Language is a Fictious Fact
On the 28th April 2016 I put on concert which featured a mixture of some of my favourite open-scored, chance-based, and quasi-composed/quasi-improvised pieces to both celebrate and summarise the three years I spent studying my Bachelor of Music at Canterbury Christ Church University.
In this series of blog posts I will talk about the processes, the influences, and the reasons, behind each composition that featured in the concert. There may also be links to scores and recordings of the pieces. (This will be on a case by case basis).
Boringly, I’ve decided to write the posts in the order the pieces appeared in the concert. Therefore, the first one up is my 3D Graphic Score Language is a Fictitious Fact.
Composed in the first year of my degree, this piece was my first introduction to the concept of graphic-notation. For one of our first compositions, we were challenged to create a graphic-score, and me being inept with anything that requires precision with my hands, decided that drawing, or painting, were out of the question. So for some strange reason I decided that paper-machaeing a box was the way to go. But with what? I’m not quite sure what exactly led up to the start of the idea, (I will try at least to piece together some of the facts in this post, but some are still fuzzy), nonetheless the first decision of the concept was one that I believe many English scholars will cringe at; ripping up an Oxford English Dictionary. Why? Like I said, I’m not always sure why or where exactly the finite details come from. I’m sure that there are reasons that led up to the moments, but I can’t pin-point all of them down. Therefore, as I write this post, I can only examine what I do know. If anyone who reads this in the future can prove with indisputable evidence the reasons that led up to the seed of this concept (particularly the ripping up an OED), if I’m still alive, I would very much like to read it. However, if not… well all I can say is well done.
Anyway, I digress….
Have you ever noticed that when you say a word so many times it ceases to have meaning? Go on… try it now…. choose any word and say it over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over – you get the idea- until it just becomes a noise that you are making, which feels almost detached from you body. The meaning of the word is temporarily lost or mutated. See! it’s a strange thing…. OK, now, what about the fact that there are hundreds of words that sound the same, or have same or at least similar spellings but have completely different meanings? It is strange, the difference between ‘read’ and ‘read’ are up to the context of the sentence as a whole… but I bet you don’t know which order I put them in… I mean it’s 50/50 …. but still…. all these factors of language , I concluded, was because language, its rules and conditions, are completely made up over time. (Well I could only speak of English as my French, Spanish, Korean etc. are awful). What is it they say? – ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’! Except, of course, in 923 cases (according to the elves at QI): silly me.
Over the course of a few weeks (3 I believe), I collected words from various places and resources that I either thought sounded interesting or unusual, or ones that I thought looked bizarre when written down (like ‘bizarre ‘for instance).
A few days prior to the start of the project, my step-grandmother had introduced me to a book called Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth. This book, (which I would recommend to anyone), takes you on a journey behind the origins and connections between words in the English language. His other book Horologicon which explores some of the lost words was also on my reading list. Consequently, some of the words from these books featured in the creation of the piece. During this part of the process, you could also spot me scribbling down words throughout the day as I heard these fascinating words. It was when I had collected nearly 200 words that I decided I had enough to work with.
So, what else goes better with a piece about this fictional thing we call ‘language, if not the condition that makes learning that fictional language more difficult and convoluted than it already is – Dyslexia! It just so happens that I have a few friends with Dyslexia. And because they’re my friends, I decided to give them the worst possible thing that only Satan himself could have thought up for them: a spelling test.
I gave each of my friends either a ‘hide-and-spell’ or ‘listen-and-spell’ spelling test for all of the words I collected. I popped this into a spreadsheet (I love those), and then combined or chose my favourite spellings that I felt looked the most unusual.
The next step was bit trickier. How could I represent these words as made-up? Well this is where I needed to do some research:
Going back to the lecture notes, I discovered a link to a PDF of John Cages Notations, a collection of various styles and composers open and graphically notated scores. Flicking through, I was interested by the text of various scores and descriptions, and how they were displayed, but the most fascinating ones were those where the words were almost drawn. One particular example is that of Malcolm Goldstein’s Illuminations from Fantastic Gardens (example below):
I like how I could sound the words out using the score, but if someone else had the score, they could have a completely different idea of how to sound out the sounds. This inspired me to do the same, or similar. But instead of transcribing direct musical sounds (like crescendos) onto the score, I wanted to allow for a wider scope of interpretation. So in keeping with the 3D element, I chose to make the score almost like a diorama, by hanging smaller boxes inside the larger box with the words drawn onto them. Thus allowing for each performer to have a different view of the piece, and further widening the scope of interpretation.
On reflection, though not a conscious thought at the time, the words hanging in space, spinning and moving with the slightest puff of air, are of great relevance. Symbolising how words (and language) changes and flows with all the elements such as the space their used in, or how they mutate over time. Think about words that Shakespeare came up with which were considered improper, and you can start to see how laughable the idea of language being a fixed, and so tightly ruled item, really is. Now, whenever someone tells me I’m using ‘improper’ english…. it does arouse my suspicions as to whether their current understanding of the rules are flawed or not. Sometimes, when writing anything with the written word, you really do need to negotiate what rules you follow, and which ones you tweak… just a little… in order fulfil the requirements of the task.
After all this I added one more element to the piece:
If you’ve ever gotten work back from school with misspelt words, or if you’ve ever used a piece of software on a computer that automatically detects the spelling, you may have noticed that the ‘incorrect’ spellings are underlined in read. However, sometimes the computer doesn’t notice because the word may be spelt correctly, but be a completely different spelling. Did you notice that when referring to the colour ‘red’ I typed in ‘read’? If you did… please help me proof-read my essays. If not… you are not alone. This is a prime example of where a computer wouldn’t notice this spelling. Now it is fair to say that sometimes words and sentences can be underlined in blue or green by the software because it’s a grammatical error, but for the purposes of this piece (and post), let’s focus on the spelling. Long story shot, it didn’t notice it.
So how did I use this element in my piece you ask? Simply, I underlined any correct spellings as incorrect.
Now my piece was complete. I had successfully mangled the english language. The only thing left was to hear an interpretation of this score. I wouldn’t hear an interpretation however, until roughly a year later as part of a rehearsal for the Canterbury Scratch Orchestra, and sadly I can’t remember whether I recorded this rehearsal or not. Fortunately, there is a recording that exists of both the babble before the piece, and of the version of the piece performed during this concert:
I would love to be able to share this particular score with the world. However, due to the nature of the score, it is currently carefully wrapped up in black-sacks in my attic. So the best I can do, is give you a PDF of the photographs I presented to the examiners.
The next post in this series will focus on the piece that won me the Canterbury Festival Composition Competition in 2015 A Throne of Games (you could probably guess at least one piece of material that inspired the piece).
– Jason Hodgson (31st January 2017)
Don’t forget to share this blog.
You can find me on:
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/JasonMusicallyMe (I’m working on changing this URL, but to do so I need at least 100 subscriber. Which is where you lovely readers can help by pressing the subscribe button).