[lg policy] Echoes of Languages No Longer Heard

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Mon Apr 1 15:12:14 UTC 2013

Echoes of Languages No Longer Heard

The “Vanishing Languages” project by Kevin James, a New York-based
trombonist and composer, is a rare hybrid of conservation effort and
memorial, new music and ancient languages. Prodded by Unesco statistics
that predict that by the end of the century half of the world’s 6,000
languages will be extinct, Mr. James spent months in the field tracking
down and recording the last remaining speakers of four critically
endangered tongues: Hokkaido Ainu, an aboriginal language from northern
Japan, the American Indian Quileute from western Washington, and Dalabon
and Jawoyn, aboriginal languages from Arnhem Land in Australia.

On Friday evening the enigmatic sounds of Ainu and Quileute filled the
space at Roulette in Downtown Brooklyn in performances of two works that
were as haunting as they were riveting. Both mixed recorded voices, ambient
sounds and electronica with a live score performed by a roster of virtuosic
and adventurous new-music ensembles. The string quartet Ethel performed
“Ainu Inuma;” for “Counting in Quileute” its players joined the Australian
trio Speak Percussion and the [kaj] ensemble (pronounced “cage”) made up of
woodwind, brass and string players.

The program provided no printed transcriptions of the streams of foreign
words that came in sputters and torrents out of the speakers surrounding
the audience and blended in and out of the music. When pressed by an
audience member during a short discussion Mr. James revealed only that one
of the women heard during “Ainu Inuma” was giving a cooking demonstration.
But since the last fluent speaker of Ainu died seven years ago, and the two
remaining Quileute speakers “don’t like each other,” according to Mr.
James, even the most prosaic words take on the hermetic mystery the
Egyptian hieroglyphs held before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.

While much of Mr. James’s music possesses a mournful quality with keening
glissandos, ghostly harmonics and wobbly cello notes that echo the brittle
voices of the very old, it also manages to convey his fascination with the
surface beauty of language. Both pieces call on performers to mimic speech
on their instruments with extended technique and constant fluctuations of
speed and meter.

In “Ainu Inuma” players also imitated the sound of a type of bamboo jaw
harp played by the Ainu by striking the strings with the wooden side of
their bows. The singing and moaning sounds of Dorothy Lawson’s cello were
sometimes so close to the voice of of one female speaker that she became in
effect her body double.

“Counting in Quileute,” which opens with bells struck and bowed and swung
in the air, and ends with the ring of a Buddhist prayer bowl had a strong
ritualistic feel to it. The often puzzling actions of the players —
flutists whispering into mouthpieces, a cellist tapping with both hands on
the fingerboard as if playing a recorder — appeared like a secret
choreography designed to bring forth the voices of the dead filtered
through the crackle of old phonographs.

The imperfections of these old recordings, which Mr. James used alongside
those he made recently in the field, show how heavily smudged the window is
that we have on these vanishing cultures. And yet at times it seemed as if
it were these voices who were willing the performance into existence.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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