The Unesco Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger is a melancholy document, charting the 3,000 or so languages that experts predict will vanish by the end of this century. In that context, a growing number of composers are turning their attention to languages that are extinct, endangered or particular to tiny groups of speakers in far-flung places with the aim of weaving these enigmatic utterances into musical works that celebrate, memorialize or mourn the languages and the cultures that gave birth to them. On Saturday, April 9, at the Cologne Opera in Germany, the Australian composer Liza Lim unveiled her opera “Tree of Codes”, which includes snippets of a Turkish whistling language from a small mountain village. On her most recent album, “The Stone People”, the pianist Lisa Moore sings and plays Martin Bresnick’s hypnotic “Ishi’s Song”, a setting of a chant by the last member of the Yahi, who died in 1916. (1)
A weird cause. Trying to “save” languages from extinction. We believe nothing is meant to last forever. But if we watch closely, if we listen carefully – not with our eyes but with our soul – we will discover that everything simply Is and nothing can “Not be”. Everything spoken is still there. Lingering in the air.
Sit silent beneath a tree. Listen.
Can you hear the whisper of the wind?
Can you listen millions of people talking?
They are dead.
But they were never more alive…
As long as the air keeps blowing, they will keep singing…