THE

VANISHING LANGUAGES

PROJECT

 

created by composer

 Kevin James 

Experience the culmination of this wildly original project through the premieres of 3 new works with 5 world class ensembles in an intimate musical conversation with the last speakers of 3 nearly extinct languages.

PRI: The World ---- The Music of Vanishing Languages

Project Description

In preparation for the Vanishing Languages project, Kevin traveled to a variety of remote communities to create new field recordings of the few remaining native speakers of each of the 4 language and comprehensively research existing sound archives. The languages Kevin has focused on include Quileute (a Native American tribe of the Pacific Northwest) Dalabon and Jawoyn (Australian aboriginal languages of Arnhem Land), and Hokkaido Ainu (aboriginal language of the large northern Japanese island).

On Kevin’s arrival in La Push, WA there were 4 remaining native speakers of Quileute. On Kevin’s departure, there were 3. As of today, there are 2. There are 3 remaining native speakers of each of the Australian Aboriginal languages, Jawoyn and Dalabon. The Ainu language has no remaining native speakers.

​The voices of these last remaining native speakers of the featured language in each work are present throughout via surround sound audio. Each voice becomes an instrument, each instrument a voice. Musical content grows from the aural qualities of the language and the natural inflections of ordinary (and not so ordinary) speech.

It's the objective of this project to pay artistic homage to these fragile resources and bring recognition to the world's consumption of them; to be a large scale exploration of the subtleties of language and listening through uniquely intimate approaches to performance and musical communication; to engage and entice our audiences in the same way that a particularly insightful or intimate conversation is irresistible to the accidental voyeur.

These concerts a made possible with generous funding from New Music USA. the New York State Council on the Arts and Arts Victoria

Composer's Statement

I was first introduced to the concept & the pathos of a language on the verge of extinction as a teenager. Flipping through the channels out of boredom on a Sunday afternoon, I stumbled onto a PBS documentary featuring the Australian Aboriginal land rights trials of the early 70’s. The scene was a stately courtroom complete with stern men in wigs & robes intently staring at two aboriginal men seated at a table before them - a proud looking elderly man, scantily dressed in traditional garb, & a younger man, in a shabby mix of western clothes.


The younger man introduced himself & explained that the elderly man was the last of his people, that there were no others left who spoke his language. He explained that he could communicate with the man in a rudimentary fashion using a secondary language if necessary, but that it was this man’s desire to testify in his own language, in the language that would die forever with him. The stern men attempted to explain that the old man’s testimony would be more effective if they were able to understand what he was saying, that they would be very patient in allowing his statements to be translated. But the old man wouldn’t hear of it. When the commission members finally relented, the old man began to sing. Literally to sing. He wasn’t being dramatic. His delivery was casual - but the language that would die with him was, in fact, a “sung language”.


I was transfixed as was everyone in that courtroom. The commission members who wished to have his words translated were wrong. It was far more effective to hear this man’s story in his own language, even though the content couldn’t be deciphered. I’m thrilled now to return to my original inspiration through the Vanishing Languages Project.

Audio Examples

[ direct links ]

Counting in Quileute Dialogue with Vanishing Languages

Past Performances & Reviews

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