Wednesday, June 20, 2007

When should words make sense?

As I get closer to committing myelf to setting a text, I've stumble into the brambles of the choice of language itself. The text I'm looking at is in Latin, and not in a Latin limited to the small lexicon of Liturgical Latin, so it's likely to be understood by very few, if any, without a translation. Setting an English translation is problematic, as any translation is a selective representation of the orginal, containing none of the sounds of the orginal, and in this case, those are sounds to which I've become seriously attached. So it looks like I'll be setting the original, and that places me into even thicker brambles: aside from a prevalent aesthetic assesment that not being able to understand a text is not a good thing, there is not much help, in either the form of a theory or a practical tradition, out there -- see Virgil Thomson's book on English text setting, Music with Words: A Composer's View as a counterexample -- to help with a project in which the compose enters with an upfront committment to not making sense.

"Not making sense" is here something other than making nonsense (as in Deleuze's wonderful set of turns about Lewis Carroll, in The Logic of Sense), but rather the experience of a coherently performed language by someone who does not understand it. That is to say, an experience of language as something more like a music than as a means for explicit communication. This, in fact, is an everyday experience for much of the planet. Multi-lingual environments are increasingly the norm, and the spectrum of competency is a full one, so many people live in environments in which a good deal of the language heard is language not understood. Church Latin was such an experience, and perhaps this pope will revive it, ironically following the lead of those protestant fundamentalists who find inerrancy in the increasingly archaic world of the KJV and their political allies who commune with spirits of the American "founding fathers" in search of the "original meaning" of the constitution. N.O. Brown compared the experience in the west of a still small avant garde of reading Finnegans Wake (in which we at least get bits and pieces via a casual reading) to the experience of Muslims hearing the Quran recited, a book written in a language which is foreign for most believers, and for native speakers, archaic and including many parts which -- even when first written down -- have never made sense in terms of an everyday language.


PWS said...

What is the latin text you are working with? Still the Virgil? DO tell....

What immediately came to mind after reading this post was Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex" which he requested Cocteau write in French, and THEN have translated into Latin (not Greek). Of course none of the audience knew Latin, and that was the point. He used the dead language as a metaphor along with the statue-esque dramaturgy of the performance. And yet, the music is so powerful that the words pack a punch in how they are set. The Latin lends itself very well to Stravinsky's highly accented but motoric rhythms in that piece.

So I guess what I am saying is that the text will work through the music in any language, nonsense or non-nonsense if you approach it inteligently and thoughtfully, which Stravinsky, and yourself, are doing (i.e. not just to hang words on notes). Something will be gained.

Ben.H said...

As another example, Ezra Pound became a composer when, after many failed attempts, he decided it was impossible to translate Francois Villon's poetry into English, and that the only way he could convey the poetry's sense and meaning to non-Francophones was by setting it to music.

PWS said...

Interesting point, Ben. As someone who has heard some of Pound's music it begs the question-was Pound a genius, or batshit crazy?

I see what he was getting at though, and really I am convinced that good settings will help a text. My beloved Fauré's settings of Verlaine, Baudelaire, Hugo and other lesser poets seem to often improve the texts and bring out great meaning. But then again, he wasn't setting another tongue.