23 April 2010
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.