Last Whispers.

Zachary Woolfe reviews a language-oriented movie for the NY Times:

The earth spins onscreen amid an eerie, uncomfortable sound, like a building rush of air. It’s an ominous, galactic vision that swiftly condenses into an intimate one: A dot of flickering light in the middle of darkness; a woman’s voice singing, her fragile intakes of breath audible; an electric guitar strumming with spare, melancholy sweetness.

Her words are unfamiliar, a little guttural, the consonants chewy. A title tells us that the woman is singing in Ingrian, a nearly extinct Finnic language spoken now by just a handful of people in western Russia.

It is one of over three dozen endangered languages heard in “Last Whispers,” a film and surround-sound experience that will be screened Oct. 16-20 at Peak Performances at Montclair State University. Its creator, the artist Lena Herzog, calls it “an oratorio for vanishing voices, collapsing universes and a falling tree” — as good a classification as any for an unclassifiable work. […]

So reverberant chant in Bathari, a language spoken by perhaps a few dozen people in Oman, sounds alongside enigmatic footage of rock formations. A blurry figure walks in the distance, eventually covered by pages and pages of scrolling script, as we listen to the evocative Ahom language of India. A child speaks Light Warlpiri, which has a few hundred native speakers in northern Australia.

That we don’t see the speakers and can’t know what’s being said is the point of this austere and poignant Babel. The musical landscape is sometimes gentle, sometimes aggressive, but it always keeps our attention on the rich, incomprehensible, often overlapping chorus of words. The camera slowly approaches ghostly forests, bodies of water and, through space, our planet — imagery that suggests the language crisis interacts with, and is in part caused by, even graver threats to earth’s sustainability.

Ms. Herzog dates the origins of “Last Whispers” to more than 15 years ago, and her interest in languages even further — back to when, as a young girl growing up in Russia, she struggled to learn English to understand a Sherlock Holmes story that turned on the deciphering of a code presented as dancing stick figures.

There’s more information at the link; I’m not sure it’s quite in my wheelhouse (it might be frustrating to get so little information), but I wouldn’t mind getting a chance to see it. Thanks, Eric!


  1. From one of the links, this from Susan Hillier:

    Sound waves actually touch our ears, so when we listen to a person talking we are literally touched by them. … I wanted to facilitate direct contact, empathy, person-to-person feeling. In any case, there is always an unacknowledged uncanny aspect to sound recordings, which don’t distinguish between dead and living voices. Perhaps this reminds us that we will also become ghosts someday.

    In view of the content, I’m hopeful that one day her video will be available for all to hear, which would help keep alive in a small way, all those fragile languages. There’s not much chance at the moment for those of us without access to that particular university or place.

  2. I agree.

  3. Project website. Still available only as an AV installation and virtual reality (VR) experience at museums and the like. Not available to us peons. Bah.

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