Mission

Last Whispers is a project about the mass extinction of languages.

By definition, this extinction occurs in silence, since silence is the very form it takes.

Every two weeks the world loses a language. At an unprecedented speed, faster than the extinction of some species, our linguistic diversity—the very means by which we know ourselves—is eroding. Today, out of the 7,000 languages remaining on Earth, only 30 are spoken among the majority of the world population. It is estimated that at least half of the planet’s currently spoken languages will have died out by the end of this century. Some estimates project a much greater speed of disappearance.

Every community that loses its language feels as if it is the only one experiencing this. In fact, this is happening to most languages. In an attempt to raise awareness about this issue, the United Nations General Assembly and UNESCO have declared 2019 the “International Year of Indigenous Languages.”

While we are drowning in the noise of our own voices, uttered within dominant cultures and languages, we are surrounded by an ocean filled with the silence of others and barely hear an echo of the vanishing chorus. We must hear it and feel its loss.

Last Whispers is an invocation of languages that have gone extinct and an incantation of those that are endangered.

It is an immersive oratorio composed of their recordings.

 

*Last Whispers was created in collaboration with the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme and the SOAS World Languages Institute, SOAS, University of London and it is co-presented by the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, UNESCO.

*Last Whispers is a non-profit organization.

Work

Last Whispers

Oratorio for Vanishing Voices, Collapsing Universes and a Falling Tree

IMMERSIVE ORATORIO
(a video and audio installation and a virtual reality experience)

Conceived / Directed / Produced by Lena Herzog

With sound design and compositions by Marco Capalbo and Mark Mangini
Visualization by Amanda Tasse, video by Tomas Van Houtyryve and Aziz Lechgar
Images by NASA, Bryan Nash Gill, Lena Herzog


EDITION 1: INSTALLATION & CONCERT (completed, premiered at The British Museum 11. 2016)

simultaneously a film projection and a choral pre-recorded composition with immersive (either 8.1 or binaural*) sound design, resulting in a 46-minute long visceral experience—an immersive oratorio. The video consists of 3D animation, video drone footage and stills (all in black-and-white) poetically linking image and sound. The audio in the Oratorio is a chorus of extinct and endangered languages, both spoken and sung, composed from the historical recordings (speech, recitatives, incantations, songs and ritual chants) punctuated by the sound of interpreted (made audible) gravitational waves of the collapsing stars and supernovae recorded by LIGO “The Listening Ear.”

Last Whispers is, in essence, an immersive experience of film and spatially designed sound composition of extinct and endangered languages (spoken and sung) .
Running time: 46 minutes.

Museum / Concert Hall / Cathedral Installation and Concert

  • Last Whispers plays on a loop as an installation at the top of the hour or
  • Last Whispers plays as a choral concert and film event at a given time
  • Video screen projection of animation, stills and drone footage in black-and-white (1920 x 1080 resolution)
  • Audio projection (8.1 or binaural*) either via an 8.1 PA sound system or via headphones

» Download technical specifications for Edition 1 icon_pdf

EDITION 2: PUBLIC / LAND ART (completed)

Public Spaces

  • Public and land art installation via a weatherproofed 8.1 sound system
  • Large scale video projection

» Download technical specifications for Edition 2 icon_pdf

EDITION 3: VIRTUAL REALITY (completed)

an immersive virtual reality (VR) experience made in collaboration with Emblematic Group.
Running time: 7 minutes.

VR platforms

  • Last Whispers plays as a VR (7 minutes) on various VR devices and platforms
* Binaural or 8.1 sound projection is perceived by the human ear as distinct and genuine 360 degree immersive soundscape.
Such immersive sound environments prompt the brain to perceive these voices as “present” and “real.”
* 8.1 reproduction is made for public events; while a binaural version is for a private experience with headphones.

Excerpts

Languages featured in this Oratorio are endangered or extinct.

