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When ‘There Are No Words,’ I Can’t Even

The Torre Uluzzo near Lecce, Salento, Italy. Image - iStockphoto: Piccerella [1]
The Torre Uluzzo near Lecce, Salento, Italy. Image – iStockphoto: Piccerella

‘What This Loss of a Language Means’

“I can’t even.”

You know the phrase, right? Another day, another pop-media whine. “I can’t even” is credited to the bloggrs of Tumblr, who apparently can’t even find it in their hearts to give us an “e” before an “r.”

Call me Portr. I am so hip that I can’t even.

While basking in my coolnees, let’s face it. “I can’t even” is easily as insignificant and fully as irritating as “what what?” These streaks of silliness course through the slang-o-rama of our oh-so-social media with slimy charm. You see so many of us slinging them with the hashtags.

I had the pleasure of spending almost an hour this week with Paola Prestini. One of the most gifted and accomplished of our composers working today. Prestini writes the kind of “contemporary classical” music that holds so much power for authors, a blend of emotional aesthetic and intellectual rigor that’s akin to what happens in the best fiction. My story on her and her newly recorded Oceanic Verses [2] is this week’s entry in my #MusicForWriters [3] series at Thought Catalog, with the help of New York  Public Radio’s Q2 Music [4].

Paola Prestini - Image: VisionIntoArt [5]
Paola Prestini – Image: VisionIntoArt

And as I was telling editor Carla Douglas en tweeterie, one of the things I like best about Prestini is that she’s a supremely conscious composer. While she’s obviously in touch with her work’s emotional currents (which run about as deep as the Mediterranean setting of her Oceanic Verses [6]), she’s also aware of her collaborators, her craft, her career.

Not for nothing did she form a company 15 years ago, while still in school at Juilliard, and that company today serves as the production body supporting her and other artists’ mixed-media work. This translates to platforming in our world of writing. Prestini is an adept platformer. That’s how you get to Carnegie Hall.

Actually, in Oceanic Verses’ case, that’s how you get to the Kennedy Center in Washington, to the River to River Festival in New York City, and to London’s Barbican Centre. Her company is VisionIntoArt [7], often co-producing with Beth Morrison Projects [8]. VistionIntoArt’s new VIA Records label also has produced her husband Jeffrey Zeigler’s solo debut album [9]. Zeigler is a cellist, formerly with the Kronos Quartet.

In conversation, one of the things that Prestini and I talked about is her alarm at what she calls “fading civilizations” — cultures that are being quickly eroded, ironically by the homogenizing connectivity of digital. She was in residence in Lecce in 2007, in Salento at the remote heel of Italy’s boot in the Mediterranean, “a cross-cultural land full of artistic hybrids.” The experience prompted her to start putting together what she calls her own “musical language.”

She has set parts of Oceanic Verses in disappearing dialects. She tells me:

One of the main themes of the piece is found in a section sung in Griko. [That’s the Italiot Greek dialect spoken in southeastern Italy.] There are only about 400 people left who speak it. And that led me to a deep look what this loss of a language means. And also how this land could be used as a metaphor for fading civilizations globally.

While an artist like Prestini gives us music that can inform and illuminate our own work as writers — that’s the point of the #MusicForWriters columns — I wonder if she doesn’t also have a quiet message for us as artists of language.

I’ve also spoken at length this week with another composer, Christopher Cerrone [10], whose Invisible Cities was the subject of last week’s #MusicForWriters [11]. In talking with him for an interview story to come, I found out that he goes through as many as 50 manuscripts, searching for the right literature to set to music. He’s fascinated by how economically something must be said (or sung) in music-theater because the medium moves more slowly than standard speech. He says he thinks that as a child, he understood great books before he knew great music.

Isn’t it interesting how intensely these sophisticated creators of sonic worlds on stages and in studios are valuing our medium — these words of ours?

Italian, itself — a patchwork of dialects and patois on the peninsula — is a relatively small language in the world, and likely to get smaller, although my own experience, from living in Rome, suggests that its population is more resistant to English than some. Denmark has a population of fewer than six million, and many of their younger people seem to like speaking English better than using their own language.

When does the contemporary lingua franca — which originally was Italian blended with other languages spoken in the Mediterranean ports –become OMG and meh and yada yada yada?

