23 April 2010

Hopelandic for Dummies

Like every other Korean-American child, I was propped up on the piano stool and given a quarter-sized violin at a young age. I have very vivid memories of Mrs. Boudreau, our childhood piano teacher, who alternately scolded me for not having my fingers properly curled at the keyboard (as if I were holding an imaginary orange) or for having Ants in My Pants. There weren’t too many adults I regarded with contempt as a child, but she was one of the chosen few. After some desperate pleading with my parents, I was allowed to quit piano when I entered the third grade, but continued to study the violin for 12 years.

And while classical music currently makes up less than 1% of my total music collection, I’ve felt the vestigial influence of my musical training in other ways. Music has always been a visceral, non-cognitive experience for me—I swear I can feel the gate between my left and right brain swing open and shut when I try to process lyrics. Which is perhaps why I’ve always appreciated both electronica and music in which the human voice is used as an instrument rather than a means for storytelling. And also perhaps why I stare blankly at the three-ring binder of pop songs on the rare occasion that I do find myself in a dark room with eager karaoke enthusiasts.

From Gregorian chanting to Tuvan Throat Singing to Scat, using one’s vocal chords in a more pliant way isn’t necessarily new. But what does seem to be a more curious phenomenon is the invention of language among musicians of the past quarter century. Elizabeth Fraser vacillates between something resembling English and something completely incomprehensible. Lisa Gerrard claims to sing in a language of her own invention (apparently, otherwise known as idioglossia, what Wikipedia defines as "an idiosyncratic language, one invented and spoken by only one or a very few people"). And Jónsi of Sigur Rós has sung several tracks in Vonlenska, or Hopelandic, which Wikipedia summarizes as:

"a non-literal language, without fixed syntax [that] differs from constructed languages that can be used for communication. It focuses entirely on the sounds of language; lacking grammar, meaning, and even distinct words. Instead, it consists of emotive non-lexical vocables and phonemes; in effect, Vonlenska uses the melodic and rhythmic elements of singing without the conceptual content of language.”

We should all be so lucky—Freed from Constraints and yet Entirely Understood. Neurons fire. Organs swirl. My heart beats.

Comments   Tags: Music Language

4 April 2010

Episodic Memory: Typewriter as Percussion

I’ve heard that smell is the sense most closely linked to memory, but it was an audio experience that recently elicited recollections from many years ago for me. Music, for many of us, can instantly recall associated memories—typically of the nostalgic, sweet-summer-love-in-the-grass variety. But my experience last week was a new one—it wasn’t the specifics of a particular song or artist, but rather, the syncopated clicks and clacks of a typewriter set to piano that induced this knee-buckling moment.

The title sequence of Atonement opens on the first track of Dario Marianelli’s score. We peer over her shoulders as Briony Tallis, an ambitious and imaginative 13 year old writer, briskly taps out the final words of a new play. Not long after, the first few notes of piano beckon—tentatively at first, before swelling to a richly layered crescendo that includes a vigorous string accompaniment.

In high school, a small group of my friends and I observed a regular Friday night ritual by driving a half-hour to hang out with friends from a neighboring school district. We’d inevitably end up at Hunter’s; he lived in what our friend Morgan explained was a Cooperative Community. Large, modern houses were shrouded by a dense cover of leafy trees; a glimpse behind the doors of the community center revealed grown men dressed and dancing in kilts. For those of us accustomed to the inescapable scrutiny of parents and the malaise of suburban malls, this was our version of Twin Peaks—a surreal and extraordinary utopia where adults were scarce and Cheez-Its, cigarettes, and caffeinated jitters flowed with abundance.

Morgan was a prolific writer who, on occasion, chose to abandon his yellow legal pad in favor of the typewriter. Our friend Brooke was a talented classical pianist. On one such Friday night, each was relentlessly immersed in his or her own creative pursuit—but what emerged was one of the most maddeningly beautiful musical pairings I’ve ever been fortunate enough to witness.