Trailer

excerpt "Conversation"

Facts

Mandana Seyfeddinipur
Program Director of Endangered Languages Documentation Programme
Department of Linguistics SOAS, University of London

Today there are around 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, and at least half of those will have fallen silent by the end of this century. Globalization, urbanization, and climate change create economic, political, and social pressures on people, and in response, people give up their traditional ways of life, move to cities, and find new sources of income. In the process, they also give up their mother tongues and turn to other, typically more prestigious and dominant languages to foster economic and social mobility for their children. When languages are not transmitted to children, they become endangered and are likely to become extinct.

While speakers have shifted to other languages throughout human history, the speed of this development has dramatically increased over the past century. It is estimated that the loss of language diversity is happening on the scale of the fifth mass species extinction. Each of these vanishing languages expresses the unique knowledge, history, and worldview of its speaker community, and each is a distinctly evolved variation of the human capacity for language. Many of these languages have never been described or recorded, so their loss means the richness of human linguistic diversity is disappearing without a trace.

The statistics we have on the number of languages spoken in the world, and which ones are endangered, are only rough estimates because there is no reliable data for this issue. Today only 10–15 percent of the world’s languages are well described—meaning that very little knowledge has been accumulated for the other 85–90 percent of languages. By some estimates, there are 2,000 languages spoken in Africa and 800 in Papua New Guinea alone. It is estimated that in Australia there were 250 languages spoken at the time of European colonization. Today only 145 languages are left there, and 110 of them are critically endangered, which means that “the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the languages partially and infrequently.” In a few years, only about 35 of the 250 original Australian languages will remain. The others will have become extinct.

Many factors must be taken into account when assessing language endangerment, as was described in 2009 by linguists M. Paul Lewis and Gary F. Simons. These include factors to assess language use in different domains of life, such as whether it is used only in the home or also in public; whether the language has a script; whether it is taught in schools; whether it is used in radio or TV broadcasting, or, nowadays, on the internet. But the key factor is intergenerational transmission: whether children learn and speak it. It is the children—what their parents and grandparents share with them and how they use the language in their daily lives—who make the difference. Once the line of intergenerational transmission is broken, it is hard to bring a language back to young people, whose daily lives are absorbed in the majority language.

Often it is these children, who can no longer speak to their grandparents, who come back later in life to search for their roots, trying to learn the language and understand their cultural heritage. Misconceptions about multilingualism, including ideas that learning many languages at once could confuse a child or be disadvantageous, lie at the heart of the problem, a problem that is social and political.

UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages. (—2003). Language Vitality and Endangerment, UNESCO Fishman, Joshua. (—1991). Reversing Language Shift: Theoretical and Empirical Foundations of Assistance to Threatened Languages. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd., 87-111.- Hale, Kenneth; Krauss, Michael; Watahomigie, Lucille J.; Yamamoto, Akira Y.; Craig, Colette; Jeanne, LaVerne M. et al. (1992). Endangered Languages. Language, 68 (1), 1–42. Lewis, M. Paul & Gary F. Simons. 2010. Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman’s GIDS. Revue roumaine de linguistique 55(2), 103–120.

Map

The Endangered Languages Map

Team

Concept / Directed / Produced by Lena Herzog with sound design and compositions by Marco Capalbo and Mark Mangini.

Lena Herzog (concept & direction) studied Philosophy and Linguistics (Philology), began working primarily in the field of photography and print making since 1997. Herzog is the author of six books of photography; her work has been widely published and reviewed by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, The Paris Review among many others. She is a regular contributing artist to Harper’s Magazine. Her work has been collected and exhibited in major museums and institutions around the world.

Marco Capalbo (sound designer and composer) has directed film, theatre, opera and music. His most recent documentary film Stravinsky in Hollywood was produced for Arte in 2014. Stage productions include: John Eaton’s opera The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at Symphony Space, New York; Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet for the opening of Red Bull’s Hangar-7 at Salzburg Airport. Compositions include: recently… (2013), Le Greygnour Bien: a Pendant to Rodney Graham’s Three Musicians (2015), and In the Vast Wave of the World’s Breath (2014). Marco has worked professionally as a film editor for over two decades.

