I am proud to say that my daughter speaks fluent Japanese, a language deemed difficult, if not impossible, to learn by most Western speaking peoples. Her skills, won by hours upon hours of tenacious study and stick-to-itiveness have offered her many wonderful opportunities including 3 years in a fishing village on the southern most part of Japan teaching English at local schools.
She, her husband and my eldest grand child lived a top a 50 foot cliff overlooking a storybook fishing harbor and the South Pacific. During her family’s time in Japan as she lived in a small village away from any Cosmopolitan City (Nagasaki was an hour and a half drive). They were rarely in contact with any English speaking people, whatsoever. (as rare as finding Japanese speaking people in rural Georgia).
The first time she talked with anyone while in Japan, whether in her small fishing village or Nagasaki the reaction to her Japanese was universal. The person would hear her speak, with fluency and native inflection, they would involuntarily thrust their face forward with eyes completely agog and say in a very loud voice “HUWAAAAAAAH?!?!?”
It wasn’t a word. It was a sound effect uniquely and disarmingly Japanese, pronounced with utter abandon. One very thin older gentlemen, (who had hit the Saki WAY too hard that night) bent completely back into the shaped of an inverted “U” while yelling “HUWAAAAAAAH?!?!?” after hearing her speak Japanese. His face was still thrust out with his eyes agog, but he was bent completely backwards. I’m not making this up. I was there.
Japanese folks know how challenging their language is for Westerners. This is the reason for their complete shock and I believe delight in my daughter’s language skills.
A Foreign language is intimidating if one doesn’t know what is being spoken around them. One can get suspicious of others, or just tune it out. And if a person is not fluent in a language it can be taxing trying to comprehend the foreign language as it is flying by the ears. I’ve heard not 1 but 2 Homilies in Japanese each longer than the other. It was exhausting. I was desperately trying to grab onto a phrase, word or even syllable my daughter had valiantly tried to teach me. It was impossible. So as not to embarrass the folks at these Japanese Masses (and represent America well) I engaged in a mantra of “Don’t fall asleep, don’t fall asleep”, over and over and over. Due to my Herculean efforts all of America got high marks from the locals.
My daughter’s experiences have taught me a lot while working in my second language, Music. Music is a language unlike any other. While spoken language may evoke a host of emotions while expressing something specific (“Give me the ball”. “This hamburger tastes funny”. “Do these jeans make me look fat”? etc…) the language of Music is pure emotion. While emotions may be universal, happiness, sadness, anger, hurt etc… how these emotions are conveyed by wordless music is definitely not a universal experience.
Any music tradition, if not understood, will not convey the desired emotion. Japanese Music when heard by a Westerner can be just as mystifying as the Japanese spoken word. When we hear the brittle plinkings of the Shamisen (Japanese banjo) we do not understand if that song is about betrayal, requited love or a spider demon.
This non-understanding happens even within music that we hear often right here in the U.S. Once I had a couple asking that our Contemporary Christian Band play music for their wedding. They liked the music we were making and then added “We just can’t stand hearing one note played on the organ. We hate it so much”. I was more than a little hurt as I had just played what I thought to be two successful Masses on the organ at another church earlier that day. This couple was oblivious to the exuberance of the Widor Toccata, the fearful intensity of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d Minor or the simple charm of Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze when played on the organ.
The adage “There’s no accounting for taste”, doesn’t really cut the mustard with me. I’ve found folks tastes, aversions to certain sounds and opinions as not being in line with what the person really means to say. Music is talked about in the most extreme terms possible. “ I hate that band with a passion”. “Nickelback is the worst band that could possibly exist”. “The Macarena is the final sign of the impending Apocalypse”. A close friend reacted to my love of Johann Sebastien Bach’s music with “Bach?! That’s not music, it’s just math!”.
I always find these extremisms inexplicable. Hating a piece of music with a passion seems like a huge waste of one’s limited emotional energy. Shouldn’t one be passionate about the Poor or Injustice? Nickelback is a band of skilled musicians who have earned hundred’s of millions of dollars. Somebody must think they’re ok. (And while The Macarena is mentioned in the Book of Revelations it isn’t near the Doom Bringer folks think it is)
As for the music of Bach being “just math” one might as well say that a human being is just a sack of walking, talking chemicals. The fact is that my friend doesn’t speak the emotional language of Bach. He speaks many other music languages fluently. He made an assumption about Bach based on an unfamiliarity with the language.
That being said, it is worth noting that learning a new or second language is extremely difficult if not impossible for us. Any language will require a person to know between 20,000 and 30,000 words. Along with verb-noun agreement, syntax, metaphor (and in some gender agreement) makes learning to communicate in a second language the next task of Hercules.
Music has a complex nature like any language does. Even a simple and seemingly straight forward song can have a complex architecture. While I understand very little Japanese, I know that great ideas as well as horrible ones can be expressed by the very same words. It takes a huge effort to learn and understand a second language. It is frustrating when one wants to understand or communicate when they don’t know the language. But a little faith and tolerance may yield an expected and delightful result. In the case of music, listening to an unfamiliar piece or style of music more than a few times might give you new friend to accompany you through life.
After hearing a beautiful or exciting piece of music flawlessly executed you might even involuntarily shout, “HUWAAAAAAAH?!?!?”
Though I don’t recommend shouting that during Mass no matter how heartfelt.
Eric Alexander – Your Friendly Neighborhood Choir Director