The Words Coming Out of My Mouth

The Words Coming Out of My Mouth

Kyrie, eleison. Christe, eleison.

The first phrase of the Catholic mass ordinary, and the only part to use Greek.

Gloria in excelsis Deo.

And there’s the more familiar Latin, the language which makes up the rest of the text.

Next is Credo in unum deum, then Sanctus, then Agnus Dei.

I’ve never actually attended a Catholic mass before, let alone technically participated in one. I’ve never sung for a church service at all, certainly a rarity among choir singers. I consider myself respectfully, firmly, atheist. So these words then, which I can almost claim to know by heart, perform a strange linguistic service for me. Rather than conveying meaning, they simply convey sound.

Choir singers by nature have a unique relationship to language. We are constantly asked to sing in languages we don’t speak, convey the meanings of words we don’t understand to an audience who frankly probably doesn’t either—but that hardly matters. Unlike instrumentalists, who have only the notes on a page to convey emotionality, we have a text. With that comes the responsibility to interpret, articulate. Often this means having the privilege of poets: we are able to give a text performative life, and I can think of numerous lines that are forever immortal for me thanks to the music that encased them, knowing that I may not have noticed the line if I were simply reading it on a page.

I think a thought of the cleft of the universes…  (Walt Whitman)

Go dip your long white hands in the cool waters of that spring…  (Elinor Wylie)

I’ll make my way until the universe can fit inside my heart.  (Frederico Garcia Lorca, trans. Jerome Rothenberg)

All of these phrases have permanent homes in my heart, but not just as words, as music. (I’m realizing I may be a sucker though for the word “universe.”) Like listening to the perfect delivery of a poem, such moments in music have immense power for me.

But the reality is, most choral music of the Western tradition was written for the church. From the earliest Gregorian chants to contemporary gospel, few would ever question that this music has a purpose because of its text, and that purpose is to convey the ideals of a specific religion. This is not without accident, of course. It’s easy to experience religious fervor when one is confronted with a hundred-voice a capella choir in exquisite polyphony, sound echoing through the vast stone hall of an old church. I’ve experienced it, I’m addicted to it, even. It brings tears to my eyes without fail, my heart quickens, and the experience is ten-fold when one is actually part of that polyphony.

Perhaps it’s strange that at no moment for me do the words actually have any relevance. Gloria in excelsis deo. I’ve sung this phrase more than I could even estimate, often at a fever pitch, delighting in the sound. The percussive gloria, so easy to propel off the tongue, the movement from the “ee” of in to the “eh” of ex, the bright “che” that cuts through the vowels. This is what singing text is, moving the mouth through a music that has nothing to do with notes.

What the phrase means is “glory to god in the highest.” And there, the life suddenly vanishes. Glory to god? I don’t despise the sentiment, but I certainly don’t believe in it, or connect to it in any way at all. But as a singer, my job is to articulate as clearly as possible this glory, inspire something of the meaning in my listeners.

I can’t help but be somewhat jealous of instrumentalists who can practice their art without much fear of this conflict. Because although it’s hardly enough to keep me from singing, it is a conflict. I’m extremely lucky that most choir conductors I’ve worked with are sensitive to this. The best of conductors know that in order to inspire their chorus, they can’t assume the literal text is what most will be most powerful to everyone.

Of course, I have had those few unfortunate instances where a conductor insists that I, that we the chorus, feel the “power of god” in the text to improve our musicality, simply because the text references Christianity. In these moments, I am alien. Why am here? Why sing these words? I don’t want to be viewed as a proselytizer by my audience—it would be an unforgivable lie to myself and them. If it’s not a church-affiliated choir, using such arguments is frankly offensive, and conductors who are unable to find secular methods of conducting sacred text will, without fail, ruin the musical experience.

So choral music is a strange world, often both religious by nature and intent, but secular in performance. What a shame it would be to not sing a gorgeous song just because I find the text emotionally un-engaging.

