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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Constructed Languages

Today I'm pondering the universe of constructed languages (or "conlang").  I'm thinking about artificial and experimental languages created purely for the purpose of artistic expression - particularly in the context musical composition and performance.  I don't mean to detract from a global effort to protect the thousands of endangered languages that struggle for survival on our planet. Linguists estimate that at least 3k of our remaining 7k spoken languages will disappear in the next century alone.  It's a mass-extinction occurring before our eyes.  But imaginary languages have been and are being constructed anew and can add diversity to the modern linguistic jungle.

While Klingon (Star Trek), Na'vi (Avatar), Cirquish 
(Cirque du Soleil), Newspeak (Orwell's 1984), or the Simpson's inspired post-apocalyptic gobbledygook in Anne Washburn's "Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play" emphasize the cultural issues of communication, I'm drawn more to the innate timbre, texture, and rhythm of spoken sound regardless of the meaning its language attempts to convey.  Meaning and language are not necessarily joined at the hip.  Steven Pinker for one has postulated that ideas and language exist quite independently from one another.

A large body of contemporary vocal music has exploited the human voice for its sonic effect and has treated its sound rather abstractly.  This music often minimizes (or even annihilates) the contextual meaning of the text (if any) and goes directly for the auditory and emotional jugular.  It allows for an auditory experience free of the constraints of linguistic meaning.

Luciano Berio's "Sequenza III" for solo voice (1965) is an example that leans heavily in this direction.  The majority of the vocal sounds composed in Sequenza III are mutterings which evoke a wide range of basic emotional states - some of which are akin to "baby talk."  The text (a mere three lines by Markus Kutter) is greatly obfuscated and treated as a found-object, subjected to permutation, transformation, and processing not unlike deconstruction of sampled vocalisms in today's electronic music.

Milton Babbitt's "
Phonemena" for soprano and tape (1969) is unique.  Babbitt
bases his invented language on sounds sourced from the notations and tables carefully compiled in the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet).  The result is stunning.  It sounds syntactically correct, even though any semblance of linguistic meaning is utterly elusive.  I could imagine intelligent alien life communicating according to its serial patterns and algorithms.

John Cage's "Aria" (1958) also verges on a new language.  While it borrows words from Armenian, Russian, Italian, French, and English (almost as a distant memory), most of the text is sourced from isolated vowels and consonants.  Not only is the music invented from scratch, so is the text.

Contemporary musicians and composers have been working at the forefront of language creation - knowingly or not.  It's a conceptual activity that is at the very core of both musical creation and vocal communications.  There very well could be a common link between the creation of human language and the creation of a new kind of music.

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