In a recent classroom survey to determine the most important musical elements for college students deciding whether or not to like a new song, coherent and comprehensive lyrics were given as one of the top two answers. Only one percent said that they found any aesthetic pleasure in songs sang in a foreign language and virtually no one thought the human voice had any function beyond the intelligible signification of words and relayable meaning. This led me to ponder this history of the human voice as pure instrumentation, not just to shift pitch and create melody but to provide vocable texture. What possible future could the wordless voice have in a culture that demands its music to be encoded with immediately understandable messages?
There are two traditions of alternative langue in music; gibberish and constructed language, the latter recently abbreviated to ConLang. Gibberish, of course, has had quite a long history in the sister art, literature, as readers of Edward Vere or Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky could tell you. ConLang has also been well represented by authors like Anthony Burgess, whose Nadsat language in A Clockwork Orange had readers constantly thumbing back to the glossary. It has become even more prevalent in the sci-fi genre pioneered by the likes of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne – to where languages like Esperanto, Centauri, and Klingon now have their own language institutes. In recent times fictional languages have been developed to quite complex states, such as the EA Games Sim series language called Simlish, which developers have offered is a hybrid between gibberish and ConLang. All this would be of no consequence to François Rabelais who argued that all language is constructed – and that all gibberish is planned.
Perhaps the first known instance of a language created for musical purpose was Lingua Ignota, created by the 12th Century Benedictine abbess, Hildegard von Bingen. This language was a private form of mystical cant, for which a whole alphabet and rudimentary grammar was created, but alas only survives as five words in one composition – O Orzchis Ecclesia. The fact that it was also supposed to reflect some sort of angelic parlance could be a precursor to the John Dee and Edward Kelley experiments some four centuries later. Similarly, the great Elizabethan magus compiled a comprehensive language called Enochian and happily much more of it has survived for scholarship today.
The classical music tradition also took up Von Bingen’s mantle and incorporated wordless vocalising into its musical repertoire. In the Middle-East Balaibalan became popular in the 16th Century, whereas the tradition of Aakaar became an important part of the Indian Classical tradition. The Western world embraced a form of wordless singing called Vocalise, which although wasn’t in vogue until the mid 18th Century, drew from earlier composers such as Jean-Philippe Rameau and Jean-Baptiste Lully. A vocalise doesn’t incorporate an alternative language as such but utilizes the human voice instrumentally, most often through the articulation of various vowel sounds. These new ‘sans paroles’ songs had a mantra-like and hypnotic effect on the listener and became a more regular part of the composer’s instrumental arsenal in the late Romantic and Modern periods, where the likes of Debussy, Ravel and Vaughan Williams used them to colouristic effect. But contrary to how it may sound the vocalese is not improvised but strictly laid out phonetically to the singer. Consequently, avant garde composers sought up the chance stakes and give more power to the singer, where no piece can be performed the same way twice. Some took this to extremes such as Harry Partch, who built his own instruments for unique compositions and who simply saw the human voice as raw material with which to create strange new sounds.
It’s hard to say just when these elements crossed over to the popular music world and perhaps it was at the very beginning with songs like Charlie Chaplin’s faux Italian gibberish song in the film Modern Times. Of course, there is the well known example of scatting or scat singing that comes down through the early Jazz and Blues traditions, an improvisation with wordless vocables and nonsense syllables that, like Aakaar, might have started with vocal warm-ups or a singer fleshing out a melody before bothering to write the lyrics. Louis Armstrong’s 1926 recording of Heebie Jeebies is often credited as the first instance of scat although Jelly Roll Morton insists that he and his fellow ragtime musicians were doing it as early as the turn of the century. Scat singing eventually became part of the soloing tradition, where each member of the band improvised a solo on their instrument, one of the most famous examples being Ella Fitzgerald’s scat solo on How High the Moon. For many ethnomusicologists the scat singing phenomenon was a logical extension of the African American music tradition where the human voice holds musical parity with other instruments in an ensemble – to the point where it’s woven inextricably. Members of the rap community, such as Souls of Mischief, Lifesavas and Tech N9ne, have borrowed this technique from Jazz.
Where it came into rock music is less certain. Certainly there are elements of it in folk where it is done to humorous effect – such as the nonsense songs referred to as Crimps by Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt. As rock music relies more heavily on lyrics than classical or Jazz music, wordless singing is often used sparingly and harmonically. There are examples of vocalise in the early Pink Floyd albums such as Atom Heart Mother – and it is probably common to quite a few of their psychedelic rock brethren as well. But where we find nonsense phrases or alternative language phonetics in Rock music there is usually some purpose, reference, or codified meaning behind them. King Crimson’s Thela Hun Ginjeet is actually an anagram for ‘heat in the Jungle’ – and the Talking Heads’ Zimbra, although sounding non-lingual, is really an adaptation of Hugo Ball’s Dadaist poem Gadji beri bimba. The most famous example, Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, is a mondegreen, a word derived from a mishearing or a misinterpretation of a phrase. The chorus of David Bowie’s African Night Flight, although sounding like gibberish, either borrows heavily from or is suggested by words from the various languages of the African Veld.
