Endangered Languages go to the Symphony

Last week I had the joy of hearing one of the premiere performances of composer Tan Dun’s new symphony for microfilms, harp, and orchestra, titled Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women. There were many fascinating things to do with language, music and multimodality in the piece, but one thing that drew my attention was the subject matter: the “hidden” Nu Shu language, a language written in its own syllabic writing system and only used by women in Hunan province of China. So, building off Joanna’s recent thoughts on art and the aesthetics of endangered languages, here are some musings on this symphony, and what it has to tell us about art and (endangered) languages.

Tan Dun was, according to this interview with the harp soloist, inspired by the story of the Nu Shu language as he wrote the piece. The language is integrated beautifully into the symphony, from film clips showing someone writing in the Nu Shu script to recordings of both Nu Shu speech and songs, which the orchestra echoes, accompanies, ornaments, and incorporates in various ways.

According to the program notes, Tan Dun was inspired by collecting composers of the past who collected folk music, such as the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók who carefully noted down folk song melodies around the Hungarian countryside to use in his own classical music. It seems to me that Tan Dun could have also seen some similarity between this work and that of Czech composer Leoš Janáček, who transcribed speech with musical notation and then attempted to compose songs and operas that (to some extent) mirrored the natural pitch contours of natural speech. This symphony’s attention to the musical elements of language was one of the things I most enjoyed about it.

Another interesting aspect of this symphony was that it gave the audience an opportunity to hear and see an endangered language in use—not just in an elicitation session with a linguist. We saw an old woman deliver an emotional monologue (program notes tell me she was talking about her wedding), sing while doing laundry or embroidering, and have a conversation, all in Nu Shu. We didn’t just hear about a language in danger, we saw a language in use. At the same time, there was a sadness within the piece – from crying women performing a wedding ceremony and the old woman sobbing as she recalls her own wedding to an orchestral section reminiscent of a funeral dirge, and, a requisite moment in art about language endangerment – the moment of silence, in this case, masterfully shocking in the immediate aftermath of a flurry of activity in both orchestra and harp parts.

But wait! A brief search of the internet, and we learn that the last speaker of Nu Shu is dead! How could there be such recent recordings of women speaking, singing, and writing in Nu Shu? As this Guardian article points out, reports of the language’s death were premature: there are still women using the language, and teaching it to their daughters. This is an illustration of how messy the idea of a “last speaker” is, and the impossibility of making “knowing a language” into a binary yes/no condition. Just as no one knows all of a language (a point Jan Blommaert develops in his 2010 book Sociolinguistics of Globalization), there is no cutoff when all of a language is forgotten.

The most interesting interaction with the Nu Shu language, from my point of view, is what happens when an endangered language from rural China is put on stage with one of the best symphony orchestras in the world. Tan Dun, it seems, is inviting the audience to consider this language an object of beauty, along the same lines as the Beethoven or Brahms you might hear in the same space but another time. Reminiscent of John Cage’s famous composition 4’33”, in which the performer’s silent performance is meant to encourage the audience to hear ambient noise as worthy of aesthetic appreciation, Tan Dun incorporates everyday sounds into the music of the symphony – a dog barks in the background of a conversation, the rhythmic beating of laundry in water becomes the beat of an entire movement as a percussionist slaps an amplified bowl of water. By weaving the Nu Shu language into a beautiful piece of music, Tan Dun has asked his audience to hear this language as beautiful. While listening to the symphony, I was convinced.

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