child – woman – man – child
A child falls in love with a language she can not speak – she hears it in songs, hears it on the television, it holds within it a promise – the exotic – the desirable – it contains a far away – a landscape unfolding – the journey to come.
A man dreams in a language that is not his mother tongue, forgets his first language, locks it up in a shady room within him, together with trauma, and its sister, fear.
A woman dreams of another country, moves, and is truly home. In her new homeland she can be herself, speak her mind – her new country represents her more then her fatherland, the new language gives her space to fully express herself, yet when she hears songs in her mother tongue she cries as the inner landscape engulfs her.
A child invents a secret language from crumbs of her mothers mother tongue, that she can not speak, and asks for the meaning of the words she invents.
opera of the body – works of passion
At the age of 21 I directed my very first opera, Infinito Nero. It was a short one, only 20 minutes long, it had a full cast of one singer and a small ensemble of musicians. There were no melodies, not even that many notes, in fact if you think that opera is this big bombastic multi-layered Gesamtkunstwerk, heritage of Wagner, then this was the exact opposite of that. Though one could argue about the intensity of the performance experience, and those 20 minutes feeling somehow surprisingly long.
Without the aria’s and the sung dialogues, duets etc., these 20 minutes were in some sense ‘real time’ – without a story being told, without time, place, past, present, future they managed to heighten the feeling of ‘now’ – of being there as a spectator, as a human in your body. With the musicians making sparse sounds, similar to breathing, faint footsteps, sighs, seemingly erratically interrupted by the
mezzo-soprano singing very quick succession of incomprehensible words, this piece somehow managed to intensify the experience of time, of solitude, of rapture, of ecstasy, of self within its silence.
Salvatore Sciarrino, the contemporary Italian composer, who wrote Infinito Nero, used fragments from the diaries of Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, a 16th century saint and visionary, for the libretto. Maria Maddalena’s visions and raptures consisted of giving birth to the word of god. Not a metaphysical birth, but a birth of the word into its sound – into its pronunciation – its prosody – its sound body. She wanted her voice to become the body, the vessel for the word – for love. She even went as far as to toss the transcriptions of her raptures, into the fire, for they could not contain the word. After a reprimand by mother superior she did not do that again, and 8 nuns would take place around her, with ink and paper, while she went into her visions, tossing the words into space at an incredible speed, rushing projectiles of oral density, so the sisters would take turn, each noting down a sequence to arrive at capturing it all.
Centuries later Antonin Artaud, French theatre maker, actor, writer, poet, artist, madman, fabricates his own language from a mix of languages, real and invented. He looks for a sound that connects to the core, the hieroglyphic. He looks for an incarnation of meaning, a language that speaks directly to the body/mind: glossolalias – partly born from his mothers mother tongue, the Greek. He would work with the sounds for hours, before noting them down, pronouncing them, projecting them into the space – subjectiles escaping his tormented body to pierce our notion of reality.
Listening to Artaud reading / sounding his texts and glossolalia is a physical experience. His voice, sometimes high pitched, piercing, cuts from across the border of what seems to be an other world. In, Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu, a radio play he created in 1946, not long before his death, and that got censored immediately, you can feel it is existential – it is the language of geysers, ice, poisons, oracles. When a good 10 years ago or more I heard Henri Chopin perform in Brussels, I thought how similar Antonin Artaud might have been.
Henri Chopin was a French poet, language was his main medium, but after the second world war, with its abuse of language for propaganda, he felt it could not express purely any more. He started working with the sounds of his body, recording with microphones in his mouth, and other orifices, building soundscapes through layering with multiple tape recorders. When I saw him perform in Brussels even his communication with the technician that run the quadrophonic system was non- lingual – a growl and howl accompanied by a hand gesture, indicated the volume on the left speaker in the back had to be augmented. It was an uncomfortable experience, the sound was loud and came in directly. It was as if these bodily and vocal sounds spoke directly to the reptile brain – omitting language and the filters of meaning and interpretation.
landscape and love
The first sounds you hear – from within the womb, the sound of your mothers voice – the rhythm of your mothers language, the intonation, the melody – not the words – the landscape of the sound enveloping you, shape a pre lingual sound imprint around you – a form / a scape within you: mother tongue. One could wonder: How does language / our mother tongue, influence our perception of the world?
At a young age I travelled with my mother from country to country. A migratory childhood that
made many sound imprints on me. Each language has its own emotional response, its own connection to a period in my life. Each language seems to bring out different parts of my personality, and is even more or less effective for specific task in life. For instance English is great for work related matters, and deep emotional conversations, Dutch is useful for practical day to day life, French is nice for long spun thoughts, German is connected to the arts.
There are theses rare occasions that I speak my mother tongue – they quite often feel awkward, are marked by an uncomfortable looking for words, a translating from languages that are closer in meaning to me, from languages that rule my day to day more. It is hard to express things that I learned in an other language, that I experienced in another context. Yet there is something that happens within me when I hear my first language. An instant ‘coming home’.
Certain muscles relax, a space opens up. Maybe it it is the shift of brain location, since the mother tongue takes a different place in the brain then all the other later acquired languages. Or maybe it is a bridge to that time in life when we were so vulnerable and loved and would communicate with pre lingual means, and understand through the sound of the voice, colour and intonation. I find myself transported to the imprint within me. Is it the language of our mothers that connects us to a landscape unfolding before our actual birth?
picture by angela rawlings
Maja Jantar, 2018
prompted by Steven J Fowler