Mark Mangini (sound designer and composer) won an Oscar in 2016 as sound designer for the film Mad Max: Fury Road and has been nominated previously for sound design for several films. He has spent his 40-year career in Hollywood imagining and composing altered sonic realities for motion pictures. He is a frequent lecturer, an outspoken proponent for sound as art and is a guitarist and a songwriter with compositions for Sex, Lies and Videotape, Star Trek IV and others. He is a current governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as well as a member of SAG, SMPTE, and ASCAP.

Theresa Schwartzman (researcher) is a freelance documentary film & television researcher. She has worked for the American Film Institute, the UCLA Film Archive and the Investigation Discovery network, as well as filmmakers Michael Apted, Michael Mann, and others. She has a BA in art history from Harvard and an MFA in film production from UCLA.

Eveling Villa (researcher) linguist, and language activist specialized in endangered language documentation and description. She is the co-author of the latest phylogenetic classification of Cross River languages based on lexicon-statistic evidence. She was awarded a PhD position in the documentation of Adamawa languages at ‘Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales’ (INALCO), Paris.

Amanda Tasse (animation and visualization) is a media artist working at the intersection of evocative visualization and interactive animation. She has developed work for neuroscientists, marine biologists, filmmakers such as Brett Morgen, Nanette Burstein and Mark Harris, and companies like BMW and Steelcase. She also directs lyrical films inspired by science, which have won a number of awards, among them a student academy award and HBO films award. She holds a PhD in Media Arts + Practice from the University of Southern California (USC).

Maggie Morris (visual design & typography) is a creative director and media strategist. As conceptual designer in digital media since its boom, she works both in the visual concept and presentation of ideas, as well as the architecture for optimal user experience. She has worked for BMW, Samsung, and Condé Nast.

Tomas van Houtyryve (video: drone footage) is an artist, photographer and author who engages critical contemporary issues around the world. His work interweaves metaphor and reportage, occupying the intersection of art and pure documentary. He is the recipient of the 2015 International Center of Photography Infinity Award, World Press Photo Award, and the Bayeux Prize for War Correspondents. His work has been exhibited and acquired by collections across three continents.

Aziz Lechgar (video: footage of the mirages) studied electronic science and cinema in Casablanca, Morocco and has worked as a cameramen on numerous films.

Sean Scannell (editor) works as an editor in various projects ranging from action sports to documentaries, music videos, and short films in Los Angeles at Nomad Editing Company.

Georgiana A. Nikias (adviser on copyright and cultural heritage law) is an Associate in the Los Angeles office of Murchison & Cumming, LLP where she is a member of the firm’s General Liability, Art and Cultural Heritage Litigation practice group. Ms. Nikias has played a principal role in the defense of a number of high-profile, complex national matters and is recognized as a leader in Art and Cultural Heritage law.

Anne Marie Bowler (adviser on copyright and intellectual property law) is a founding partner of the women-owned law firm Gabay Bowler LLP based in New York City. Anne Marie advises creative clients on a range of intellectual property matters and litigates commercial disputes.

 

*Last Whispers was created in collaboration with the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme and the SOAS World Languages Institute, SOAS, University of London and it is co-presented by the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, UNESCO.

*Last Whispers is a non-profit organization.

Stories

Last Whispers was made with painstaking attention to the cultural heritage law and, above all, to the ethical conduct in working with indigenous communities, linguists and archivists for each case. In addition, we invited them to contribute their stories which we began to run here:

 

The Batāhira

The Sadu People

Culture and Language in Brief

In Memoriam

Díli Do Macuco (... - 1983)

Central Balsas Nahautl

Silvestre Pantaleón

Pite Saami

The Nuances of Reindeer

Paunaka

Documentation of Paunaka

Kotiria (Wanano)

The Kotiria of Amazonia

Great Andamanese

My Life with the Great Andamanese

Yoloxóchitl Mixtec

Prayer For a Change of Fortune

Trung (Dulong)

How to Read the Dictionary of an Endangered Language

Qaqet

The Qaqet of Raunsepna

Northern Paiute

More Than Words

Duoxu

Duoxu

Ahom

Ahom Language Work

Nivkh

Sound Materials of the Nivkh Language

Dalabon

Dalabon Language of Arnhem Land

Mani

A Mani Lament

Ju|’hoan

It Takes Both Sides of the Digital Divide: The Ju|’hoan Transcription Group

Unknown

First Encounter

Archives

Archives

in collaboration with the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme and the SOAS World Languages Institute, SOAS, University of London

