Extinct Language Music

The Unesco Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger is a melancholy document, charting the 3,000 or so languages that experts predict will vanish by the end of this century.

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The Unesco Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger is a melancholy document, charting the 3,000 or so languages that experts predict will vanish by the end of this century. For the most part, ethnographers and linguists are helpless in the face of the gradual erasure of collective memory that goes along with this loss of linguistic diversity.

Time to call in the composers?

A growing number of them are turning their attention to languages that are extinct, endangered or particular to tiny groups of speakers in far-flung places with the aim of weaving these enigmatic utterances into musical works that celebrate, memorialize or mourn the languages and the cultures that gave birth to them. On Saturday, April 9, at the Cologne Opera in Germany, the Australian composer Liza Lim unveils her opera “Tree of Codes,” which includes snippets of a Turkish whistling language from a small mountain village. On her most recent album, “The Stone People,” the pianist Lisa Moore sings and plays Martin Bresnick’s hypnotic “Ishi’s Song,” a setting of a chant by the last member of the Yahi, who died in 1916.

In February the New York Philharmonic performed Tan Dun’s multimedia symphony “Nu Shu,” the result of the composer’s research into a language and writing system that was passed down among the female inhabitants of a small village in Hunan Province in China for 700 years. Other composers who have done their own fieldwork include Vivian Fung, who investigated minority cultures in the Chinese province of Yunnan, and Kevin James, who sought out some of the last native speakers of minority languages in the Pacific Northwest, Australia and Japan.

The aesthetic uses to which the composers put these rare languages vary. Still, Mr. James, the founder of the Vanishing Languages Project, seemed to speak for most when, in a recent interview, he said that the goal was “not to set them to music, but set them as music.”

In a phone interview, Ms. Lim said that what drew her to out-of-the-way languages in her coming opera and in her dazzlingly polyglot “Mother Tongue” (2005) for soprano and ensemble was “not so much ‘Oh, here’s a cool language.’”

Rather, she said, different languages open up new ways of thinking about the human body as a “total mechanism” for vocal expression, “running the whole range from really guttural sounds and breaths through resonant tones, all as a really powerful communicative vehicle that allows us to travel through emotional and psychological states.”

A whistling language like that quoted in “Tree of Codes,” she said, speaks to “how we humans adapt to and interact with our environment, not being separate, but really being in a merged relationship with everything around us.”

That positive attitude sets Ms. Lim apart from some of the other musical-linguistic ventures. Most are marked by a sense of loss and melancholy. A work like Mr. James’s “Counting in Quileute,” which blends his own field recordings of the last native speakers of an American Indian language from western Washington State is like a time capsule shot into space — except the meaning was already opaque at the time of its sealing.

At a performance of “Counting in Quileute” in 2013 at Roulette in Downtown Brooklyn, a set of speakers encircling the audience created an immersive and disorienting experience as torrents of foreign words washed over listeners and merged with breathy and brittle sounds created live by an instrumental ensemble.

It’s an important distinction. Classical music has proved adept at preserving a language like Latin through liturgical settings that expose listeners to a language they no longer encounter in spoken form. But works like Mozart’s Requiem or Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” with its sections in Middle High German, sprang from the same cultural soil that gave birth to their texts. By contrast, when composers reach for words that are unintelligible to all but a handful of speakers on the planet, the very notion of music as a vessel for semantic content is upended. Removed from all context and understanding, speech — a constellation of rhythm and melody, resonant vowels and percussive consonants — begins to resemble music.

In a phone interview, Ms. Lim said that what drew her to out-of-the-way languages in her coming opera and in her dazzlingly polyglot “Mother Tongue” (2005) for soprano and ensemble was “not so much ‘Oh, here’s a cool language.’”

Rather, she said, different languages open up new ways of thinking about the human body as a “total mechanism” for vocal expression, “running the whole range from really guttural sounds and breaths through resonant tones, all as a really powerful communicative vehicle that allows us to travel through emotional and psychological states.”

A whistling language like that quoted in “Tree of Codes,” she said, speaks to “how we humans adapt to and interact with our environment, not being separate, but really being in a merged relationship with everything around us.”

