About Language as a Wilderness
Posted on 1/2/2019

Note: This essay is a preview for Language as a Wilderness, running Jan. 12 - Feb. 8 at Radius Gallery in Santa Cruz. Visit indexical.org/events for the full schedule.

Language is not a function of frontal and explicit communication and has far more to do with locating oneself in an environment than with communicating whatever contents to others.

(Manfred Werder, in conversation with Simon Reynell, Another Timbre)

There’s the kind of language we expect to hear in music – poetic, constructed, and maybe even set to a thorny melody – and then there’s everything else. All of this day-to-day language activity comes across as “natural,” or at least less precious. It’s the type of language we use most of our lives, and we don’t expect anyone to read too much into any one bit of it. If anything would be out of place in this linguistically mundane world, it would be someone, unannounced, full-throated, reciting a poem as though there were an audience at attention.

But what does our day-to-day prosaic language actually do? And where does it come from? We know it allows us some degree of communication with one another, because we can see the results of that communication. (To paraphrase Wittgenstein: we’re building a house, I say “stone,” you hand me a stone.) However, language does much more than that; it points toward a broader context in which it is operating, situating both the speaker and the listener in an environment, and more crucially allowing the speaker to indicate the environment in which they are operating. The speaker might hope that the listener, too, will recognize themselves in that environment and that their shared environment, their shared context, will make communication easier. The speaker feels out the “right language” for the situation, among the multitude of languages they use in any given day, because finding the right language will indicate a shared social context for the conversation. Language is an index of our environment, and of our histories.

We all occasionally wander through our linguistic environments. We’re all sometimes lost, at least temporarily, in the forest, or desert, or tundra, or other wild landscape of our linguistic codes and contexts. The collection of work in this festival is all, in some way, related to that wandering.

Identities are often betrayed through speech and intonation. We let slip a southern accent, and a little bit of ourselves are revealed. This happens less with carefully considered, constructed language, but more with the words and fragments of sentences that we know well and that are trained through repeated use of our vocal abilities. Our physiological tics contain all our pasts.

When transgender women undergo estrogen hormone treatments, the process does not change their vocal cords and raise their voices. Instead, these women often choose to go through intentional re-training of their voices, not only for reasons of personal gender dysphoria (the term for one’s gender not matching one’s body) but because being “outed” as a trans women can expose a person to harassment, and put her in very real physical danger.

Sarah Hennies’ work Contralto [January 12 at 8pm, Radius Gallery], for video and instrumental ensemble, gathers video of transgender women practicing minute vocal exercises – the fragments of “umm,” “hi,” “hey,” peppered throughout daily conversation – and, from these and other spoken documentary fragments, builds an hour-long composition. Contralto draws on Hennies’ past work, and particular on Everything Else (presented by Indexical at the Museum of Art & History in 2016) in its exploration of the things that are excluded by society from the privilege of being defined as one specific category or another.

The music on Everything Else came about by making music with objects that aren’t considered to be instruments, using them in a way that is related to their intended purpose and just recording that sound. By using this vocal exercise content [in Contralto], it’s kind of the same thing; it’s just films of people making these sounds, and it’s removed from their intended purpose. The string players and percussionists, in one of the early sections of the piece, aren’t even playing their instruments; they’re just rustling paper or ejecting staples from a stapler, simultaneously while the women in the film are reading off these different syllables. It’s just the thing for what it is and nothing else, and they’re just happening at the same time, because I felt like they were connected in that way.

(Sarah Hennies in conversation with Steve Smith, National Sawdust Log, Nov. 29, 2017)

Both of these elements – the office supplies and the vocal exercises alike – are actions generally performed to produce a result (whether vocal training or stapling), not actions meant as music by themselves. Hennies re-frames these actions, removing them from their “natural” contexts and inserting them into a concert setting. They become not sounds but music, loaded with a grammar in their new environment.

Manfred Werder’s work has long been engaged with the natural environment. His landmark work 2005/1 consists of just three words – “place / time / ( sounds )” – written in both German and English. Werder describes the contingencies of the piece as the place and the time that the piece will occur; this should be determined by the performers. The sounds (parenthetically) might include both those sounds that are already present in the environment, and those that the performers bring to the environment. For Werder, performers are as much a part of the environment as everything else.

In some sense, this milestone of a work engages with field recording – the practice of recording the natural environment, unaltered, like an auditory analog to nature photography – but Werder removes the recording process from the equation, and demands that the work is perceived in the actual environment, rather than being extracted to another place and time. The place and time are critical to the event; documentation becomes impossible.

After 2005/1, Werder turned largely toward language as a subject. In a series of pieces roughly categorized as “found sentences,” Werder extracted quotations from philosophical texts; again, in a series he called “found words,” Werder created scores consisting entirely of lists of nouns. He notes that these pieces are both highly specific and highly open; there’s a specific “object” from the world of language in the work, but the realization of that object in performance is left entirely to the person “actualizing” the piece (to use Werder’s term).

I would say, if we had to try to render some materialistic world, the noun surely fits better in my view. Because it seems like the nouns don’t really correspond to each other. But if you have verbs, a verb usually stands between and object and a subject, and so already it’s a very dynamic situation where object and subject correspond. And so if I only use nouns […] there’s not yet the story or the narrative, in a certain way.

(Manfred Werder in conversation with Andrew C. Smith, Dec. 3, 2018)

Werder is wandering through the world, finding bits of it, and bringing the world into the work with as little interpretive baggage as possible. But this work is still about the material world.

In the most recent decade, Werder has moved away from the material world and toward the world of language. His two ongoing works 20160 and 20170 – which Werder will perform at Radius Gallery on Feb. 8, 2018 – began with the discovery of stacks of found paper. 20160 is an ongoing scroll of quotations and text fragments typed in performance with a pocket typewriter. The project consists of three 10cm by 22m scrolls of paper on which Werder “actualizes” the performance while creating the score. The scroll, or the score, becomes a document of the event, rather than a set of instructions for a reproduction of the event. In 2017, Werder found a stack of loose paper at a flea market; he has since set about inscribing quotations on each sheet, and often mailing originals to performers for realizations throughout the globe for his piece 20170. Instead of literally carrying the history of the work in his pocket, he is disseminating the work into the world as he writes it. There is no distinction anymore between “civilization” (quotation, literature) and the “materialistic world” of unadorned nouns. It’s an extraction of language from the wilderness, released again into the wild.