Ahom
India
Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC)
Collector: Stephen Morey
Speaker: Tileshwar Mohan

Ainu
Japan
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collectors: Anna Bugaeva and Hiroshi Nakagawa
Speaker: Mrs. Kimi Kimura

Ayoreo
Paraguay
Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages
Collector: Anna Luisa Daigneault
Speakers: Iyagai Catalino Picanerai, Pehe Picanerai

Bathari
Oman
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Miranda Morris
Speakers:
Maḥmūd Mšaʕfi Musallim Al Mashrami Al Baṭḥari, Sowma Zifena Musallim Al Mashrami Al Baṭḥari, Faraḥ Mšaʕfi Musallim Al Mashrami Al Baṭḥari, ʕᾹmir Māgid Suleyyim Al Mḥabši Al Baṭḥari, Nasra Salim Shemlān Al Mḥabši Al Baṭḥari, Salim Muḥammad Saqr Al Mashrami Al Baṭḥari, Rubeyyaʕ Adahaba Suleyyim al-Mamṭari Al Baṭḥari, Bakhayyit Saʕad Saḳr Al Mashrami Al Baṭḥari, Lḥabāb Hamūd Salim Al Mashrami Al Baṭḥari, Saʕad Qāsim Aṭali Al Mamṭari Al Baṭḥari, Salīma Saqr Laġafēli Al Mašarmi Al Baṭḥari

Central Balsas Nahuatl
Mexico
Collector: Jonathan D. Amith
Speakers: Clemente Baltazar, Eugenio Castro, Valentina Reyes Damian, Silvestre Pantaleón, Mundo Ramírez

Chamacoco (Ishir Ibitoso)
Paraguay
Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages
Collector: Anna Luisa Daigneault
Speakers: Baaso, Crispulo Martinez (Kafotei), Agna Peralta

Dalabon
Australia
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Maïa Ponsonnet
Speaker: Maggie Tukumba

Duoxu
China
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collectors: Katia Chirkova, Zhengkang Han, Dehe Wang, Xiaowen Yuan
Speakers: Wenming Ma, Decai Wu, Denglian Wu, Rongfu Wu, Zhengmei Wu

Enxlet Norte
Paraguay
Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages
Collector: Anna Luisa Daigneault
Speaker: Silvestre Martinez

Great Andamanese
India
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Anvita Abbi
Speakers: Boa Sr., Buro, Ilfe, Pao Buddha

Ikaan
Nigeria
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Sophie Salffner
Speakers: Lawrence Abiola, Comfort Adedeji, Dignes Adedeji, Hannah Adedeji, Richard Bamidele Adedeji, Fred Adekanye, Lydia Adekanye, William Adekanye, Mayowa Adekunbi, Ruth Adeoba, Juliana Adeyanju, Maybelle Adeyanju, Omojola Baale, Dorcas Babalola, Simeon Olaitan Balobun, Dorcas Balogun, Asya Gefter, Thomas Obadau, Janet Obanobi, Adesonmi Obaude, Bola Ruth Oloyo

Ingrian
Russia
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR) &
Karelian Institute of Language, Literature and History of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Collectors: Fedor Rozhanskiy, Elena Markus, Enn Ernits, Eino Kiuru, Elina Kylmäsuu, Terttu Koski
Speakers: Ekaterina Andreyevna Aleksandrova, Zinaida Antonovna Dmitriyeva, Aleksandra Mikhaylovna Efimov, Konstantin Efimov, Praskovya Milhaylovna Fedorova, Fekla Mikhaylovna Gerasimova, Evdokiya Isayeva, Evgokiya Lukinichna Ivanova, Tatyana Ignatyevna Ivanova, Akulina Mikhaylovna Kirilova, Nikolay Mikhaylov, Mariya Elizarovna Nikitina, Feodosiya Nikitichna Petrova, Evdokiya Filippovna Rodionova, Galina Ivanovna Samsonova, Anna Vasilyevna Stepanova, Anna Ivanovna Trofimova, Evgeniya Emelyanovna Vasilyeva, Matrena Dmitriyevna Vasilyeva, Mariya Volosanova, Anna Zolotova

