In coproduction with Habibi Kiosk of Münchner Kammerspiele, Munich, permanent collection Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venice, thanks to Galleria Michela Rizzo, Venice
What you are going to hear is completely meaningless. You will undergo the experience of listening to some poems which are semantically unrecognisable because of the altered order of consonants, though the rime, the metrical scansion, the accent and the intonation are mantained: the result is something absolutly incomprehensible but absurdly familiar. With this work I wish as far as is possible to restore the melody and musicality to be found in every language. In order to do so I have to cleanse words of the “distraction” of meaning and let their rhythmic or melodic aspects, now no longer suffocated by their meaning, come to light.I try to go back through hearing to something primary and forgotten: the pure and ancient sound of words, the raw experience of our first contact with the world.
Voices:Vincenzo Arsillo (Italian), Assetou Billa Nonkane (Bissa, Burkina Faso), Mathieu Carrière (German), Nicolas Damouni (Arabic), Luisandra De Luizinha (Portuguese), Manuel Ferreira (Spanish) , Bakhyt Kenjeev (Russian) , Alina Kostiukova (Ukrainian), Jelena Kuljić (Serbian), Patrick Lynch (English), Ceren Oran (Turkish), Celine Valadez (French), Xu Xuan (Chinese), Hiroko Yasuda (Japanese)
Years ago I was deeply impressed by hearing The Divine Comedy read on the radio by Sermonti. I wasn’t able to follow the meaning very well but I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the sound, the rhythm, and the intonation. I heard the beauty of the italian language, its particular melody, determined by a certain sequence of syllables and a particular accentuation and intonation. Really to perceive those aspects linked to the sound of one’s mother tongue is something almost impossible: meaning has the upper hand. In order to make this experience possible I made unrecognizable, from a semantic point of view, Leopardi’s Asia, the nocturnal song of a wandering shepherd, though I left the rhythm, melody, and word legit completely unaltered, while transposing the consonants to the individual words or those near to them. The result was something utterly incomprehensible but absurdly familiar. At this point I also asked foreign scholars from ten different countries to choose a poem in their own language and to elaborate it by eliminating its meaning while keeping the same rhythm, melody, meter and rhyme. I was surprised by the enthusiasm and interest that those involved showed right from the start because I had assumed I was dealing with a personal and eccentric passion difficult to share with others. In fact, beneath the apparent remains of a senseless eccentricity there were hidden (and I really only realized afterwards) extremely serious aspects referring to basic mental processes closely connected to the origin of meaning and that occur before it. As Sermonti has said, a child playing on the carpet hears the conversation of adults without understanding its meaning. He does, however, perceive the melody behind the flow of this so-familiar language and assimilates its rhythm and intonation. This aspect of knowledge seems to me to be full of intrinsic beauty. Perhaps this is why the scholars showed such eagerness in giving new life to their material and that the actors couldn’t believe they could at last speak absurdities.
On the national Radio Rai Tre for the program Stanze d’artista curated by Guido Barbieri about Mariateresa Sartori’s sound works, 17 agosto 2017
Mariateresa Sartori, Il suono delle lingua, a cura di Chiara Bertola, Prato: Gli Ori, 2008
Ai confini, del significato
On the Edge of Meaning
Uri commento linguistico su
Il suono della lingua di Mariateresa Sartori
A linguistic observation
on Mariateresa Sartori’s The Sound of Language
Il suono della musica e il suono della lingua
The sound of music and the sound of language
Il suono della lingua
The Sound of Language
Nei pensieri c ’è ancora un ’eco…
There is still an Echo in our Thoughts
Sul suono delle parole (passerei ore ed ore)
On the Sounds of Words (I Would Spend Hours and Hours)
APPARATI / APPENDIX
ON THE EDGE OF MEANING
For some time experimental music has been on the lookout for material outside traditional musical notation, and has produced a revolution in our world of sounds. It has legitimised noise, voices, words and anything else that sounds or vibrates, allowing them to become a living substance to be moulded and changed. Having broken the taboo of music as a transcendental art to be codified in order to be played and heard, it has begun to work concretely with the physical aspects of sound.
