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Composer Kevin James Finds Music in Disappearing Languages

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(Duration: 9:36)

Kevin James at his home studio in New York City.

Kevin James at his home studio in New York City. (Bruce Wallace)

Kevin James is a musician and composer in New York City. For the past few years, he’s been working on The Vanishing Languages Project. He starts with recordings of endangered languages—ones with very few or, in one case, no remaining native speakers. He uses these as inspiration for extended string and percussion pieces. He recently debuted his latest work in Brooklyn and San Francisco.

James first started thinking about the power of endangered languages when he was in his teens. It was the ‘70s, and he was watching a PBS documentary about these Australian Aboriginal land rights trials. In the documentary, an aboriginal man prepares to testify. The man is the last native speaker of his language, and he insists on giving testimony in his language, without translation.

“It was beautiful,” James says, remembering the documentary recently in his Upper Manhattan home. “At the end of his testimony it was clear that everyone in the courtroom was very moved. And the judges seemed to come to the conclusion that it was better to hear it given in his own language than it could have been translated. Mainly because of the obvious emotion and the sense that this was the last person who could speak this language and it was such a lovely language; such a really beautiful language. The sense that this was going to be lost along with his land. That his culture and his language would be lost as well. It came across as a gift to have heard this language spoken one more time.”

James began working in earnest on the Vanishing Languages Project six years ago. He says he was motivated in part by how current the concern for disappearing languages felt. “I like for my music whenever possible to capture a moment—a historical moment. A time on earth, and this was timely. We expect to lose at least half the world’s languages before the end of the century,” James says.

He started poring over the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger and focused in on four languages: the Quileute language from the Pacific Northwest, Dalabon and Jawoyn, two Aboriginal languages from Northern Australia; and Ainu from Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan. For the first three James tracked down the handful of remaining native speakers of the language and spent time recording them talking to each other or telling stories. There are no native Ainu speakers still living, so he relied on archival recordings of those.

He then picked through the hundreds of hours of recordings looking for particularly musical passages, keeping an eye out for qualities like cadence, melody, and inflection.

“The concept behind this project was to take those qualities—to take the inflections and use those as the basis of music,” James says. “Rather than most music is based on physics-how many divisions of a second can you make, and how do you count that time. And it’s regular, that time is regular you beat out a beat, you keep that beat, you can make it a little faster, a little slower. But when we speak, the inflection is much more fluid. And the same is true of the melodic aspects of a lot of language, in terms of how much register they cover.”

James built an extensive series of ragas, or small musical phrases, based on precise transcriptions of the rhythm and melody of spoken phrases. These ragas are the building blocks of the four Vanishing Languages compositions.

“In each of the pieces the musicians are asked at certain points to mimic actual words or actual sounds of the language,” he says. “But the mirroring of the language was the springboard—it was the jumping off place. The point of the piece was to extend that musically and to take those phrases and see how far they could go with them.”

James doesn’t provide translations of the languages he uses in his compositions. “I really do prefer that the audience experience be as pure as possible,” he says. “For me my first experience was not understanding, and nobody understanding what was spoken, and that being a very pure and revealing experience. I find people when they don’t have a visual to back up audio, that they go searching, and that they assign their own meanings. And I think that’s a more meaningful experience than them listening and picturing somebody cooking. I think it’s more meaningful for them to find their own…their own… place for that, their own visual for that, their own set of contexts in terms of their own experience.”

James is currently working on getting recordings of the project out into the world. And, sometime soon, he’s hoping to bring Vanishing Languages Project back to Australia and Japan—the ancestral homes of Dalabon, Jawoyn, and Ainu.