Ixcatec
Mexico
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collectors: Denis Costaouec & Michael Swanton
Depositors: Denis Costaouec & Michael Swanton
Speakers: Juliana Salazar Bautista, Lirio Salazar Gutiérrez, María Patrocina Salazar Gutiérrez, Pedro Salazar Gutiérrez, Cipriano Ramírez Guzmán, Rufina Álvarez Robles

Ju|’hoan
Namibia
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Megan Biesele
Speakers:|Ai!ae, ǁ’Angsa |’Angn!ao, |Asa ǁXamte, !Kaia G|aeku, Kaqece ǁ’Ao, |Kunta, N!aq’e, Nǁao Kxao, Sagǁai

Kotiria (Wanano)
Brazil and Colombia
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR) & Kotiria Linguistic and Cultural Archive
Collector: Kristine Stenzel
Speakers: Emilia Trindade Cabral, Helena Cabral, Mateus Trindade Cabral, Ricardo Trindade Cabral, Emilia Melo

Koyukon
USA
Alaska Native Language Archive
Speaker: Henry Titus
Courtesy of Allen and Anne Titus

Laklãnõ Xokleng
Brazil
The Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA)
Collector: Greg Urban
Speakers: Vãjẽky Téy, Vãjẽky Paté, Dil tõ vo
Courtesy of: Nanblá Gakran

Light Warlpiri
Australia
The Language Archive, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, The Netherlands
Collector: Carmel O’Shannessy
Speakers: the children of Lajamanu

Los Capomos Mayo
Mexico
The Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA)
Collector: Ray Freeze
Depositor: Yolanda Lastra
Courtesy of Joshua Freeze

Mani
Samu/Samou region of Sierra Leone/Guinea
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Tucker Childs
Speakers: Momo Kaka Bangoura, Amara Camara, Kaba Camara, Yaaye Camara, Mahawa Conté

Manx
UK
Culture Vannin
Collector: Brian Stowell
Speaker: Ned Maddrell

Mbya Guarani
Paraguay
Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages
Collector: Anna Luisa Daigneault

Nǁng
South Africa
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collectors: Tom Güldemann, Martina Ernszt, Sven Siegmund & Alena Witzlack-Makarevich
Project: A Text Documentation of Nǀuu
Speakers: Hannie Koerant, Andries Olyn, ǀUna Rooi, Griet Seekoei

Nafsan (South Efate)
Vanuatu
Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC)
Collector: Nick Thieberger
Speakers: Harris Takau and John Kalfau

Nivkh
Russia
Sound Materials of the Nivkh Language
Collector: Hidetoshi Shiraishi (Sapporo Gakuin University)
Speakers: Konstantin Iakovlevich Agniun, Valentina Fedorovna Akilyak-Ivanova, Vera Eremeevna Khejn, Olga Anatol’evna Nyavan, Natalia Demianovna Vorbon

Olekha
Bhutan
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Gwendolyn Hyslop
Speakers: Chey Go Chelong, Kuenga, Nakari, Singye

Ongota
Ethiopia
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Graziano Savà
Speakers: Maale Goda, Gombo Karo, Dula K’awla, Geeda K’awla, Guayo Kurayo, Erre Sagane, Gename Wa’do

Paunaka
Bolivia
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collectors: Swintha Danielsen, Lena Terhart, Federico Villalta
Speakers: María Cuasase, Pedro Pinto, Juana Supepí, Miguel Supepí

Pite Saami
Sweden
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Joshua Wilbur
Speakers: Anders-Erling Fjällås, Elsy Rankvist, Henning Rankvist, Tage Rankvist, Dagny Skaile, Per-Allan Steggo

Qaqet
Papua New Guinea
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR) and Language Archive Cologne at the University of Cologne
Collector: Birgit Hellwig
Speakers: Paul Alin, Rudolf Arum, David Landi, Joyce Laniat, Henry Lingisaqa, Francis Murum, Lucy Nguingi, Justin Samurl, Dorothy Singan, Marcela Tangil

Sadu
China
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collectors: Xianming Xu & Bibo Bai
Speakers: Lanzhen Li, Fenqin Li

Selk’nam (Ona)
Argentina
Selk’nam (Ona) Chants of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, FW04176
Collector: Anne Chapman
Speaker: Lola Kiepja
Courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings (p) (c) 1972, used by permission.