Something similar has happened in the world of visual art where other barriers have been broken, and everyday objects or language forms dominate expression. The consequence of this “opening” is that – together with such other art forms as theatre, dance, and cinema – literature, visual art, and music too have been involved in contamination and have seen their particular fields invaded and blurred.
Just to quote a few examples: there comes to mind the experiments of those movements concentrated on the “purely expressive value of language’s phonic substratum”’; artists who have used words as an acoustic material in order to revitalise them and return to them their original expressive importance: Lettrisme, Futurism, Symbolism, Dadaism etc. and so on up the present day and such important performances experimenting with the voice and language as those undertaken by Bruce Nauman and Laurie Anderson and, ill the field of contemporary music, Luciano Berio and Steve Reich… “There is a certain tendency to confuse things, and to make sure that people are aware I hat we are dealing with art”, Bruce Nauman has written, “when instead the only tiling to do is to show it and allow it to act for itself. I believe that the most difficult thing is to present an idea in the most direct way”2.
It is in this context that we should set the work of Mariateresa Sartori. It is important for her too that something real is allowed to lake place without hindrance, in a completely spontaneous and immediate way. Her video, photographic, and performance/relational work, which has now moved towards an interest in the sound of language, has always been aimed at the relationships and communications between people, almost as though to certify their functional character. Each work of hers is an analytical move aimed at breaking through the rigid constraints humanity has placed around its knowledge and words. For her, in each case this is a question of recapturing reality, what apparently is “blocked”.
In the installation “II suono della lingua”, The Sound of Language, specifically created for the Querini Stampalia Foundation, the artist has given importance to overcoming the limits that blur our perceptions. We discover in it two themes also to be found in all her creative career: the first is the recognition of an order imposed by “rhythm”, as though behind each of our relationships with the world or behind the creation of any kind of beauty there might be found a basic rule. The second, deeper and more hidden, is the pinpointing of a connection uniting human experience to its own origins, something primitive that we feel and that brings us near to something that we have, of necessity, lost at some time during our childhood…”.
The Sound of Language
The room has been darkened so that those who enter it have a sense of intimacy and concentration. Within you can hear the sounds of voices speaking or reciting with a certain emphasis in various languages of which, though, you cannot understand the meaning. Despite this, the sounds you hear are striking for their sense of familiarity: Italian, Spanish, Arabic, and French sounds, and so on for all the eleven languages the artist has used. It is as though the semantic aura of each individual language has remained, a kind of linguistic shadow that now acts as the background to the “resonation” of the melody in the foreground.
The artist has cleansed each language of its communicative function so that the listener can hear the pure rhythm and sound of the phonemes which construct it. “It is almost impossible to perceive the acoustic aspects of one’s mother tongue”, Mariateresa said to me once. “Meaning inevitably has the upper hand”. In order to be able to hear afresh the sound of language, in order to recuperate such a lost experience, she has made the meanings of the words unrecognisable. This she has done by intervening on various poems particularly representative of each language chosen: Leopardi for Italian; Shakespeare for English; Lermontov for Russian; Hernández for Spanish and so on. With the help of poets and scholars she then changed the composition of the words – shifting the consonants either within the word itself or in those nearby – without however altering the rhyme, melody, or length.
There come to mind experiments by such musicians as Steve Reich, someone who is also fascinated by the sound of language, so much so that he has made this the basis for various pieces of music (cf. Excerpts from the Cave, 1993). In his case, though, it is a question of dealing with languages which, by underlining the sound, underline still more the semantic content, or else he deals with a dialogue between instruments and human voice in which the meaning of the words has an important and all-important role. What, instead, interests Mariateresa Sartori is the particular music of language, that strange hidden world which for centuries has escaped regular musical notation. The artist wishes as far as is possible to restore the melody and musicality to be found in every language. In order to do so she has to cleanse words of the “distraction” of meaning anti let their rhythmic or melodic aspects, now no longer suffocated by their meaning, come to light.
