Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim’s NY Times story is not your standard “saving the dying languages” piece (of which I’ve featured many over the years here at LH); in a sense, it’s not about the languages at all, but I thought it was interesting enough to post:
A growing number of [composers] are turning their attention to languages that are extinct, endangered or particular to tiny groups of speakers in far-flung places with the aim of weaving these enigmatic utterances into musical works that celebrate, memorialize or mourn the languages and the cultures that gave birth to them. On Saturday, April 9, at the Cologne Opera in Germany, the Australian composer Liza Lim unveils her opera “Tree of Codes,” which includes snippets of a Turkish whistling language from a small mountain village. On her most recent album, “The Stone People,” the pianist Lisa Moore sings and plays Martin Bresnick’s hypnotic “Ishi’s Song,” a setting of a chant by the last member of the Yahi, who died in 1916.
In February the New York Philharmonic performed Tan Dun’s multimedia symphony “Nu Shu,” the result of the composer’s research into a language and writing system that was passed down among the female inhabitants of a small village in Hunan Province in China for 700 years. Other composers who have done their own fieldwork include Vivian Fung, who investigated minority cultures in the Chinese province of Yunnan, and Kevin James, who sought out some of the last native speakers of minority languages in the Pacific Northwest, Australia and Japan.
A humorous side note involves the following paragraph:
In a phone interview, Mr. Bresnick said it was a television documentary about Ishi, the last member of the Yahi tribe, that inspired his work for piano and voice. He said he related the story to his mother, a fluent Yiddish speaker, who was then 94 years old. “I told her, ‘You’re my Ishi, you’re the last to speak this language,’” he said. “She pointedly looked at me and said: ‘No, you are. Because you still care to know.’”
I was reading rather hastily, and my first reaction was “Ishi’s mother was a fluent Yiddish speaker?!” But then I reread and all was clear.
I’m glad Fonseca-Wollheim mentioned “ethical questions of outsiders’ drawing financial benefit or prestige from such expeditions, or using the recorded voices of the dead in cultures where that is taboo,” and it’s important to consider such objections, but I’m glad the composers are going ahead and working with these languages; I will always lean toward favoring openness over secrecy. (Thanks, Bonnie!)