Selkup
Russia
Laboratory for Computational Lexicography, Research Computing Center, Lomonosov Moscow State University
Collectors: Olga Kazakevich & Leonid Zakharov
Speaker: Rodion Sergeevich Kubolev

Sumtu (Sone Tu)
Myanmar
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Mai Ni Ni Aung
Speakers: U Lo Htaung, U Hla Sein, U Bo Thar, U Ni Tun

Surel
Nepal
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Dörte Borchers
Speakers: Junkimaya Surel, Tikamaya Surel, Tirtha Bahadur Surel

Tehuelche
Argentina
The Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA)
Collector: Jorge Suárez
Depositor: Yolanda Lastra
Speakers: Andrés Carminatti, Carmen Carminatti, Margarita Pocón de Manco, Ana Montenegro de Yebes

Trung (Dulong)
China
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Ross Perlin
Speakers: Mon Jisong, Pung Svr, Wang Jici

Warlpiri
Australia
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Carmel O’Shannessy
Speakers: Teddy Morrison Jupurrurla and the children of Lajamanu

Yanesha
Peru
Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages
Collector: Anna Luisa Daigneault
Speakers: Christina Bautista, Justina Quinchuya

Yauyos Quechua
Peru
The Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA)
Collector: Aviva Shimelman
Speakers: Victorina Aguado, Octavia Arco, Bautista Cárdenas, Macedonia Centeno, Delfina Chullunkuy, Soylita Chullunkuy, Ninfa Flores, Cecilia Guerra, Juana Huari, Soylita Huari, Saturnina M., Esther Madueño, Margarita Madueño, Lucia Pariunám Martínez, Santa Ellu Martínez, Genoveva Rodríguez, Lucía Rodríguez,, Leona Wamán, Urbana Yauri

Yoloxóchitl Mixtec
Mexico
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Jonathan D. Amith
Speakers: Constantino Teodoro Bautista, Soledad García Bautista, Estela Santiago Castillo, Alberto Prisciliano Federico, Mario Salazar Felipe, Martín Salazar Felipe, Rey Castillo García, Martín Severiano Germán, Marcelina Encarnacion Gertrudis, Maximiliano Francisco Gonzalez, Fernando Niño Leonardo, Alfonso García Reyes, Victorino Ramos Rómulo, Lamberto García Santiago, Zoila Guadalupe Sierra, Maximino Meza Teodoro, Santa Cruz Tiburcio

Press

 

Downloads

  • Press Release PDF
  • Press Images ZIP
  • Download Trailer (65Mb)MP4

RECENT PRESS

February 2, 2018: Entitled Opinions: Lena Herzog on dying languages with Robert Harrison
Listen HERE

Last Whispers installation at the British Museum
(sound system was installed by Meyer / Autograph Sound, time lapse footage by Mark Mangini)

Shows

 

Flyer: British Museum

Flyer: 5 Kontinente
www.muenchenticket.de
www.museum-fuenf-kontinente.de
www.literaturfest-muenchen.de

Flyer: Southbank

Project Origins

Lena Herzog on the origins of the project
Last Whispers, Oratorio for Vanishing Voices, Collapsing Universes, and a Falling Tree