The Importance of Rhythm
As I said earlier, harmony and rhythm have an all-important function in the relationship between human beings. For Sartori they impose behaviour, mould communications, and structure the movement of bodies and things in space. And the rhythmic aspect too is what goes to create beauty’s order. For Mariateresa, Meri, this is always a question of observing reality as it spontaneously reveals itself so that she can “enjoy its intrinsic rhythm, its natural pauses, the perfection of its organisation…”. There comes to mind her recent video “La misura dello spazio. L’umano convegno”, The Measure of Space. Human Meeting, in which she shot, from above, the random to-and-fro movements of people in a particular space: here too the protagonist is rhythm which makes the accidental crossings and meetings interesting. Meri has explained to me the origin of this passion of hers for the sound of language and she told me that, as a child, she was greatly struck by certain pieces of music, so much so that she considered them conversations between instruments… “I was highly impressed by the sounds of voices which obsessed me for a long time”. Then she showed me some very recent studies that reveal how understanding language begins with a perception of rhythm. This mechanism is evident in all those nonsense rhymes in which meaning takes a second place while what is important is the rhythm, the singsong, the repetition, the musicality… without which the nonsense rhyme no longer works, it is forgotten…
While thinking of Meri’s project – and without forgetting the colours of Rimbaud’s Voyelles – I realised how many tiny events happen through the simple act of speaking; I became aware of the fact that within every language there are important distinctions that do not just involve pronunciation, but also many other aspects – tonal range, intensity, time, rhythm, pauses – the evolution of which determine the melody of speech. So I then realised that words really can be understood as a musical event and I began to pay attention to certain sonorities that distinguish languages, ones that I had not noticed before. 1 learnt that behind the melody of speech is the pitch of the vowels and that intonation is one of the most universal traits and yet, at the same time, one of the characteristics that most differentiate one language from another. When the Chinese actor Meri was recording asked to re-record a piece because he had not managed to convey the language “curve” of a certain passage, then 1 literally “saw” the architecture that was hidden behind that particular idiom: a structure of arches, of high, smooth, rough, curved walls set upon architraves and, at times, holes.
Another aspect the artist often spoke to me about, and which I see as a golden thread throughout her activity, is the importance of sparking off a spontaneity of gestures, words, and movements, of revealing them without preconditions. This was a theme behind the video “Tutte le pause del mondo”, All the World’s Pauses, where Meri highlighted what seemed to be meaningless, such as a moment of silence during a normal conversation between people. In this case the artist wanted to show how, in fact, pauses convey a lot of semantic information; she aimed at highlighting the “between”: that hesitation, that suspension that many of us consider unimportant but which is the place where the real sense of a word hides. In order to work with pauses, in that video the artist had to verify the behaviour of words and listen to their spontaneous and unconscious function.
I remember, in an interview some years ago, Meri underlined just how important it was for her to choose subjects (she painted at the time) that had their own aura but that were above all “heroic”, in the sense of not being subjugated to anything or anybody but totally free. Powerful and liberated images. In her recent experiments she has not changed much, in the sense that all her videos have continued to search for another side to behaviour, for a language, an experience. And basically, even today with I his most recent work, she asks us to listen to words without forcing them into a mould, to accept them only for their sound, to let ourselves be led by our hearing within a forgotten dimension.
Towards Something Primary
This is work that both provokes and requires an intimate relationship with the listeners, who sit in the centre of a darkened room, concentrated and ready to listen as they would be for the reading of a poem. The sounds of language, detached from their semantic weight and revealed in their essence as sound, are in a way subtracted from time and space. Beyond their referential function the languages are freed from the weight of the “earth” and suggest themselves as the living material of our perception. They become the tools for a deeper communication, they manage to lead hearing to remote zones, towards something that has been lost: the original timbre of our maternal tongue “when the music of the words was everything because meaning had not yet dethroned the marvel of sound, rhythm, and melody…”. They place us, then, near to our origins, to that birth which took place through sound even before vision.
