the devil in music

Okrent makes many interesting points about the hows and whys of language formation. One point that I find particularly beautiful in its meaning and the prose with which she describes it is the idea that the survival of a language depends in part on its ability to be destroyed. A language has to be loosely-knit enough to offer its users endless opportunities in the language’s life to tear it apart and stitch it back together with threads from other tongues.

Though language inventors may have set their sights on issues a little more immediate than the ten-thousand-year-communication problem, too many of them have made the mistake of believing that if they just worked hard enough, they could come up with a language that would transcend society. But it is society that creates meaning, and therefore language. The best hope a language inventor has for the survival of his or her project is to find a group of people who will use it, and then hand it over and let them ruin its perfection.

(pp 262-3)

Okrent makes several references to music in her book, typically in order to match language against something with more universal trappings. For example, Okrent writes that languages inventors (such as Dalgarno) are wrong to assume they can capture the universality of music by basing a language on musical principles. “There are types of communication, such as the ‘language’ of music, that may allow us to access some kind of universal meaning or emotion, but give us no way to say, ‘I left my purse in the car,’” writes Okrent, implying that, though music cannot give us words, its universality in other regards is a given. I love music as much as Okrent loves language, and I’m fascinated by the simultaneous evolutions of different cultures’ musical languages because, like language, music is highly influenced by society’s creation of meaning. I think Okrent actually misses an opportunity in her comparison of language and music to support her point about languages forming and reshaping as the society that uses them evolves.

Many people, especially Westerners, assume that Western music is universal—that C major is as happy sounding around the globe as E minor is sad. Mozart and Haydn are two of many Classical composers who famously wrote pieces in E flat minor to evoke a feeling of heroism. Mozart personally believed that G minor evoked the most tragic sadness of all the minor keys, and he supposedly conducted experiments on colleagues to test his scientific observation. Although few people probably still believe that certain chords literally unlock corresponding emotions, it seems that a lot of people assume something universal about music—that people around the world hear and respond to it the same. I agree that certain atomized components of popular music may elicit something similar in people from different cultures. I also believe that it is possible through concentrated listening to identify and thus (temporarily) shake-off a specifically Western and learned perspective on music that we may mistake for a universal truth about it.

One of the most incredible listening experiences that exists is to submit oneself to La Monte Young’s 5 hour solo piano composition “The Well-Tuned Piano.” If you have time while reading this post to close your eyes and enjoy the first 10 minutes of the 5 hour journey, do yourself the favor:

This piece is gorgeous, impressive, transportive (and a whole other host of adjectives that make me lament how often I speak in hyperbole) for a number of reasons including the specific tuning Young uses to make the piano sound like a a chorus of bells, strings, horns, explosions, the cosmos, time and interplanetary travel. I bring the piece up in this context to illustrate that the music we are used to hearing (and that is not present in this piece), the “universal” chords with their assigned emotions in tow, is nothing more than that—music we are used to hearing. Young’s piece may sound dissonant at first, but by hour 2 the ears open up, and by hour 5 the listener comprehends the wealth of sublime music that might have been composed had Western music been freed from its arbitrary shackles a long time ago.

Throughout its evolution, Western music has been tied to a rather strict system that religious entities used to define certain relationships between notes (and to outlaw others) based on God’s “perfect” mathematics. One can easily challenge the universality of Western music on an intellectual level by pointing to music of other cultures with their technically disparate scales (Pentatonic, Byzantine or “Gypsy”, Phrygian) or lack of notation (Amadinda, Pueblo). Young challenges this universality on a physical level, since it’s impossible to sit through his piece and not have your music-emotion complex crumble and reveal itself to be little more than the acquired Western societal meaning-creation pot of jingles, carols, standards and anthems.

As Wikipedia, the lowest common denominator of how people define stuff, describes, “The creation, performance, significance, and even the definition of music vary according to culture and social context.” I find it amazing that something so immediate and seemingly unmediated as music is subject to the same process of societal modifications as language as Okrent describes it. People who play music know that a tritone is an interval composed of three whole tones, and that it is ubiquitous in popular music—an early teacher of mine, aware of my love of movie musicals, easily planted the interval in my memory: “Ma-Ri-A…I just met a girl named Maria…” To composers and theorists of the Middle Ages, the tritone sounded (and thus meant) evil—they called it “Diabolus in Musica” (the devil in music) and literally banned it. Has the tritone evolved to now become the leitmotif of star-crossed lovers because of a universal feeling of taboo that lives within it? Or have we passed on an arbitrary meaning-creation from our Middle-Aged ancestors, thus ruining the perfection of their music language?

The point that Okrent makes about languages necessarily allowing for their own ruin in order to be adopted is an interesting and almost liberating one. There cannot be a perfect, universal language because there is no perfect, universal society that understands what it thinks and wants now and will forever think and want to create it. That music behaves similarly is kind of amazing, and since music does not have to incorporate the same heavy levels of intellectualizing that language does, its phenomenal evolution strongly supports Okrent’s thoughts on societal/cultural meaning-creation. For this reason, I think she does herself a disservice by assuming anything universal about musical language.

…his own nation in his own little room…

The lyrics tell the story of a young person who feels completely alone, but then goes to an Esperanto congress and feels such friendship and connection to the world that his loneliness leaves him…until he is back in his own nation in his own little room. (131)

Normando, Okrent’s “Esperanto abassador,” here describes to her the meaning of the song “Sola” (Alone) that Kimo and Jean-Marc perform at an Esperanto conference in Havana. I misread the lyrics at first, assuming that the lonely young person in the song feels such connection to the world because of Esperanto that he is able to find “his own nation in his own little room.” When I reread the passage before typing it here, I noticed my error. I guess it is obvious though that “back in his nation” would mean much more to the young person who does not have the benefit of Web-enabled, constant, global communication. “Esperantoland” does not describe an actual land but an identity. Esperantoland worked from its origins for its small community because it could be accessed by anyone anywhere, and it was inclusive (particularly to the cranks). There is not a nation or culture or language that cannot now be accessed by anyone anywhere because of technological revolutions in global communication. Does this mean that localism is now wholly independent of geography? Are our identities constructed more from our physical local environs or from our own nations in our own little rooms? It seems that children spend as much time in their “own” nations as they do in their “real” communities—to which nation do they actually belong?

Okrent describes how during the Enlightenment thinkers saw Universal Language as something that would reveal a deep truth when it was discovered/created. Then as nationalism was privileged on the eve of WWI and became a threat to scattered peoples (like the Jews), language became a unifier—an instant form of community. Although young people will always continue to feel at times “completely alone,” it seems that today, with the technology that enables global communication speeding ahead of a potential universal language, people are more likely to create tools to aid understanding than to create a language itself. One example of such a tool is an app called World Lens that instantly translates foreign-language signs.

Perhaps as it becomes easier through technology to communicate, a language that incorporates popular aspects of different languages will organically emerge. That, or English will take over. Whatever the case, given the ease with which younger and younger people are able to figure out through technology how to understand the world and communicate with one another, it seems unlikely that someone will feel compelled to facilitate connection through the creation of a spoken language.

How will society change as identity-formation in youth depends less on physically localized culture?