Music & Speech

Daniel Bowling really ought to do this study with Vietnamese speakers. In Vietnamese, there is a long tradition of interaction between the six tones of the spoken language & the (mostly pentatonic) music used to accompany songs & poems. Last weekend, I was invited to the home of a family of very talented traditional musicians & treated to an informal concert of various forms of Vietnamese music. In most of these forms, because the language itself is tonal, the poet or songwriter has followed forms that place rising or falling or level tones in particular places in the verse line. The instrumentalist(s) & vocalist, also following a set of conventions, but also improvising within the conventions, perform the text so as to emphasize & play with the composer’s intentions. My sense is, though I’m not entirely sure of this, that, contrary to the Western art song / lieder tradition, the music is driven by the vocal text rather than the other way around.

The musicians I listened to played the đàn tranh & the đàn đáy, stringed instruments with a pentatonic tuning & the ability to bend notes in order to suggest the tonal slides & glides of the Vietnamese language. There is also a two-stringed lute that has no natural tuning & can be tuned to any of the other instruments. Half-way through the concert the other night, a young man showed up who was a virtuoso on this instrument, playing incredibly complex runs of notes on the raised frets. In the south, I have seen Western guitars with the spaces between the frets scooped out in order to play microtones.


Learning Vietnamese

There are people who retain the ability to learn languages with relative ease into adulthood. I’m not one of them. In fact, I was a lousy language learner even as a kid taking Spanish and then French in school. I wonder if this has anything to do with musical ability. The young Rousseau, he tells us in the Confessions, went to Turin & picked up Italian in a few months; he was also a good enough musician that he could take small solo parts in a church choir. Some people have an innate ability to grasp the logic of musical sequences that exhibits itself, often, when they are very young. Again, not me. Piano lessons were a dismal failure. I played the snare drum for a while in the elementary school orchestra, but never progressed beyond that point. I do have a strong sense of rhythm & meter, I think, especially when applied to my native language. I didn’t start trying to learn Vietnamese until I was fifty & it has been something of a struggle. I do pretty well with the written language & can makes sounds that sufficiently resemble Vietnamese to be understood by (sympathetic) native speakers, but I still have a very difficult time with auditory comprehension.

When the Jesuit missionary Alexander de Rhodes–already fluent in French, Portuguese, Latin, & Chinese–came to central Vietnam in 1624, he said that spoken Vietnamese sounded like “the twittering of birds” & despaired of ever being able to learn the language. Nevertheless, with the help of a twelve year old Vietnamese boy & another Jesuit who had arrived earlier, he was fluently speaking the language in less than a year. He went on to invent a phonetic writing system for Vietnamese, using the Roman alphabet, that over the next couple of centuries slowly–& then in the 20th century, quickly–replaced the old system based on Chinese characters. I would never have attempted Vietnamese if I had been required to learn ideographs. As it is, the myriad vowels marked by diacritical marks and the six tones, indicated by another set of marks, give me plenty of work to do. For some reason I’m not entirely clear about myself, I have made more progress with the spoken language on this trip than on all my previous trips, even when they were longer & when I studied formally with a teacher. Maybe it is because I continued to practice in the US using Rosetta Stone. For simple interactions on the street & in the hotel, etc. I am living in Vietnamese now.


Rosanne Cash, Bodhisattva

Master Dogen Zenji writes, in the Genjokoan, that many fully actualized Buddhas have no idea that they are Buddhas:

When buddhas are truly buddhas they do not necessarily notice that they are buddhas. However, they are actualized buddhas, who go on actualizing buddhas.

Rosanne Cash says she is not a Buddhist because she “kills ants and eats meat,” but what does she know? (Some of the most rigorous Buddhists I know eat meat from time to time.)

Don Van Vliet / Captain Beefheart

Don Van Vliet, Captian Beefheart, is dead at 69 from complications of MS. He made the kind of music you couldn’t listen to all the time, but had to listen to sometimes. He was also a painter of ambiguous images. Another in the great tradition of self-mythologizing Americans, he found his own way through the postwar wasteland of suburbs and burger joints. He stayed awake while the rest of us were sleeping.

Another Saint

Another saint in my pantheon drawn from the NY Times obituary pages, Elizabeth L. Sturz. Interestingly, I ran across a reference to her just last week when reading Ted Anthony’s Chasing the Rising Sun, an account of the origins and development of the old song “The House of the Rising Sun.” Elizabeth Sturz, born Elizabeth Harold, was married to the folklorist Alan Lomax and accompanied him on his earliest trips into Appalachia to collect songs. It was on one of these trips that they recorded a teenaged girl named Georgia Turner singing “Rising Sun” without accompaniment. The obit in the Times transformed Elizabeth Sturz for me from a footnote to someone of note; it also demonstrates that we are not our beginnings. Or our endings, either. Whatever else we are, we are the transformations we work in our lifetimes and the energy we send forward beyond them. That Georgia Turner version of “The House of the Rising Sun” is worth seeking out on Amazon — you can get it for under a dollar as an MP3, though I believe it is listed under Alan Lomax’s name. Such are the indignities of fate, not that they matter in the long run.