With regard to this, Meri has reminded me that when a child is still in its mother’s womb it manages to discriminate sounds because its hearing apparatus is perfectly formed. In fact a child’s hearing is predisposed to hear all the sounds in the world and the greater part of the information it receives arrives in this way. Despite this, hearing is a sense which we forget about because we privilege vision. We should, instead, think about the fact that we are so sensitive to sound because in some way it is our origin, while sight is imperfect and we learn to see through experience. This privileged sight of ours communicates with us through a knowing language; sound, instead, arrives along underground paths and cannot be controlled. An important point: vision as something controllable. When I think of the society in which we live today, one mainly based on images, the work of this artist who leads me into the world of sound seems to me to be all the more interesting. The reason is that in this way we escape from the boredom provoked by images and their abuse by all sections of society. For Sartori we are also dealing with this: affirming the primacy of hearing over the pervasiveness of images, of appearance.
The first syllables or words pronounced by a human being are certainly of an onomatopoeic kind; in other words, they reproduce the sounds of nature (the wind, the sea, the rain…) and we can say that language began to acquire a certain form when human beings recognised their own feelings and felt the need to express them. In our atavist memory there exist sounds that convey such positive sensations as pleasure, joy, happiness, and others that, on the other hand, induce conflict, anxiety, and sadness… The pure sound of words has an affective tonality, a colour, a volume, and emanates an aura, evokes images, conserves a memory that joins together with something far off. In the oriental sacred tradition, OM has such a function: to evoke the initial rhythm of creation and recreate harmony in itself. “Do you remember what Darwin said about music? He held that the capacity to play and appreciate it existed in the human race long before the ability to speak. Perhaps for this reason music exerts on us a subtle influence. It arouses in our mind vague memories of those obscure centuries at the dawn of mankind”3.
In a society that has completely unlearned listening, an artistic experience such as that of Sartori could be extremely significant. By re-elaborating language as though it were a mantra, and by freeing it from the conventions we have forced on it, the artist allows us to go back through hearing to something primary and forgotten: the pure and ancient sound of words, the raw experience of our first contact with the world.
Providence, April 2008
- Fernando Dogana, Le parole dell’incanto, Franco Angeli, Milan 1990, p. 347
- Bruce Nauman – Barbara Casavecchia — Elena Volpato, Bruce Nauman. Inventa e muori. Interviste 1967-2001, A&M bookstore, Milan 2005.
- Arthur Conan Doyle, Uno studio rosso, in Immagini della mente, Raffello Cortina Editore, Milan 2007, p. 231.
A LINGUISTIC OBSERVATION
ON MARIATERESA SARTORl’S THE SOUND OF LANGUAGE
I have suspected many a time that
meaning is really something added to
verse. I know for a fact that we feel the
beauty of a poem before we even begin
to think of a meaning.
J.L.Borges (2000) This Craft of Verse
From 1967 to 1968 Jorge Luis Borges gave the Charles Elliot Norton Lectures at the University of Harvard. They were transcribed some years later from an old tape on which they had been recorded by Calin-Andrei Mihailescu, and were published in 2000 by the Harvard University Press with the title of This Craft of Terse.
So we read that, according to Borges, meaning is not essential to verse. Sound is what gives beauty to a poem or, rather, that is its main ingredient.
And again, in Epidauros, one of the tales from Atlas, also by Borges, we read:
Sin proponérmelo y sin preverlo, fui arrebatado por las dos músicas, la de los instrumentos y la de las palabras, cuyo sentido me era vedado pero no su antigua pasión. [Without asking for it and without expecting it, I was taken by two kinds of music, that of the instruments and that of the words, the sense of which was denied me, but not their ancient passion.]
That sound is the most important ingredient of poetry is known even by children: many, perhaps the majority, of the most important nonsense rhymes recited by them as a back ground to their games or to do counting have no meaning.