At the age of six I decided to learn English so that I could understand a puzzle in a Sherlock Holmes story. I had to know how the detective had decoded a death threat to his client’s wife in The Adventure of the Dancing Men. The key to that puzzle was the recognition of the recurring definite article “the”—a mysterious notion to me then since articles do not exist in Russian. I grew up in the Urals, on the western border of Siberia, where very few people spoke foreign languages. I picked up Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original in English, along with a dictionary and a grammar text book, and struggled through the entire book line by line. Later, also prompted by the desire to read literature in the original, I studied French and Spanish and, worked as a proof-reader at a printing press in Saint Petersburg, next to the compositors that were busily nestling letters into words, words into sentences, and sentences into novels at a staggering speed, throwing proofs over to my table like hot bread. So it made sense to me that when I went to Saint Petersburg University, the door plaque of my faculty read “philology” φιλολογία—including the original Greek, which means “love of the word.” However, all my plans to become a Russian novelist were upended by a complete linguistic dislocation to American English at age twenty, when I moved to the United States. The sense of personal language loss was concrete and overwhelming, alerting me to a far more universal and dire fate for most languages.

The idea for a project specifically on the mass extinction of languages came to me more than two decades ago. My old failed 2003 Guggenheim application was titled “Vanishing Cultures” and was at first, in part, a photographic project. I’d planned to take large-format portraits of the last speakers of various languages and place them in a room filled with their whispering voices. The concept of sounding vanished voices by broadcasting them as a muffled chorus was already central and clearly articulated in my description of the project back then.

I realized that indigenous communities give up their languages and switch to dominant ones under pressure from the forces of globalization. My next natural iteration of this idea involved shedding the images of the speakers and having only voices in a forest. When a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? This old philosophical trope, the basic epistemological exercise, seemed handy. What is our sense of the unobserved, unheard worlds? I have come to think of this old exercise as one in empathy: Does it matter that trees and universes collapse all around us? Somewhere, between our obliviousness to others and our own inevitable oblivion, rest the scales of some brutal justice.

My team and I began amassing a giant library of recordings of extinct and endangered languages on loan from international archives, working closely with many collections, linguists, and anthropologists in the field. Our main collaborator was the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme, a project of SOAS University of London that is headed by Mandana Seyfeddinipur. When I went through their archives online, I realized there would be no point in just “stacking” languages back-to-back to form a single piece. Because these recordings were already public, generously so, it would have been possible to perform this kind of compilation just by clicking “next” on their website, and that would have been too obvious a gesture for the work I had in mind.

While working in my studio and darkroom, I created a setup that randomly played thousands of these recordings, one after another. I marked those that felt right for the oratorio I was planning and began narrowing down the library. The extraordinary researcher Theresa Schwartzman, in Los Angeles, and her counterpart in London, Eveling Villa, began reaching out to archives, linguists, and indigenous communities (when this was possible) to obtain rights and permissions for the recordings. Sometimes there was no community to reach. We went beyond the letter of the law, which held that the copyright resided with the linguists and the archives, and tried to reach those who claimed heritage to the language. Sometimes last speakers changed their minds, turning us down mid-composition and mid-film, and we had to redo the work from scratch, rescore and rethink. Each case had a story, most often a tragic one. We began to publish some of them on our website.

Every dialogue with a linguist, no matter how banal, brought insight. The professionals who travel and live among these last speakers are the unsung heroes in this story; they are the ones who collect, preserve, and help revitalize endangered languages. In my dealings with them, they were the advocates for the last speakers’ rights. One might think that they would number enough to form an army, but there are barely enough of them for a battalion. Most work alongside volunteers and language enthusiasts. And all of them, at least those that I have met, are on the side of indigenous peoples. To put it in espionage terms, linguists of endangered languages almost always “go native.” They are the ones who hear the trees falling in the forest. Our long list of credits names both the speakers and the linguists—meticulously.

The polyphonic global chorus that I heard had the makings of an astonishing oratorio, and to bring it into a public space beyond the form of the archive, I needed music and imagery that would reveal it in a condensed form. This form had to be invented organically; it had to come from the recordings, from the voices themselves.

Marco Capalbo and Mark Mangini, who work fluidly in both sound design and composition, joined the team, and we began to shape the oratorio from our already-narrowed library. My concept was multilayered and concrete: it included the use of sounds of Russian bells, forest noises, wind, interpreted gravitational waves from outer space registered by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (a.k.a. “the Listening Ear”), and the specific parameters for the source library itself. In my first brainstorming session about the work, I wrote to Marco and Mark:

What is the balance of the piece? What holds it together?

