A singer initially inspired, as were so many others, by the great jazz vocalist Sarah Vaughan, the soprano Claron McFadden ultimately pursued a very different artistic path. Born in New York City and trained at the Eastman School of Music, McFadden relocated to the Netherlands after graduation. She quickly established herself as a force to reckon with in both the early-music and new-music worlds, performing to critical and popular acclaim in repertoire ranging from Bach and Rameau via Berg and Poulenc to Harrison Birtwistle and Michel van der Aa.
But McFadden never lost her taste for the spontaneity and adventure of jazz. In Secrets, a multimedia theatrical concert she developed with the eclectic Dutch chamber-jazz trio Massot/Florizoone/Horbaczewski, McFadden deploys the breadth of her technique in a virtuosic, whimsical, and moving rumination that brings to light the stories we all hide from the world. In a recent telephone interview, McFadden divulged her secrets about the piece, which comes to National Sawdust January 13 and 14 as part of the Prototype festival.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: How did Secrets come about, initially? What sparked the project’s creation?
CLARON MCFADDEN: I could talk about it all day, but I’ll be concise for you: I was given this book, PostSecret, by Frank Warren. He did a community project where he asked people to put a secret on a postcard that they’d never, ever revealed before, and send it anonymously to a post box. The things that came in were amazing, scary, funny… and they just kept coming. He put them in a book and I got this for my birthday, and I thought, what an amazing idea. At the same time, this idea of what connects us as people: I think we all have secrets. Why can’t we keep them? Somehow, we need to give them a voice. So the inspiration was: what if we, the musicians, actually gave a voice to these secrets? We would be the postcard, as it were, and I would give them the voice. I was particularly interested in senior citizens, because they don’t have a voice in our society.
How does the piece work, in a literal sense? How do you solicit secrets? And do you tailor the contents of each rendition to its location?
It started off very general… when we performed in the Benelux, it was very much geared toward the elderly. We gave a performance only for the senior citizens, and I thought, well, I’ll kind of focus on their secrets. And then I thought, O.K., if we’re going to other places where it’s a younger audience… basically, we had so many secrets that we had too many we couldn’t put into the performance. We put in as many as we could, basically. So some of them are always in the performance, because they’re part of the animation or part of the projections.
And then we went to Australia, and I thought, maybe we could get secrets from Australians and make it more their show, because some of the secrets were very Brussels-oriented or Dutch-oriented. So the idea was to ask people from Australia if they would give us secrets, and they did, and we put those in the performance. Some of them are composed over – they’re like the lyrics of songs – but for a lot of them I’m basically a storyteller. I’m an instrument like the others, then I step out and tell the secret, and then step back in. So I could replace secrets that deal with people who are 80 or 90 with secrets of somebody who’s very specifically busy with something in Australia, or England. In France we took up more French secrets. We left boxes everywhere, and people were lining up to put their secrets in. When we gave more performances in a certain place, we took the secrets out and put them in the show.
Will the Brooklyn shows incorporate secrets harvested from New Yorkers? Do you solicit these things in advance?
Yes, we did. I spoke with Beth Morrison last May and I asked her, what’s the best way to do it? Do I write a kind of blog blurb, or do you do a mailing, or do we need to set up a secure website, or put a box somewhere in Sawdust? They opened a secure website, and people put them in. She said, we’ll do it a few months before, in September or October, and then I got three batches of secrets. Some of them are stories, some of them are memories, some of them are… I don’t know if I want to talk about Trump being eaten alive. [laughs]
There’s this one instrumental song where we have all these Dutch secrets that we have typed in projections onscreen. We’ve taken those out, and we’ll put the secrets that we’ve gotten, and then some of the one-liners. As far as I can tell, most of what we got, we can use.
Does the music in Secrets change in any way from show to show? Is there a format or template into which the texts fit, more or less interchangeably?
There is a format. The original idea I had was that the secret itself will tell me which musical context it needs. We did a three-day laboratory. We worked all day. They came with music, and I had a pile of secrets. They’d play something, and I’d think, well, that has a kind of melancholy feel to it, and it’s a certain form where I could make this secret work very well there. So that’s how we developed it. Of course, they’re an improvising trio, so the next day it could morph as they were improvising into some kind of ska or reggae thing, and I thought, w-w-w-w-wait, wait! Come back to the melancholy! [laughs] I was a little bit the Wicked Witch at certain moments, defending the secrets.
The form basically stays the same, and the secrets change as I’m putting new ones in. And we have certain cues. There’s one piece that basically is a tornado of one-liners, and there’s an animation film. At a certain moment I’m starting to do one-liners, and I force myself to say as many one-liners as I can in a certain amount of time, so that I’m [rapid-fire babble]. I make myself become the tornado. It works better in English, but sometimes I do it in French. And sometimes I trip over my own words, but it’s exciting. It’s very exciting.
The whole concept feels groundbreaking, in that you’re not the composer of Secrets, but you are very much the auteur whose vision structures and animates the show. The concept all comes from you, yes?
Yes, yes, that’s true.
You’re a renowned interpreter of so many different kinds of music. This strikes me as a way in which you can take full control and shape a piece to your needs, talents, and inclinations. How much improvisation is involved in any given performance?