Here are some examples in Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Dutch, and English.
A liule che tamusè
che ta prufitta lusinghè,
tulilem blem blum,
tulilem blem blum
o este pie
Wieze, wies, wies, wies, wies
Ekkeri akkeiy u-kery an,
Filiisi’ follasy Nicholas John,
Queebee—quabee— Irish Mary,
Stingle ‘em-stangle ‘em—buck!
And yet all children learn them by heart and prefer them to nursery rhymes with a meaning. It seems that it is the sound with mysterious meaning that attracts them.
But why should children be of interest to us? Because rhyme, the main ingredient of nonsense rhymes, is the property of language that we first learn when we come into the world. Thus it is one of the most deeply rooted aspects of our linguistic competence, as Jakobson has remarked. It is something that is already present during the “babbling” phase when we still cannot recognise the syllabic structure of the sounds infants make.
We like these poems without words by Mariateresa Sartori in which prosody, both rhythm and intonation, of poetry is preserved, though the meaning is not – just as we once liked nonsense rhymes.
Let’s try to discover why.
The poems are taken from eleven languages and represent seven typologically different groups: Russian, French, Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, English, German, Italian, Bissa (a language spoken in Burkina Faso), Brazilian Portuguese, and Spanish.
Let’s see which poems Italians prefer or, rather, which seem to be I he most familiar. These, I think, will be the second, the penultimate, and the last. But if we were to take another transformational step and make the vowels and consonants also unrecognisable, probably even the third from last would be familiar – from Burkina Faso which we most probably have never heard. And to an Italian it will seem more familiar than English poetry which, probably, they have heard many times. Flow come? The reason for such familiarity is not the linguistic group, i.e. the common historical origin: in fact European Portuguese is probably not familiar to us. The cause, instead, should be looked for in the fact that the languages are divided up according to their rhythm.1 When Borges, in fact, says he is taken by the beauty of the music of the words that he does not understand, he is in Epidauros listening to a Greek tragedy, and Greek is a language with a rhythm similar to that of South American Spanish, his own mother tongue.
That the rhythm of our mother tongue is deeply rooted in our linguistic competence can be appreciated when we speak a foreign language we have learnt alter puberty, especially if it belongs to a rhythmic class different to that of Italian: English for example. Or when we hear a native English speaker (apart from rare examples of particularly musical individuals) speak in Italian. It is not only the consonants and vowels which are different, but the whole movement of what is being spoken. In fact the consonants and vowels are relatively easy to learn will respect to the prosody, i.e. the distribution of accents, tones, and length.
What do we mean by rhythm? The best definition I know is that by Plato: Rhythm is order in movement. Given this definition it is clear that rhythm does not only characterise language or auditory phenomena such as music and poetry but is a property that pervades the universe. Together with language, the waves of the sea, heartbeats and dance steps are rhythmic. But the arches of a portico or the flowers in a garden can also be organised in a rhythmic way.
Rhythm in spoken language, just as in music or poetry, has a hierarchical organisation. What is it: that establishes the linguistic rhythm at the various levels of the hierarchy? At the lowest level it is the alternation of vowels and consonants and all the successive levels, the alternation of more or less accented syllables. The rhythm of languages such as English, Dutch, or German is different from that of languages like Italian, Spanish or Greek because in the second group of languages vowels are more frequent than in the first. Lloyd James has compared the sound of Spanish to that of a machine gun and that of English to that of messages in the Morse Code. This difference in rhythm, which we can all clearly hear, results from the different syllabic complexity which is greater in the first group than in the second.2 In fact English has 16 kinds of syllable and Dutch 19, while Spanish has 6 and Italian 8. The syllabic structure is the reason why European Portuguese is unfamiliar: over lime it has reduced the vowels and has made the syllabic structure far more complex that in Italian.
