Music of the Dying Tongue

There is a reason a lot of us enjoy listening to music in languages we do not understand. While the lyrics have meaning to those who understand, those who do not find that the vowels, consonants, the rhythms and sounds unique to the language become part of the music itself. They add to the aesthetic in a way that might appeal to the foreign listener. Recently, several composers have used the musicality of language to capture sound in a special project: to preserve a dying tongue.

According to Unesco Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, about 3,000 languages are expected to vanish by the end of this century. Among those languages, some are spoken by only a few people today. When a language threatens to disappear, a desperate, almost romantic need arises to preserve it in some way, whether by a native speaker or not. This article from the New York times cites some examples of composers who have been using music to accomplish this task as well as summarize their goals and intentions. For example, this April, at the Cologne Opera in Germany, Australian composer Liza Lim presented her opera “Tree of Codes”, which includes an appearance of a Turkish whistling language from a small mountain village. Ms. Lim commented that both her opera and her polyglot piece “Mother Tongue” (2005) for soprano and ensemble are not about showcasing a “cool language”, but rather to encapsulate the power of the human body and its ability for unique vocal expression, “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.”

Composer Kevin James, who traveled to world to find some of the last native speaker of rare languages in the Pacific Northwest, Australia, and Japan, founded the Vanishing Languages Project. In regards to minority languages, he says that the project’s goal is “not to set them to music, but set them as music,” going back to the idea of the melodic allure of language.  His piece “Counting in Quileute” includes his field recordings of the last native speakers of an American Indian language from western Washington State. The author of the article mentions that Mr. James’s performance holds the audience in a melancholy shroud. She draws a parallel between the contemporary attention to the disappearance of minority languages and general anxiety about the deterioration of the environment. Although, in many cases it also has to do with the frantic intracultural desire for preservation.

Mixing the human desire to maintain culture with the aesthetic appeal of language, these composers create unique pieces that reincarnate their muses in a beautiful attempt to capture the vastness of phonetics and the diversity of humankind.

To read more about these composers and their projects, please read the original article here.

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