Saturday, March 21, 2009

An End-of-Winter Update

I could have called it "A Spring Update," but snow continues to fall as I write this entry. The winter has been long, and last month's burning of Morė, the effigy representing winter, apparently guaranteed the hasty arrival of spring. A long, dark winter does have its bright side, which is that no one feels obligated to go outside without a good reason. I have therefore been able to spend much of the last couple of months really focused on writing music.

But without actually scanning and posting my sketches, in writing there is little I can tell you about the music itself. What I can tell you is that I continue to find a wealth of inspiration not only in the music I hear in Vilnius, but also in the language itself.

Unlike Spanish, for instance, the Lithuanian language is devoid of any regular system of syllable stress, and the fact that the language utilizes some of the most ancient linguistic characteristics and numerous inflections makes possible an incredibly nuanced yet flexible form of expression. This combination opens up many possibilities in terms of creatively setting Lithuanian to music, but it also highlights the care that must be taken, especially in such a text-driven and drama-dependent work as an opera, to preserve the intended meaning and tone of any one line of text.

You might ask, "How are you able to understand the complexities and nuance of the language without being a native speaker?" The answer is that I don't. I made multiple audio recordings of Marija Simona "acting" the parts of the libretto, which helps when it comes to making many compositional choices, but regardless of the inflection and intonation I can objectively glean from the recording, there will always be certain signifiers that can only be truly understood by a native speaker.

But this may not be a bad thing. A fellow composer in Baltimore once lamented the tendency among composers to write vocal music that so closely reflects the natural rhythm and inflection of the language. I, on the other hand, saw nothing wrong with the trend and considered the language itself full of multiple implications for the music. I still do, but as of this week, much less so.

What changed my mind was a repeat viewing of Peter Eötvös' opera, Love and Other Demons. Never mind that the predominantly English libretto was written by a Hungarian author; I thought the English was practically flawless. On top of that, Eötvös understands and speaks very good English himself. But unlike the first time I saw the opera, on Thursday I picked up on some very subtle text-music relationships that revealed the composer as a non-native speaker. There was no misplaced syllable stress or awkward phrasing, but rather a sung English that to my ears was devoid of any aural signifier that might point to a specific English-speaking culture.

I recently read a BBC article that referred to this kind of English as "globish," and while the term applies mainly to English that is free of any vocabulary, metaphor, or humor that might cause misunderstanding between two people from different cultures, I wonder if the term could also include specifically aural nuances such as intonation, rhythm, etc. that might be particular to any one region or culture.

For me, this lack of recognizable, culture-specific nuance is what made the music interesting and fresh. A native English speaker could deliberately alter the music to counter the natural delivery of a line of English text, but I doubt the effect would be the same. In Love and Other Demons, the text is not set in an "unnatural" or "unusual" way, but rather in a manner that is so neutral (at least to American ears) that the listener is likely to detect no cultural code acting as mediation (and perhaps even a hindrance) between the text itself and its musical representation.

Maybe I'm preemptively defending the compositional decisions I've been making in my own opera, but if my musical treatment of Lithuanian text reveals my non-native background, then perhaps I have reason to celebrate.


rasele said...

I was surfing to get ticket information for this year's Chicago Lithuanian Opera performance and came across your blog. I'm a native speaker, parents & grands came to Chicago in 1950 after detention camps in Germany. I love the language and opera and found your approach of using Lithuanian language as part of the opera 'delivery system' fascinating.
I'll check back in again soon.

Charles Halka said...

Labas, Rasa,

Thanks for your comment. Your family must have come to Chicago just a year before my mother and her family. Do you know which camp they were in in Germany? Lately I've been quite busy and struggling to keep up with the blog, but I'm glad someone with your background is enjoying it! I hope to write another post soon, as there is so much going on here outside my own work. Good luck with the ticket information... I'm sure by now you've found this site: Talk to you later!