Perhaps the first purist in the ConLang vein is the French prog-rock band, Magma, the drummer from which devised a language called Kobaïan that was (taking a leaf from Sun Ra) supposedly spoken by an alien race at odds with earthlings. The German countertenor, Klaus Nomi, scripted a similarly Germanic sounding glossolalia for his unfinished opera, Za Bakdaz. Closer to the mainstream, the multi-lingual Enya sought to create a Tolkien inspired Elvish language for the Lord of the Rings film soundtrack, followed by her own unique language, Loxian, for her Amarantine album. As Magma and Nomi leaned heavily on German, Enya appears to draw a lot from Irish Gaelic for the creation of her language.
The most spectacular example of an invented language could be said to come from the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser, who seemed to effect a purer and more automated form of gibberish. The early Cocteau Twins albums (such as the beautiful Victorialand) contain non-decipherable lyrics that are utilised to dreamy and atmospheric effect, giving the band a most unique sound. As a Scottish native, Fraser may have been influenced by mouth music or what is known as puirt à beul in the Scottish Gaelic tradition. Literally “tunes from the mouth” such singing and use of meaningless vocables can be heard in the choruses of various traditional Waulking songs.
Ethereal pop, New Age and Ambient are often wrongly thrown together in a composite genre comprised of so many different vocal styles. Whereas the appropriation of proto-language in Enya and the Cocteau Twins is intellectually inspired, Lisa Gerrard introduces a style of glossolalia that seems religiously aroused, like ‘speaking in tongues.’ As part of the exotic neoclassical and mediaeval music inspired band, Dead Can Dance, Gerard sang songs like Sanvean that bordered on Pentecostal style devotion and even ecstasy. She often spoke of it as tapping into a child-like consciousness and communing with God (despite not being a traditional religionist). This ‘language of the spirit’ can be heard again in her wordless vocals on Now We are Free, made popular by the Gladiator film. On a more choral level and with a more tribal sense of religiosity, Karl Jenkins’ musical project Adiemus achieved much the same thing, although the effect has become perhaps too commonplace with the advent of groups like Enigma and Deep Forest – to where it’s lost some of the bliss.
There is another group of musicians that deserves attention, one that creates a new vocal language through sheer technique and innovation. Of these, Bobby McFerrin is perhaps the most well known, drawing from the scat tradition but with a gymnastic falsetto range that helps to create polyphonic and multiphonic sounds. The lesser heralded Toby Twining takes from a range of worldwide vocal techniques to create an amazing collage – and the more avant garde Meredith Monk just stuns the listener with her almost inhuman voice contortions. Where Sheila Chandra employs a eerie minimalist drone, Diamanda Galás torpedoes the listener with a bombastic vocal terror covering a four octave range. It’s no coincidence that many of these vocal prodigies draw from ancient singing traditions around the world as non-lexible vocals are often found in ethnic music cultures, from Native American tribal chants (such as the Blackfoot), to Pygmy likanos, to Indian Ragas, to Eastern European Gypsy traditions, to the Scottish Highland songs. This might explain the penchant of many international artists to experiment with alternative vocables and explore meaning between or beyond languages. The Icelandic band, sigur rós, sometimes sing in their native language but more often than not in a language called vonlenska (loosely translated as Hopelandic in English) created by their singer jónsi. Many songs on their albums, agætis byrjun and takk, are sung in a spontaneous language auto-suggested to the singer’s consciousness by the ‘sound’ of the accompanying instruments. There is no intended meaning. This example was recently followed by their Icelandic neighbour, Björk Guðmundsdóttir, who used nonsensical lyrics to try and convey a series of unexplainable song titles purely by the feel, sound and texture of her voice.
So it seems that non-lexible singing and the use of nether-languages is alive and well despite not being a massive drawing power for young listeners. Sometimes listeners can be duped into liking this sort of vocal music by various tricks and devices. Urban Trad, Belgium’s contestant in the 2003 Eurovision song contest, received second place for his song Somani despite singing in a ‘fake’ language. Apparently, the decision to sing in English or the native language causes mass anxiety among competing nations and this was a way out of the conundrum. Fans of Gabriela Robin were so convinced that her nonsensical lyrics had some lingual foundation that they embarked on years of study to find the link – to no avail. Panamanian artists, Rodney Clark and Andy De La Cruz, strung together various onomatopoeic sounds for their hit song, Chacarron Macarron, which fans thought was some hip South American dialect. The Italian singer, Adriano Celentano, came up with the outrageous Prisecolinensinenciousol, which aped American English by sound but not by meaning. Her explanation – this is what English phonemes and syllables sound like to the foreign ear – complete gibberish!
For whatever reason, people will continue to listen to wordless words and non-lyrical lyrics in music. Just keep that Trolololo bloke away from me!