As someone who adores language and all its marvellous permutations and conundrums, it might seem strange to admit that I also see language as a barrier sometimes to a deeper, instinctual experience. I suppose it’s my background of studies in Literature and Culture that has made me very aware of how UN-transparent language can be. Language is not like a glass window that you can see clearly through, it is more like a prism refracting sunlight, splitting the original thought into multiple possible meanings just as sunlight is split into all the colours of the rainbow. That’s one of the wonderful things about language, it has this chameleon-like ability where a single word can have multiple meanings, however it can also be dangerous when misused. And sometimes it simply CANNOT express what we feel, and it ends up getting in the way rather than facilitating expression. Like looking through a dirty window, sometimes your attention is distracted by the smudges and smears and you can’t see clearly what’s beyond. And I find this is particularly true when language is coupled with music.
Because music is essentially something that we FEEL, not so much a thing we ‘understand’ or analyse, there are times I think when words just take away from the experience, rather than adding to it. I’m not talking about vocals here, I’m talking about words because actually, I believe the voice is the most beautiful instrument of all, the most versatile, and absolutely the most ancient. But I find that when I hear a song in a language that I do not speak, I often have a more powerful, or somehow deeper, response to it than I have to a song I can understand. When you hear the melody, you generally ‘know’ immediately if this is a sad song, a song of sorrow or longing, or a happy song full of joy and exuberance. If you know the words, then the meaning is specific to whatever events are described in the song...you can perhaps identify with it, but it’s not about YOU. But, if you hear that song sung in a language that you don’t understand, then you fill that gap with YOURSELF, it becomes about your sorrow or your joy, intensely personal and meaningful. It actually becomes easier to enter into the spirit of the song, to understand it on a much deeper and more instinctual level, because we are listening with our hearts and not with our heads.
I think I first began to understand this when I heard the Trio Bulgarka for the first time. Apart from the incredible SOUND these women make (something I’d never heard before and therefore hugely exciting to my young self), the emotion the music evoked was exciting. I used to play around trying to sing like that, just making words up that sounded a bit like what they were singing. And I discovered how wonderful it actually is to sing without ‘real’ words. It’s as if you’re freed from the restriction of having a logical narrative, of having to remember the right words in the right order. If you’ve never tried it, go ahead, even if it’s just in the shower, it’s wonderfully liberating.
Later, when I was singing with An t-Eilean Mor, the Scottish Gaelic group I was with during the late 90s, I encountered a similar thing, for me as a singer and also for the people who heard us. Though we usually had English translations of the songs so WE knew at least what they were about, singing in a language you don’t speak, once we had overcome the difficulties of learning the correct pronunciation (not an easy thing with Gaelic), the words became beautiful sounds that were filled with emotion that WE felt. And time and time again, I saw audience members reduced to tears listening to a song whose meaning they had no idea of. And often, they would come up to us afterwards and tell us what the song meant, to them. And bizarrely enough the number of times they hit the nail on the head was uncanny...”Oh, I could hear the sea in this one, and then a storm came and the ship was lost and it was so sad”, or “I could see a woman sitting by the fire singing to her baby and I thought of my mum...”
Over the years, there seems to have been a rise in popularity in ‘World music’, and more and more often film music is featuring vocals that have no real words, and I suspect it’s a lot to do with this. Don’t get me wrong, as a fledgling songwriter, I still adore ‘proper’ songs with beautiful, meaningful words and that’s what I strive for when I’m trying to write one. But I’m also inspired by people who use words differently. I’ll leave you with the incomparable Lisa Gerrard, and I defy you not to be moved by her song. As an interesting bit of trivia, it’s always fascinating to read the comments left by people on Youtube videos of Lisa’s music. Debate continues to rage about what language she’s singing in, some people claim it’s Gaelic, others are adamant it’s Latin, or Hebrew, or Sandskrit. Many ask for translations, and some even provide them! The music moves them deeply and they believe that knowing ‘what the words are’ will deepen the experience. But I don’t think it would. For the truth is, almost always, Lisa is singing in a language that perhaps has the odd word from here or there or ones that ‘sound like latin’, but it is her own invented language. It’s not a language you can understand with your head. But your heart will know what she’s singing about.