From crop insurance to gender violence, neuroscience to colour-shifting deep sea creatures, TED run lectures on many aspects of life on earth. Based in New York, the first conference happened in California in 1990, which equates to a lot of “ideas worth spreading”. Though music hasn’t been particularly well served so far, there are some brilliant culture-related talks out there. Australian singer-songwriter Megan Washington once spoke movingly about her speech impediment, how she lives with it, and why singing is her “sweet relief”. Other music-related speakers recently have included David Byrne, Mark Ronson and Andrew Bird. Here’s nine worth watching:
Goosebump alert! Björk’s favourite TED Talk sees Grammy-nominated composer Eric Whitacre bring together 2,052 beautiful voices in the world’s biggest virtual choir. They sing ‘Sleep’, one of his own works.
The Talking Heads man looks at how environment affects perception of music. Discussing the structure and form of venues such as CBGBs and drawing on his own memories of performing at high-end rooms like Carnegie Hall, he wonders whether artists make music with a context in mind. Byrne is a natural speaker and the talk is full of curious historical facts and ideas.
In March 2014, superproducer Mark Ronson delved into the world of sampling. He starts his talk by splicing together excerpts from his spoken introduction and the TED Talk theme tune to show how a collage of music can create something with a brand new mood and narrative. Later he looks at the history of “sonic layered masterpieces” that are “basically the ‘Sgt. Peppers” of their day”.
Andrew Bird is one of the most imaginative and innovative composers working today, constantly bringing in different sounds and techniques to create music. He starts his talk by looping together layers of different instruments, vocals and whistles before explaining exactly what he’s doing. It’s a dynamic demonstration that potential one-man orchestras would do well to watch.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian novelist, gave a powerful talk about feminism in April 2013. If you haven’t heard it already, you might recognise her voice from Beyoncé’s self-titled album released at the end of last year. The singer sampled Adichie’s passionate call for equality of the sexes in culture and a rebuttal of gender expectations, on her track ‘Flawless’. Adiche’s powerful words became the backbone for one of the most empowering albums of 2013 with cultural repercussions beyond her talk. It’s well worth listening to in full.
“I got kicked out of school in Year 10 and no other schools would take me,” starts Ben Drew aka Plan B at the beginning of his TED Talk. He speaks about trying to reach out to underprivileged children through his first album and how hip-hop became his personal positive motive. It’s a thoughtful speech from one of the very few contemporary political artists in the UK.
OK Go are famous for their sophisticated, viral music videos. You’ve probably seen the Mousetrap-style spectacle for ‘This Too Shall Pass’ (2010) and this talk looks at how it was made. Adam Sadowsky and his team made a complicated machine called the Rube Goldberg machine to create Mousetrap squared, cubed, and then cubed again. It’s a tale of focussed engineering and one of the most ground-breaking visual accompaniments to 00s music.
Emmanuel Jal was a child soldier in Sudan. He was rescued by an aid worker after five years of fighting and later became an international hip-hop artist and activist for children in war zones. It’s an extraordinary story of hope told through his personal testimony and spoken word.
The theremin was invented in 1928 and has since featured on musical works by artists as diverse as Hawkwind, St Vincent, Led Zeppelin, Bill Bailey and Portishead. Watching theremin maestro Pamelia Kurstin play it is surreally futuristic and hypnotic because of the lack of contact. She shows and explains how the instrument can be played away from the traditionally expected sci-fi sounds.