This acceptance is part of what makes the singer’s relationship to text so unique. Especially if singing in one’s native language, one must reflexively distance oneself from the text while remaining close to the music if the words aren’t believed. And it goes beyond choral music. I’ve heard countless people say they would like a song but they don’t like the lyrics. Awful, a shame. The music is still there, after all. The music didn’t ask to be tied to the meaning of the text. Instrumental music is free from such burdens, can exist meaningless until it calls forth a connection within the listener. Just because a music is sung, does it have to be defined by words?

Most of the time, I think no. The Catholic mass ordinary, again as example, is an amazing source of creativity and expression, not necessarily because of the meaning of the text but because so many composers were given this text as a frame on which to build miraculous pieces of music. Perhaps my favorite instance of a composer using Catholic mass text just for practicality rather than strong personal religious intent is Stravinsky, whose mass-setting is a technically immense masterwork reflective of his innovations in 20th century musicality. But I can’t think of many churches that would actually consider performing it as part of a service. Other times though, I fully understand where the text is inseparable and must be considered by the singer, whether through being unforgivably offensive or powerful far beyond the music itself. I also understand that this way of thinking can be a disservice to the composer, who one assumes spends an ample amount of time either considering how the music they write reflects the text they are given, or how the text they write is as much a part of their creative output as the music itself.

But where the need to separate text from music most often comes into practice is when singing texts in a language you don’t speak. When outside the classical music realm, most people I encounter are impressed far beyond what I would expect when I list the languages in which I’ve sung. But of course it’s not as if I speak all these languages. I wouldn’t understand a word of the text I was singing for the most part if it weren’t for translations provided in the score, or researched on my own outside of rehearsal. And apart from Latin, Italian, German, and French, which any classically trained vocalist is expected to be able to pronounce in reading, every instance in which a choir sings outside their native language is the product of hours of rote memorization, endlessly repeating word after word, sound after sound, until an authentic pronunciation is reached. It is hardly as if we’re “language learning.”

This means a singer’s relationship with a language is often entirely sonic. I could fake Italian words for hours, reciting the lines of various pieces in gibberish order and probably sounding authentically Italian to someone who didn’t speak the language. But that’s just it, it’s not language. It’s sound. Or rather, it’s music. Even without intuitive understanding, the connection to the music must be there, otherwise we would be bored, our audience would be bored.

But the conflict remains. Just how important is meaning when singing in a language we don’t speak? And how do I explain to those who know me as someone without a religious bone in my body, someone who very much does not care for any sort of saccharine appeals to celebrate or “praise,” that I’m deeply excited to sing the text of a Catholic mass? Most people are understandably conditioned to listen for words before music. If something is in a language they don’t speak, they feel disconnected. If they understand, they see the text as describing the music, rather than viewing the two elements as separable parts. It has been largely due to this that my life as a choir singer is dramatically separated from nearly every other facet of my life. The friends I have in the choir community are “choir friends” that I never see outside of rehearsal, and it’s disappointingly difficult to get other friends or acquaintances interested in watching a performance.

But still I’ll keep inviting, because this is the music that has never failed to inspire me or move me to tears. When I sing or listen to mass, or similarly when I am stunned by a magnificent cathedral, it is not an awe for god I feel, but for humanity. And maybe I’m wrong, maybe text is always inseparable, and it’s inauthentic of me to sing Kyrie eleison when the thought of a “savior” is meaningless to me. But to throw out a piece of music, to judge its entire meaning just because of words or because I don’t speak that language, would be an unforgivable tragedy.


Music mentions/listening to:

Igor Stravinsky – Mass

Joseph Haydn – “Lord Nelson” Mass (Performing with Dr. Sailer, January 16, Carnegie Hall)

The KVB –  …of Desire


Translation and the Way of Tea

Translation and the Way of Tea

“Translation is always treason,” Kakuzo Okakura wrote in his Book of Tea, luckily for me, in English. Writing in the early 20th century, Okakura was a Japanese scholar and art critic whose strong English meant he could speak directly to a Western audience without fear of being subjected to “translation,” which could (and often still does) frequently mean problematic Orientalism, obscuring the true message in Western analogues and an obsessive need to “mystify” and dramatize.