That positive attitude sets Ms. Lim apart from some of the other musical-linguistic ventures. Most are marked by a sense of loss and melancholy. A work like Mr. James’s “Counting in Quileute,” which blends his own field recordings of the last native speakers of an American Indian language from western Washington State is like a time capsule shot into space — except the meaning was already opaque at the time of its sealing.

At a performance of “Counting in Quileute” in 2013 at Roulette in Downtown Brooklyn, a set of speakers encircling the audience created an immersive and disorienting experience as torrents of foreign words washed over listeners and merged with breathy and brittle sounds created live by an instrumental ensemble.

The millennial gloom hovering over such a project is surely no accident. This fascination with the death throes of minority languages in remote regions seems linked to a wider contemporary anxiety over the degradation of the environment. The wane of linguistic diversity is the cultural equivalent of the loss of ecological diversity and, as such, a natural source of inspiration.

In a phone interview, Mr. Bresnick said it was a television documentary about Ishi, the last member of the Yahi tribe, that inspired his work for piano and voice. He said he related the story to his mother, a fluent Yiddish speaker, who was then 94 years old. “I told her, ‘You’re my Ishi, you’re the last to speak this language,’” he said. “She pointedly looked at me and said: ‘No, you are. Because you still care to know.’”

His setting begins with the pianist’s simultaneously singing and playing the song, which starts out sounding sunny, and naïve. As the voice drops away and the piano continues to reiterate the melody, it takes on an increasingly forlorn and alien feel, the husk of a tune that has long since lost its meaning.

When Mr. James flew to Washington to conduct field research on the Quileute language, he was immediately confronted with its extreme fragility. “The day I arrived, the best speaker was airlifted and taken to hospital,” he recalled. “And the population of native speakers went four to three. The next-best speaker had dementia. And the remaining two were old women who had grown up at a time when they were punished for speaking the language.”

Mr. Tan similarly found himself working against the clock when he set out to investigate Nu Shu culture at the prodding of his father who, as a native of Hunan had heard about this centuries-old women’s language. Some of the remaining speakers were over 100 but in no hurry to let a New York-based composer in on their secret.

When Ms. Fung, a Canadian, traveled through rural southwestern China in 2012 to study the music and language of several mountain tribes, she enlisted the help of a guide who helped her gain access to the homes of villagers where she might be regaled with drinking songs and other impromptu performances after dinner. “A lot of them were shy,” she recalled in a phone interview, “and you’d have to have a meal with them, and drink some moonshine.”

That sort of hands-on field work makes Mr. Tan, Ms. Fung and Mr. James the heirs to Bela Bartok, who traveled the countryside of his native Hungary with an unwieldy Edison phonograph to record and transcribe regional folk songs: the beginning of ethnomusicology. Ethnolinguistics can seem like a natural extension: The last vestiges of some minority languages are preserved as song, and a musical ear can be an advantage in studying the kind of tonal languages prevalent in parts of Asia.

But some professional linguists are watching with unease as artists, journalists and other amateur researchers enter their field. “A lot of people think they can do linguistics,” said Gregory D. S. Anderson, the director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Salem, Ore. “A lot of good-intentioned people can wreak a lot of havoc when you work with these communities that are doubly marginalized and disenfranchised.”

Among his concerns are ethical questions of outsiders’ drawing financial benefit or prestige from such expeditions, or using the recorded voices of the dead in cultures where that is taboo. Mr. James said he explained his intentions in conversations with members of the Quileute tribal council, making sure to “convince them that this use was a meaningful use of the voices of their ancestors.”

Ms. Fung described the process by which the material she gathered on her travels was translated into music as one of filtering and sublimation. She said she was particularly interested in the wide melodic leaps and in a certain shrill and nasal vocal tone she encountered in the speech and songs she studied. Now she’s looking for ways to translate some of these qualities into instrumental chamber music.

“I don’t want to just state a song,” she said. “It’s about finding the parts of the research that speak to me — for example those wide leaps — and filtering it so it becomes mine.”