There’s a fair amount of improvisation from the musicians. I improvise as well. But as far as telling the secrets, I try to keep them as pure as possible, so I don’t improvise with them. I spoke with a psychologist who specializes in secrets about this, and he came to a performance. He said, “It’s amazing that you give just the right amount of life to them, without putting your own interpretation on them; you’re pure enough and distant enough so that people can fill them in.” If I start doing too much improvisation with them, then it becomes me, Claron, adding some kind of thing.
For example, there’s one secret where there’s only two words that somebody says, “Do it.” And I don’t know how she said those two words, because the secret was typed. How do I say those words? How do I tell the story? I could say it in a way that would make whoever said them look like a martyr, or look like a hero. And that was the thing the psychologist was saying: “You find a way of telling the story so that it comes to life, but without passing judgment on it.” And that’s the thing that inspires me. So there is improvisation, but it’s pretty structured, because we have some visuals that we project behind us, so you’re a little bit bound by certain things.
How does the visual component relate to what you’re doing live onstage?
We didn’t have a director for this, it was more like a concert, so it was a little bit up to me and the technical guy to figure it out. We had different ideas about how we wanted things. I thought, if we are in a kind of an industrial space and it’s our last night – you know, the last night of life or the world – and these things are coming out. The original set is this wall that looks like an industrial wall, and through the window you can look outside and see where the moon goes through the night, and there’s the hint of these secrets going through the night. Some of them are specific kinds of inner reflections; for example, there’s one secret, one song, that deals very much with isolation… they hear voices in their head. I thought of the image of having somebody inside a house, and there’s raindrops on a window: that just sort of reflects this feeling of isolation.
Because there were many different languages and we didn’t want to have subtitles, we thought, how can we give people words that they could grab onto? And there’s one secret, our favorite, about an 82-year-old woman who had a special relationship with champagne, and we thought: words floating up, as if they were champagne bubbles. And then, you know, the technician would say, “We should go a bit more,” and it’s like, no, then it starts to look like The Matrix.
So it’s a combination; you can tell three different people had ideas. Tuur [Florizoone], the accordion player, likes films very much, so we have one film… he said, “It’s like you feel these people in a ballroom, and they’re dancing, but they all have secrets.” It’s a bit film noir. So you have the more computer-generated things, images from me that are more reflections of an inner world, and Tuur with the more film-esque kinds of things.
The band you’re working with is quite unique. How did you come to be associated with these instrumentalists?
I knew the trombone and tuba player [Michel Massot] from a long time ago – we’d worked together on a project. And I met Tuur, the accordion player, at the birthday party of a famous trumpet player in Holland; we were playing for his birthday, and we had a mutual “I like you; I want to work with you.” They invited me to do a concert tour with them: 15 shows, that’s it. And then we involved [Muziektheater] Transparant – we thought about having a slightly more theatrical element.
It’s a difficult group, because they’re like a giant amoeba: they keep morphing and shaping and twisting the music. For me, it was very frustrating, because I wasn’t used to working that way. As I said, I would come with a secret that fit this idea. And then they would say, “O.K., let’s try it with you taking the inner voice, and the trombone takes the melody, and the tuba…” – you know, that kind of thing, and then it would become something completely different. I kept thinking, “So, what’s the form, again?” [laughs]
Slowly but surely, it grew into something that worked really, really well. They’re a force to be reckoned with, because they each have their specific task in the trio, which is why I think it works so well: two men with very strong personalities, and then the kind of peacemaker cellist in the middle – but she’s strong, as well. They have very specific kinds of musical language, so you can hear also which pieces were written by Tuur – he has more of a cinematic kind of feel, this kind of melancholy, cinematic feel that they have, and they improvise within that. It’s not really jazz, but it is very live.
Your original musical inspiration was Sarah Vaughan, so that’s one direction that your career might have taken. But then you went in some very different directions, becoming immersed in both the early-music world and the new-music world. This piece seems to accommodate the diversity that your career path has embraced; from a technical perspective, it touches on much of what you’ve done before, and then goes further still. Was that by design, or was it serendipity? Well, maybe a little of both. I mean, I think… maybe it was serendipity. I’ll have to reflect on that. I didn’t know the trio as such, but when I heard what Tuur was doing, I thought, yeah, this works. Then he sent me a recording of something of theirs, and I just went, I want to work with you. It felt indeed like this was the platform on which I could do everything. And I do everything: I’m the singer, I’m one of the accompanists, I’m filler. There’s a lot going on there, so I’m very happy. Plus, it’s something that has a concept to it, but it’s still not a theater piece.
Given that Secrets is made up of disparate parts and perspectives by design, what’s your desired takeaway? What are you trying to evoke or convey with the show in its entirety?
In a nutshell, that as human beings there’s more that connects us than divides us. What happens is, somebody comes to this performance and you have every emotion that’s in there, but halfway through the show, somebody’s going, “What are my secrets?” Or: “That could be my secret.” “I thought I was alone in my feeling” – or my isolation, or my joy, or my sorrow. We all have these things, and that’s the feeling I hope people will come away with.
Protoytpe presents Secrets at National Sawdust Jan. 13 at 7 and 10pm, and Jan. 14 at noon and 5pm; prototypefestival.org