As one small example of Western Orientalism at work in translation, one could look at a 1958 translation of a poem by Wang Wei, a Chinese Buddhist scholar who lived around 700 CE. This four-line poem, which has famously been the parent to numerous translations by Western poets and scholars alike, is made up of deliberately simple, eternal images. And as with any good poem, each word carries meaning, none are superfluous. And yet, one pair of translators could not resist augmenting such simple phrases as “green grass” to “jade-green grass,” and insinuate that a simple mountain must be “lonely.” (“Surely a Western conceit,” writes Eliot Weinberger 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei.)

All of this to mean it is a great relief to know the beautifully written Book of Tea is exactly as its author intended it, without the worry or need to carefully audit the words of another and question their accuracy.

Obviously I struggle on occasion with the morality of translation. But I’ll get to that later.

For now, tea. For so many it seems the word “tea room” invokes images of elderly white women, dwarfed by gaudy hats, surrounded by doilies, indulging in a sugar-and-cream laden affair while discussing the latest Jonathan Sparks or not-so-latest Jane Austen.

But those British-style tea rooms can hardly be said to reflect the truth of tea, or at least, the significance of tea. This is where Okakura so deftly steps in, with a treatise deeply relevant even 110 years after its publication.

I first discovered the Book of Tea in one of these British tea rooms, a uniquely Eastern voice amongst the books of “manners” and recipes for Earl Grey shortbread. That in itself was enough to draw me to it instantly. I can’t say what in my early life initially made me such a life-long tea devotee, but I can say that my interest always remained firmly on the more austere, natural aesthetics and approach of tea’s Asian origins. So when faced with a Japanese book on tea, I was all over it.

However, where I had hoped for something that would maybe talk about the creation of matcha or provide a list of the various plantations in Japan and their history, I got something much more. Book of Tea is, at its core, a philosophical document, combining historical fact, religious theory, and wonderfully scathing social critique (it is so refreshing to see someone bite back against the West’s claims of cultural supremacism, especially for its time period). The experience of reading this book for the first time was like reading a successful translation of my own thoughts: here was someone articulating a system of interacting with the world that I could, without any hesitation or conflict of interest, embrace whole heartedly. It provided guidance for a life I hadn’t yet figured out how to live.

Okakura describes this system as “Teaism.” However the word Teaism is a creation of Okakura’s meant specifically for Westerners who he, probably rightly, believed would be off-put by a closer approximation, wabi sabi.

So let’s return to translation and Orientalism, and my strange anxious drive to speak every language on Earth because translation is treason, and is by nature an obscuring force.

We Westerners love our “isms.” Especially now more than ever, words ending in –ism are defining our lives. We fight against isms, we embrace isms, we desperately need isms to make sweeping definitions of our world and people within it. Sometimes, this is very helpful. It helps us identify the enemy, place their small actions into a broader ism spectrum, make the appropriate accusations, and properly orient ourselves on the other side. All too often though, isms become the means to end a conversation, stop dialogue. To rest within the boundaries of an ism is to cease the constant questioning and re-evaluating that must be a part of life in order for anything of positive impact to get done on this infuriatingly frustrating planet.

So in light of this, Okakura has unwittingly created a dichotomy in the word Teaism, for the philosophy itself is one of constant change, acceptance, and harmony. To say that I am a “teaist,” apart from being laughable, could instantly insinuate that I have established my belief system and have no interest in ever changing it. It could mean that if someone else declared the same, I would align myself with them, without questioning whether or not their understanding of Teaism truly relates to mine.

More troubling though, using the word Teaism intentionally avoids attempting to translate the original term wabi sabi, though Okakura’s reasoning for doing so is sound. Humanity has a pathetic tendency to mock anything unfamiliar to them (how many times during the course of studying German have I faced the tiring joke, “oh you speak German? Weenershnitzel!”) But by choosing to situate the concept of wabi sabi within a Westernized word, he does invite the opportunity for misuse and confusion.