Mr. Tan, meanwhile, embedded his films of Nu Shu singing into a shimmering orchestral score that features an unusually muscular and assertive solo harp part. “I believe that if a tradition is vanishing something else has to take its place,” he said. “If something is dying there must be a way to incarnate it into something new.”

Adapted from Ny Times.

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18 Comments


  1. languages decreasing, composers using extinct languages, languages soon to become extinct difficult to study, studying linguistics not for everyone

    Reply

  2. Languages are disappearing. Composers use dead languages to create music

    Reply

  3. Facing the nearly vanished language, composers use music to capture and preserve these language. These music pieces emphasize not only the characteristics of these languages, but also how these languages interact with the environments.

    Reply

  4. There are many languages that are going extinct but through music some composers have tried to keep them alive. However, not all composers do the language justice in the way the music is played or written.

    Reply

  5. MIP: languages are going extinct, and there is muscial sympathy held at operas as a result. Different languages open up avenues to different ways of thinking and understanding the human psychologically.

    Reply

  6. composers might help to recover languages, eventho it may be hard. These languages will turn to a new form.

    Reply

  7. MI: As some of the world’s languages are dying out, composers are taking to the fieldwork of visiting far-flung corners of the world to find and hear them before they are gone- to create music out of them as a means of memorializing and preserving the languages.
    While some composers are positive about transforming languages into music, others cannot help but give it a gloomy feel- follows with trend of how environment is dying.
    Author discusses difficulties, as well as concern of existence of others who may want to capitalize on the last of these communities.
    Ends on positive note, that music is reflective of language, but also creation of something new.

    Reply

  8. language that goes extinct perserve their culture through composing music. different types of language shows how the human interact with the environment.

    Reply

  9. The disappearance of languages gave reason to many composers to create music out of them. They want these disappearing languages to be remembered. While most composers are well-intentioned, some of them create music that does not accurately remember the language/culture – but rather portrays a gloomy feeling. Author attributes the gloomy feel to the deterioration of the environment.

    Reply

  10. Many languages are disappearing and music is a form that can serve to preserve the language. There are many issues with this idea though. One of them is that language without context is meaningless. Another is that it is very hard to properly collect the information about the older languages, where it is also very difficult to get the remaining members of the language to work to preserve the language. Finally there is also the issue with the complexity of linguistics that may lead to marginalization and other ethical concerns.

    Reply

  11. extinct languages are being revived in music

    Reply

  12. Thousands of languages are going to be extinct by the turn of the century as the world grapples with the loss of linguistic diversity. We are turning to composers and musicians to preserve these languages before they get lost forever. Different languages allow us to experience different emotional and psychological states, and interact with our environment. Classical music has managed to preserve Latin even though it is not commonly spoken, only used in the written form.

    It’s a race against time to preserve these languages before the people who speak them are lost to us forever. Although it’s a good idea that we are preserving languages through song and music, professional linguists are skeptical since not everyone can do linguistics and they might end up doing more harm than good. They might also be doing it just to seek financial benefit or prestige (author disapproves and is concerned). They feel that a new tradition should take the place of a dying tradition so creating music in a way serves to preserve these dying languages.

    Reply

  13. Many languages are near extinction, and the author discusses how those dying languages are translating into music. Shares some insight on the ethical and moral issues of linguists, as well as discussing whether or not the music made with these languages are particularly meaningful

    Reply

  14. fieldwork and research of dying languages – to be used as inspiration and attempt to keep them alive by the composers as they make use of them

    Reply

  15. MIP:
    (1) Languages are being lost
    (2) Composers incorporate lost languages = keep alive
    (3) Ethics of incorporating language

    Tone:
    Neutral

    Reply

  16. Music composers are incorporating nearly extinct languages into their pieces. This seems to be a good way to revive/ preserve these languages, but it may also cause a few issues, such as exploitation of the marginalized or misinterpretations that only professional linguists can avoid. This inclusion of language in music has the ability to transform something old into something more modern.

    Reply

  17. MIP: 1. Lang= vanishing, 2. Composers include lang/cult, 3. Ethical issues of lang in music

    Reply

  18. Many languages are dying. Dying languages are transforming in a new form – music form.

    Reply

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