The rhythm of language is perceived from the earliest days of life: newborns differentiate the rhythm of rhythmically different classes of language, but do not differentiate between two languages of the same rhythmic class. For example, they distinguish English from Spanish, but not Spanish from Italian or English from Dutch. What they hear is the percentage of time occupied by vowels, the noisiest parts of language, and the regularity of their occurrence in spoken language. Given the high percentage of syllables formed by consonants and vowels (CV) in Italian and Spanish, the recurrence of vowels is very regular. As a result in Italian vowels occupy more time than in English. This is why Italian, like Spanish, is reminiscent of a machine gun. Rhythm then gives a clue to the syllabic complexity as well as other, more abstract, properties of die language.
I laving eliminated the meaning, as Mariateresa Sartori has done in her poems, we are left with sound. What exactly remains of a fixed-meter poem once we have eliminated its meaning? There remains the tension between meter and rhythm which allows us to understand whether a person is speaking poetry or not. As Zirmunsky says, poetry is the compromise resulting from the resistance of the linguistic medium to the rales of organised meter. Metrically organised poetry must, so to say, create an agreement between two structures: the prosodic structure of language, common also to everyday language, and abstract meter.
The Italian hendecasyllabic metrical model, like the English iambic pentameter, both to be found in the poems by Sartori, is iambic. In other words the basic meter consists of live feet in which a weak syllable is followed by a strong one. From this basic meter there are then possible some limited deviations. Given that most verses are iambic they therefore contrast with the rhythm of Italian which is trochaic. This displacement too characterises the sound of many poems and is at the heart of the many compromises, to which Zirmunsky refers, that a poet makes when writing a poem. We could say that the beauty of these poems resides in the fact that we are not distracted by the meaning.
- For the first hints about the existence of rhythmic classes see Lloyd James (1940)
- For identifying the measurement that takes account of different basic rhythms see Ramus, Nespor, and Mehler, (1999).
Borges, J.L. (1974) Obras Completas. Buenos Aires. Emece Editores S.A.
Borges, J.L. (2000) This Craft of Verse. Harvard University Press. Jakobson, B. (1968) Child Language, Aplasia, and Phonological universals. The Hague. Mouton.
Lloyd, James A. (1940) Speech Signals in Telephony. Londra. Platone The Laws. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press (1926).
Ramus, F., M. Nespor and J. Mehler (1999) Correlates of linguistic rhythm in the speech signal. Cognition. 73. 265-292. Zirmunskij, V.M. (1966) Introduction to Metrics. The Flague. Mouton.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC AND THE SOUND OF LANGUAGE
However curious it might seem, there are pieces of music that do not need their own particular sound. I am thinking of Bach’s fugues which work equally as well when played on a harpsichord, using die astral flute or Whistl’n Joe stops of a synthesiser, or in vocal versions by the Swingle Singers. Of course, switching from one version to another our perceptions change, because the skin of the music changes; what remains unaltered, however, is its substance, its underlying skeleton, the flow of notes and pauses, rhythms and harmonies which in such constructions seem to us to be the music tout court. So sound becomes a secondary matter: beautiful, useful, significant, but secondary.
There is then music which has a certain need for its own sound. I am thinking of operatic arias transcribed for the piano where the result is obviously less interesting than the original but, all the same, plausible: the composer had imagined a voice together with the orchestra, with all the echoes and tonal allusions that this involves, but our attention is focussed all the same on the aria and, therefore, even while having to exchange the orchestral sonority for that of the more austere piano, 1 wouldn’t say we lose everything: it is a compromise but, all things considered, an acceptable one. This happened quite recently, for example, when Riccardo Muti, in 1995, sat down at the piano and accompanied the singers for a product ion of La Traviala, because the orchestra of the Scala had gone on strike.