To get to the heart of wabi sabi, I consult Leonard Koren’s Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers.” Koren writes about 90 years after Okakura. In contrast to Okakura, an Easterner living on occasion in America, Koren was a Westerner living in Japan. As a designer, he took to the task of reinvigorating the understanding of Teaism in the West that had originated with Okakura. Koren embarks upon this not just through the written word but through the physical object of the book itself. He fills the pages with imagery, designs every element so that wabi sabi is not just described, but felt intuitively.

Part of Koren’s work is to tackle the word wabi sabi itself. In his “provisional definition,” he claims the English word “rustic” is the closest analogue (though he admittedly does this with plenty of skepticism). For me, this word instantly calls to mind Midwest prairie homes overrun with dust, walls covered in garish wallpaper, white paint peeling off in the sun, the tortured moan of a windmill turning with the heat rather than with the wind. Although there may perhaps be some genuine points of unity between this image and the tenants of wabi sabi, for me this calls nothing to mind of the cool respite of wabi sabi’s embrace of earth, tea, neutral color and unadorned surfaces.

As an interesting aside, the example presented above can also be seen as the justification for including language within the realms of wabi sabi philosophy. Language evolves and meanings slip to the side, and Koren’s “rustic” is, beautifully, not my “rustic.” The point where those two understandings meet can be called a part of the wabi sabi aesthetic.

But Koren only begins his “provisional definition” with an English analogue. It takes him two more pages of grappling with the words to, not necessarily reach a definition, but demonstrate just how difficult and even unnecessary it is to translate wabi sabi. Most interesting however are the neatly arranged columns describing the individual references of the words wabi and sabi, showing how their disparate meanings combine to create the loosely defined, yet unified concept of wabi-sabi.

So this is where my translator’s anxiety kicks in. Because the nature of both Koren and Okakura’s books allowed them to wax endlessly on the complexities of meaning and cultural conveyance within a word. But if I am tasked with translating a novel, short story, blurb, or anything of a more literary nature, I simply can’t spend time within the work explaining the nuances of why “this word is easily translated as that but within this culture the word implies all of this and is slightly different than the target language’s culture, etc. etc.”

Additionally, as a reader of translated literature, how can I know when these issues are occurring? I am blind, forced to place all of my trust in the hand of the translator, not knowing where one phrase in the original language might have contained breathtaking beauty, but after the violence of translation, ended up only pleasantly readable. Translators are humans, with agendas, and while most pursue the noble cause of intercultural communication, some, like the translators of Wang Wei mentioned above, are more apt to ensure, whether consciously or not, that an audience understands a text their way, rather than doing everything they can to let the original author shine through. In my despair I’ve even found myself contemplating avoiding translated literature, an overreaction that would of course only spell disaster for the study of intercultural communication.

I have a 500-page book filled with essays by authors far smarter and more accomplished than I dealing with this issue, so I hardly expect to have an answer right now.

The only solution I’ve been able to come up with is to simply dedicate myself to learning language, for the sheer sake of having the tools to appreciate beauty on the originating culture’s terms, to know that there is at least no middle-man between the meanings save the inherent fluidity of language and context.

But then, one can’t expect every person to take on the weighty task of becoming fluent in another language. So in this way, the translator’s duty is simply to do their job to the absolute best of their knowledge. Be both a mimic and artist, able to infuse their translated text with a like beauty and tone. I am horrified by my helplessness. But, perhaps here is where the study of Book of Tea as an untranslated document, as a philosophical and even religious text to which I am immensely drawn, can provide some answers.

Wabi sabi, Teaism, is an aesthetic philosophy that sees the beauty in the imperfect. Symmetry, perfection, sterility, all work against what wabi sabi holds in highest regard. It is a “tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.” (Okakura) As a translator struggling with the futility of translation, such a phrase provides a patient exhale, permission to continue forward.


References and Further Reading:

Okakura, Kakuzo. The Book of TeaDuffield & Company, 1906. (Available on Project Gutenberg)

Koren, Leonard. Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. Imperfect Publishing, 2008.

Weinberger, Elliot and Octavio Paz. 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese Poem is Translated. Moyer Bell Limited, 1987.


Music mentions/listening to:

Jill Tracy  – Diabolical Streak

Gamelan Degung –  Sabi Lulungang