ETHEL, along with the Australian ensemble, Speak Percussion, and The [kāj] Ensemble, will premiere three multi-media works in acclaimed contemporary composer Kevin James’s Vanishing Languages series at Roulette March 28 + 29. Each work features live musicians w/surround sound audio content drawn from field recordings of the last speakers of nearly extinct languages. ETHEL recently sat down with Kevin to discuss this ambitious program and his explorations of languages are going extinct.
KJ: I have always been intrigued by the connection between language and music. In fact, I think at it’s heart and origin, all music extends from the voice and language. I think also, the virtuosity that we have as speakers of our own first languages is what we aspire to as musicians. After all, we’ve practiced the art of speaking almost from the womb, almost continually for the entirety of our lives. The depth of meaning that even a small child is able to convey with the slightest of inflections often goes beyond our greatest musical abilities The rhythmic complexity of the spoken word is daunting. But our instruments magnify those inflections and order those rhythms in a powerful way.
One of my first experiences in which I was struck by the pure musical beauty of spoken language was, in fact the long ago inspiration for the Vanishing Languages Project. As a teenager on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I was channel surfing when I I stumbled onto a PBS documentary featuring the Australian Aboriginal land rights trials of the early 70’s. The scene was a stately courtroom complete with stern men in wigs and robes intently staring at two aboriginal men seated at a table before them – a proud, if not somewhat wild looking elderly man, shirtless and wearing what seemed to be traditional garb, and a younger man, in a shabby mix of western clothes.
The younger man introduced himself and explained that the elderly man was the last of his people, that there were no others left who spoke his language. He explained that he could communicate with the man in a rudimentary fashion using a secondary language if necessary, but that it was this man’s desire to testify in his own language, in the language that would die forever with him. The stern men attempted to explain that the old man’s testimony would be more effective if they were able to understand what he was saying, that they would be very patient in allowing his statements to be translated. But the old man wouldn’t hear of it. When the commission members finally relented, the old man began to sing his statement. Literally to sing. He wasn’t being dramatic. His delivery was casual, humble even, and perhaps a bit creaky – but the language that would die with him was, in fact, a “sung language”, reliant on pitch an pacing for it’s meaning.
I was transfixed as was everyone in that courtroom. The commission members who wished to have his words translated were wrong. It was far more effective to hear this man’s story in his own language, even though the content couldn’t be deciphered.
ETHEL: An aspiring poet myself, I see that you’ve collaborated with a number of great poets. In what capacity did you come up with a way to collaborate? I’m always looking for ways to connect words and music!
KJ: Ah, I do love poets and their musings. Some, like A Van Jordan, I met at an artist colony, and we just “clicked”. Others like Maurice Manning I met through a specific commission with conditions attached (“a song cycle using the work of poets with such and such affiliation”. Still others, such as Charles Simic, I honestly just gave a call out of the blue and struck up a conversation. When writing traditional songs, I like to work exclusively with living poets, so I occasionally put out the word for submissions and recommendations, which is great fun. But working with contemporary poets means having permission to set their words to music. Which often means trimming, editing, re-ordering, combining disparate works, or works from separate poets. And that requires a very friendly and trusting relationship between composer and writers.
KJ: hahahahaha. I’m pretty sure my children just laughed out loud without realizing why. Um, so no. But I do have a deep appreciation for those who really make it art.
ETHEL: What other languages do you speak?
I speak Italian well, Spanish and French a bit less well, and I continue to struggle to improve my skills with Japanese (which stubbornly remain quite dreadful).
KJ: You’ve got quite a range stylistically. As your bio states, your compositions span from jazz and improvisational works to audience participation and multi-media to traditional forms and modal harmonies. How do you decide what style you want to inhabit when you begin a new project? Is the one mode in which you feel the most at home?
You know, I haven’t really thought about that much. I think I try to follow the path that honors the idea/concept/poetry best. I don’t know if that’s a real answer, but perhaps answering the second part of the question will illuminate it – George Crumb (a personal hero) once described his writing process as being like entering a large room through a door and seeing that there’s a light switch at the other end of the room. However as soon as the door is closed behind you the lights go out and you’re plunged into darkness. You’re certain that you remember exactly how everything was arranged in the room and can easily traverse to the other side. However as soon as you take your first step you bash your knee on something you hadn’t realized was there. Within moments of trying to get to the other side, you find yourself on your knees crawling aimlessly, looking for the wall to follow, feeling in the dark for the furniture you see in your minds eye. By the time you make it to the other side of the room and turn on the lights, you’re bloody and battered and exhausted. And when you turn to look at the room, it’s nothing like you remembered. But sometimes, it’s more beautiful and original than you could have hoped at the outset.
Yes. This is my experience pretty much regardless of the stylistic approach I end up adapting for any given project.
ETHEL: The scores for Ainu and Counting in Quileute are both very spatial. How did you decide on this method of notation for this particular project?
KJ: Holy cow. Remember my answer to that last question? You’re right. I wanted to bring an awareness of historic arc to each of these pieces, and that demanded space. But I found in my early experiments that musicians tended to approach the music athletically, with vigor and fortitude. Which is a good thing most of the time. However these pieces require an approach that is more meditation, breath, and timelessness, than role playing or overcoming obstacles (not that there aren’t serious obstacles). I wanted the sheet music itself to portray that sensibility visually.
ETHEL: When you were out in the Pacific Northwest, Australia, and Japan, did you engage with the people in conversation or more as an observer? In instances when you did not speak a common language, how did you compensate to communicate?
KJ: Both really. In terms of the work of field recording I took a journalistic approach rather than a directive approach. For me, it’s more interesting to give the people the opportunity to express what’s most important to them, rather than to go for some specific result.
In each instance I got to know the people in the communities relatively well and in Australia especially, I spent quite a bit of time with the speakers of the language themselves. In Australia I had a guide/linguist (Sebastien Harris) who made my introductions and worked with me to assure that what we were recording remained in the language we meant to be recording and so on. However everyone there spoke English reasonably. The only place where I wasn’t able to communicate well was in Japan and there I was able to hire translators to help with the Japanese. However, for the Ainu piece, for integrity’s sake, I had to rely solely on archival recordings. Although there are a few people who seem to have a conversational skill in the language, and a few others who have memorized songs or stories, there are no fluent native speakers left.