Other music would be senseless without its own sound. Ravel’s quartets or any sonata by Beethoven are at hand for an immediate illustration of this. In this case we cannot even think of substituting one instrument for another – though this was a widespread practice up to the early classical period when a violin or flute could quite happily exchange parts according to the needs of the moment – because the sense of the music is indissolubly tied to the timbre, i.e. the sound: these are pieces that either you play as written or don’t play at all. And finally there is music based only on sound. Here there is no question of melody, harmony, and form: everything is invested in timbre: the sound itself is the music. A paradigmatic example would be electronic music, from its earliest manifestations to D.ls; another would be Rock, the various differences of which are only recognisable because of the differences of sound. We could also mention Webern, Debussy of course, and Boulez and, together with him, a large part of the output of the older avant-gardes.
This is what is in the mind of those composers who listen to the sound of language: they know that the relationship between what is signified and the signifier are historically mutable; they know that die importance of content can have an enormous importance or can disappear beneath the beauty of phonetic play; they know that the very words of love have a different impact if pronounced in Italian or in German. So then, when they use a language for their scores, when they want a text to be declaimed as part of their work, they think of that sound-object as a timbre or a group of timbres even before worrying about the voice that will read or sing the text.
Furthermore: the sound of a language and, above all. its rhythm, have often inspired composers for the design of their intoned melodies: French music – sweet, sinuous – does so because the French language is pronounced in that way; the same is true of the velocity and rhythm of English, the vividness of German, and so on.
Up to a certain point the main composer to adhere to the prosodic characteristics of language has been the Czech composer Leos Janacek (1854-1928) who made the protagonists of his operas sing with the same rhythm they would have used when speaking, and obtained marvellous music. With his compositions we of course listen to music but we hear it virtually spoken: it is bizarre, it is very beautiful. After him, however, the person who has used the sound of language in the most original way, trying to penetrate and imitate its secrets, is Steve Reich (1936), the inventor of speech-melody, the instrumental doubling of a spoken melody of which, while they listen to it in a recording, the players reproduce the rhythm and prosody in perfect synchrony. This can be heard in Different Trains, 1988, where, as a result of the amazingly precise playing of the Kronos Quartet, each phrase enunciated by a woman on the record they selected as a matrix is doubled by the viola, and each phrase spoken by a man has its own sound-shadow in the form of a cello. This is a technique, also used in his video operas The Cave and Three Tales, that Reich has made us appreciate, and it is basically a kind of powerful alternative to song: there is no longer a need to sing a text to make music out of it: it is enough to listen to its internal microevolutions, entrust it to an instrument, and the game of transformations is done.
So the work of Mariateresa Sartori appears splendid and intriguing to the ears of a composer because it discards meaning and gives space to a language to be listened to as a sound in itself, like a musical transcription of its very essence, a piece of music. And 1 think this is something marvellous.
THE SOUND OF LANGUAGE
Years ago I was deeply impressed by hearing The Divine Comedy read on the radio by Sermonti. I wasn’t able to follow the meaning very well but 1 was overwhelmed by the beauty of the sound, die rhythm, and the intonation. I heard the beauty of the Italian language, its particular melody, determined by a certain sequence of syllables and a particular accentuation and intonation. Really to perceive those aspects linked to the sound of one’s mother tongue is something almost impossible: meaning has the upper hand.
In order to make this experience possible 1 made unrecognisable, from a semantic point of view, Leopardi’s Asia, the nocturnal song of a wandering shepherd, though 1 left the rhythm, melody, and word length completely unaltered, while transposing the consonants of the individual words or those near to them. The result was something utterly incomprehensible but absurdly familiar. At this point I also asked foreign scholars from ten different countries to choose a poem in their own language and to elaborate it by eliminating its meaning while keeping the same rhythm, melody, meter, and rhyme. I was surprised by the enthusiasm and interest that those involved showed right from the start because 1 had assumed I was dealing with a personal and eccentric passion difficult to share with others. In fact, beneath the apparent remains of a senseless eccentricity there were hidden (and I really only realised this afterwards) extremely serious aspects referring to basic mental processes closely connected to the origin of meaning and that occur before it. As Sermonti has said, a child playing on the carpet hears the conversation of adults without understanding its meaning. He does, however, perceive the method behind the flow of this so-familiar language and assimilates its rhythm and intonation. This aspect of knowledge seems to me to be full of intrinsic beauty. Perhaps this is why the scholars showed such eagerness in giving new life to their material and that the actors couldn’t believe they could at last speak absurdities.
