were ready and eaten, I hightailed it to my backyard studio, and I made this.


(Music, including the sound of the lid, and singing)


(Music ends)


Now, John Cage wasn't instructing musicians to mine the soundscape for sonic textures to turn into music. He was saying that on its own, the environment is musically generative, that it is generous, that it is fertile, that we are already immersed.


Musician, music researcher, surgeon and human hearing expert Charles Limb is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and he studies music and the brain. And he has a theory that it is possible -- it is possible -- that the human auditory system actually evolved to hear music, because it is so much more complex than it needs to be for language alone. And if that's true, it means that we're hard-wired for music, that we can find it anywhere, that there is no such thing as a musical desert, that we are permanently hanging out at the oasis, and that is marvelous. We can add to the soundtrack, but it's already playing.


And it doesn't mean don't study music. Study music, trace your sonic lineages and enjoy that exploration. But there is a kind of sonic lineage to which we all belong. So the next time you are seeking percussion inspiration, look no further than your tires, as they roll over the unusual grooves of the freeway, or the top-right burner of your stove and that strange way that it clicks as it is preparing to light. When seeking melodic inspiration, look no further than dawn and dusk avian orchestras or to the natural lilt of emphatic language. We are the audience and we are the composers and we take from these pieces we are given. We make, we make, we make, we make, knowing that when it comes to nature or language or soundscape, there is no end to the inspiration -- if we are listening.


Thank you.



  • 时长:13.1分钟
  • 来源:TED 2016-06-15