Are We Responsible For Our Language?

Determined, as ever, to make myself unpopular, I’ll tell you that when editing, I see copy from writers and from other people in publishing that shows me something more than typos (of which I am the patron saint). What I see is ignorance.

[pullquote]What’s good about “democratization,” digital or otherwise, if we impoverish the medium of our work with it?[/pullquote]

Each of these alone is a tiny example of the daily gaffes we all see. In and of itself, a single instance is nothing. Over time, however, and in the minds of millions, uncaring use of language — and you see it “alot,” I mean right? — starts to add up to a shallowing-out of our own cultural voice.

Yes, I know language is a living thing, meant to adapt and be adapted over time. That’s fine. I mean, like, yeah, no, I have no need to say “verily,” do you?

But there was a gratifying uproar earlier this year when the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook [12], the guide used by journalists, decided that “more than” and “over” are interchangeable. Kelly McBride at Poynter got a bit of a backlash, herself, when she covered it [13].

Did you catch “comprise” there?

But with just these little examples, I may have to lie low — not “lay low” — because plenty of people will be mad at me for having the gall to ask them to use the language correctly.

My question for them: what’s good about “democratization,” digital or otherwise, if we impoverish the medium of our work with it?

It occurs to me that one reason I may like music is that an A is not a B-flat. A quarter note is not a eighth note. The bass clef is not the treble clef. In music, you don’t get away with “laying down.” You lie down or the stuff doesn’t sound right. And while experimenters will come and go, composers and musicians realize that the written language with which they communicate depends on an accurate use of its structure and norms.

[pullquote]Do you take responsibility for the language you ply?[/pullquote]

Something about professional writers hurling entirely lowercased notes at each other on social media — still a plural word, damn it — is about as attractive as parents who try to dress like their kids to look hip.

Why did a self-described writer blithely announce to me recently in a comment that until she read one of my columns, she didn’t know that medium is the singular of media? Would you feel okay with a surgeon who’d never realized that anesthesia is the thing administered by the anesthetist over there in the corner of the operating room?

Gradually, the lack of specificity takes over, doesn’t it? The “shorthand” of “that’s just how people talk” gets ugly.

Someone rightly challenged a line in a new novel the other day, a book in which the protagonist ann0unced that she’d pinched herself to see if she was awake. If you have to write such sitcom rubbish as people pinching themselves to see if they’re awake — something no one does, by the way — why are you writing? If that’s the best you can do, what business do you have doing it?

An Idiom of Selfhood

Provocations image by Liam Walsh [14]
Provocations image by Liam Walsh

The singularity of a creative voice like Paola Prestini’s is one of the things that makes her work stand with such regal significance. She sets a segment of Oceanic Verses in Griko in order to own the very problem that she’s exploring in the work. Her score itself now preserves a scrap of that dying language, how ingenious is that? She has entered the field of her own inquiry. She’s on a search for an “internal geography,” a place of belonging in the world, unique to each of us and so hard to find.

And if a writer can’t work in a comparable idiom of selfhood, has the job really been done?

Go ahead and tell me you can’t even. I’m not talking about a case in which you need to write in a teen’s standard lingo because your character is a 15-year-old in Dunedin, Florida. I mean your own voice as the auteur you are of your presence as a writer in the world. Is OMG really who you are? It is? Really? Oh, my God.

There may be more ways than fading for a language to die. Maybe it becomes trivialized to death.

Prestini is unusually eloquent in discussing her work. Those of us who interview dancers, composers, musicians, visual artists, know that strong verbal expression isn’t what you always find. When I mentioned to her that her own fluency is refreshing, she said that she feels that it’s part of her responsibility to speak cogently about music when asked. She accepts an idea that it’s incumbent on musical artists to make an intelligible case for their work in the world.

How many authors have you met who would say that they take responsibility for expressing the place and purpose of bookish work today?

Do you take responsibility for the language you ply? Are you reading someone now who seems to stake a claim for “conscious” artistry as Paola Prestini does in her music? How many authors do you encounter who seem really aware of themselves in the language?

About Porter Anderson [15]

@Porter_Anderson [16] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [17], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [18] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [19]