THERE IS STILL AN ECHO IN OUR THOUGHTS…
The first time I extended my hand or, rather, my mouth to the poetry I had chosen, I was on a mountain meadow. [( was a good moment: no books and I had only the first two verses in my mind, the ones that give the rhythm. The doubts I had at first had created many problems for me, but I left them behind me down in the village. So I could exercise the muscles of my tongue and begin to play with letters, threads of clouds in a wholly interior landscape, and forget about uniting them into words. In other words, forget about the mass of worries that would form behind my brow once I went back home and faced tip to a written text.
Later on I changed the poetry, but in the meanwhile I continued to ask myself: would some trace of what I loved in that text remain if I continued to churn rhymes, interior allusions, alliterations? This worry tortured me together with the mosquitoes. The moths beat against the lampshade under whose cone of light I was trying to place my book and paper. These were warm evenings outside, and by now I had left the mountains for the countryside.
But luckily my holidays were not yet finished. I can see myself then while sea bathing. It’s true that I was thinking about the word “cage”, about limited movements and not just about the metrical cage. In the meantime, however, I let myself be lifted up and down by the waves. I believe I was already thinking about the second poem, about the unexpected pleasure that, between one word and another, was awaiting me right there.
I only had to finish up a verse that I couldn’t remember. Yes, I was at the seaside, but there wasn’t only water surrounding me. Sooner or later I would find a telephone, a computer, the emergency treatment for a reader on holiday…
ON THE SOUNDS OF WORDS (i WOULD SPEND HOURS AND HOURS)
The real marvel of poetry (and of song) consists precisely in the indissoluble wedding between meaning and sound, between prosody (the rhythmic and melodic aspects of which poetic meter is a basic part) and aspects linked to the meanings evoked by the words. The world of meanings presents an infinite richness and permeates humanity marking it out as a special creature with respect to the other creatures of the world. And yet 1 am only too happy to admit that I could pass hours and hours translating Italian poems into the language of meaningless sounds. Even though I have not studied it I feel I am an expert in what is not a widely studied field. I am filled with calm when I think of the sounds rather than the meanings, and when 1 find the right sound – the one that respects the most parameters, the length of the words, similar sounding consonants, rhyme, the rhythm within a poetic phrase – then I am filled with joy. I feel that everything has mysteriously joined together, adheres to an ancient and primary way of experiencing the world, one which over time, and by acquiring our mother tongue, we necessarily lose in a distant time back in childhood when the sound of words was everything, because meaning had not yet overthrown the marvel of the sound, rhythm, and melody of a word, a phrase, the flow of discourse. And so I remember how it was not to understand. By re-reading transformed poetry I also rediscover the enchantment of a world that arrives by other routes (so many! rich! sweet! disturbing!). A world partly without the names of our earliest infancy is a less emotionally mediated one, for better or for worse (words as filters for better or for worse). And yet suddenly at times we undergo the fascination of the sound of certain words. How can we deny the beauty of the Italian verbs ending in ARE? How can be convey the sense of infinite time unless with the marvellous suffix ARE? Camminare, andare, guardare, sognare – to walk, go, look, dream. The verbs of the second and third conjugation, such as vedere, uscire, and servire – to see, leave, serve – are far less impressive. When in poetry or songs I find the open A of ARE, the infinite verb, a breach is opened into the world of sounds without meaning, and I become dizzy as I scan the threshold. To be balanced between these two great worlds is to take possession of two different keys for accepting and understanding the unique world in which we live.
The Sound of Language, 2008 , 11 sound books, 2008 , Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venezia, permanent collection of the museum
photos Francesco Allegretto
The Sound of language, one sound track version
Punta della dogana, Fondazione Pinault, Venezia
photo Mauro Sambo