The “founding idea” of making the work is based on the recordings of languages that had already vanished or are well on their way to extinction. The parameters within which the selection was made for the source library—I have defined. This is clearly a glue as the overall idea and basic building blocks. … Using cosmic sounds of the universe within the composition expands the arc. Gives us “eternal” time. … I really love the opening with the bell. The end will have to be a giant chorus that builds and builds and then abruptly vanishes—in an exhale.

Shifting from fragmentation to a lyrical cradling of the voices, then back to fragmentation, and ending with a finale of interwoven harmony and dissonance were key to the piece I was constructing with my team.

Listening to the sounds of the voices and the first sketches by Marco and Mark, the photographer Tomas van Houtryve and I mapped a precise choreography of drone footage. Animator Amanda Tasse and I decided to create a new topography for the world that would have no “real” geography. We collected NASA images of hurricanes, cut out their edges, and sewed them together, forming something like a digital quilt to cover the earth. I thought that the edges of these vortices textured the continents and islands well, lighting the globe like a strange marble.

There is lamentation and melancholy in the oratorio. How can it be otherwise? And yet it is not a requiem—it is an invocation of languages that have gone extinct and an incantation of those that are endangered. I myself got addicted to these vanishing voices. I listen to them all the time now. They remind me that despite the deafening noise of our own voices, we are floating on an ocean filled with the silence of others.

 

Notes on compositions by Mark Mangini

I felt that the best way to honor and respect the last speakers was to find the most compelling expressions of their individual languages and bring them to life in a modern, high-fidelity way. After combing through hundreds of hours of interviews, songs and chants, I selected 30 recordings that moved me the most and worked to bring them to life through the use of underscore, montage, and sound design. Though most of these archival recordings were captured monaurally and are of questionable fidelity, we designed an octophonic speaker system so to reproduce the recordings as immersively and experientially as possible. To show off this immersive space, I built an octophonic virtual sound environment in the studio and placed the last speakers within it. I felt that they should live in a world of sound that is as modern as the one we ourselves experience, thereby presenting their stories and songs in as lifelike a fashion as possible.

Notes on ORA by Marco Capalbo

 

ORA—the root of many words: the mouth, speaking, prayer, aura, a soft wind or breeze, and speech is of course connected to breath, and so to life itself. So here Ora is perhaps a breathing spoken prayer.

I used multiple processes in the composition of ORA. I generated sounds through purely electronic means, and I modulated natural sounds using a variety of techniques. The sound layers were arrayed in an eight-by-eight circle, then projected into eight discrete loudspeaker channels, like the rings of some kind of tree, each one bringing us closer to the center. Each loudspeaker is treated as an independent sound source, and sounds are projected and travel through the space in a variety of ways. All the sound was created more or less “from scratch” in a computer-programming language called CSound.

The sounds follow a progression from the cosmic-universal to the natural, the spoken to the sung, the sustained (cello harmonics) to the resonating (bells). The universal sounds are the most chaotic, the bells the most regular. Each of these six elements has its own rhythm, composed in sixfold counterpoint. Each has its solo moment, with the rhythmic proportions reflected in the large and the small. Voices were placed within a time structure in which they could sing and speak, together, alone, in synchronized groups and chaotic masses. I treated the different languages equally, not picking favorites. To this end, I drew upon a large pool of sound files—some 400 in all. The listener is guided into a sonic space where all the words and songs and cries and chants play within a forest of sound, free of meaning, in some mysterious vastness. While few listeners—and even fewer as time goes on—will grasp semantic meaning from the words, everything has the sound of humanness. We recognize the utterances of our brothers and sisters, as well as our shared ability to form sounds to communicate with each other. A variety of bell sounds toll a sixfold sequence of differently timed repetitions. Six bells start together, and they are one beat away from repeating at the very end of the piece, as each bell follows the other in sequence. So, if the piece were extended, the whole cycle would begin again, another breath in some great oscillation.