Week 5 – 山慕

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We’re back!

It’s been a super busy week or so here at the studio. But most importantly:

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There are piglets! These are one day old piglets. Five tiny piglets! They’re so small they’re almost translucent, and they’re wobbly and adorable. We’ve been told they’ll live for about a month before becoming pork, which is hard to fathom right now, but it’s part of life on a farm…

I’ve been working hard on my graphic score, and it’s becoming really interesting. Ever since knowing about tonal languages, I’ve always wondered what happens when you sing? Do songs have to follow the tone patterns, leading to all love songs having a similar sound? Could you not have a song with the same lyrics and a different tune?

Of course, that’s ridiculous. I have since confirmed that the truth is equally ridiculous. Songs discount the tone, and as a result the lyrics can be quite confusing. Chinese is already a very contextual language, even the same sound with the same tone can have very different meanings. So a string of words without tone, much like most foreigners reading from a phrase book, make pretty much no sense whatsoever. It can only be understood through context, which is actually a beautiful and slightly ephemeral concept to non tonal language speakers.

(ie: the character 慕 mù that I’ve taken as my part of my name, means admirable. (Same as Miranda does) but the same pronunciation and tone could also mean: eye, a list or catalogue, tree, simple, numb, tent, curtain, herd, grave, solemn, collect, recruit, dusk, late, wash one’s hair, peaceful, and the chemical symbol for molybdenum (mo). I have to clarify, 爱慕ài mù so that people know which mù I mean, without me writing it down. I hope no one thinks my name is Mountain numb! But I guess Mountain tree would be ok… but ‘shān’ could also mean “the smell of mutton…” Yikes.)

That got me thinking: what is it about the words that retain meaning, even when with a different tonal direction? I know for a fact that the right sound with the wrong tone gets a blank look from a Chinese speaker. I know that the tonal differences between provincial dialects can render a Yunnan resident partly incomprehensible in Beijing. So: If you can take the tones out and the language is still mostly, and contextually, comprehensible… what happens if you remove everything *but* the tone?

Mountains Mountains Mountains

Mountains Mountains Mountains

So this is what I’ve been working on, recording interviews, transcribing the text as best I can, and then translating the tone and natural rhythm of speech into graphic notation. The excerpt above is from Ji Xing, the eldest son who speaks Mandarin, Naxi and English. In this interview he is speaking Mandarin. He has said that “Kunming-hua” is quite different to his spoken Chinese, so I imagine he has a mix between a school educated and a Lijiang accent. His speaking voice is quite melodic, and listening and transcribing his words into music I could already hear the instrumentalists interpretations. Parts of the transcription sounds like a jazzy trumpet lick, and trying to convey that while remaining loyal to his words and inflection is a delicious challenge.

I’m experimenting with different ways of interpreting the speech, and am looking forward to working with different dialects and languages. The Naxi language is quite different to Mandarin, in tones, sound, and written language. But the joys of written Naxi and Dongba language are for another post!

I have an vision for the finished score, but it’s still under wraps… Right now I’m just really enjoying exploring this aspect of interpretation and translation. Taking a language that I can barely speak, and translating it into a language that very few musicians speak fluently. It’s also taking an long established, ancient language that has been the vehicle for some of our greatest poets and translating it into something moveable, changeable and open to interpretation.

I think that’s one of the aspects I’m finding the most fascinating: the idea of changeability in language. As I said earlier, Chinese is a highly contextual language, which can also be said for graphic interpretation of music. The same score read by different musicians will have a different outcome, even if they are reading the score using the same parameters. It’s changeable, but finite. The score is set (or will be!) and the parameters laid out, but the final result is out of my hands. It’s probably as good a metaphor for learning to speak Chinese as I could imagine.

Xue Mei making fresh Baba.

Xue Mei making fresh Baba.

Apart from piglets and interviews, life has been going on as usual on the family homestead. The other day I pulled out some family photos to show Anai, and in return she brought out some old photos of her own. Seeing our lovingly cantankerous Naxi grandmother as a shiny faced youth, not yet touched by the sun, posing for a portrait in her army uniform was a real shock. History is recent here. What I wrote essays about in school, Anai lived and experienced. This is such an old country with such old cultures, but so much of the history is still living, remembering, and feeding bread to the cat.

Anai and Mao

I’ll put up a photo post of the last few weeks soon. 再见!

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