Somnambule - Writing About Music

Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd ~ In What Language?

A character in J.G. Ballard’s most recent novel Millenium People describes the occupants of a newly-built housing estate near a London airport thus:

“They like the alienation… There’s no past and no future. If they can, they opt for zones without meaning – airports, shopping malls, motorways, car parks. They’re in flight from the real…”

Ballard’s character expresses the theoretical view of the airport as a ‘nonplace’, a neutral transit space comparable to the idea of a sci-fi teleport: stand in the right place, press a button and away you go. That may be the case for wealthy caucasians, but on behalf of the rest of the world In What Language? vigorously asserts that airports are all too frequently places of potential conflict and barriers to movement.

The project was triggered by the pre-11 September experience of Iranian director Jafar Panahi – probably best known for his film The Circle - who was shackled in chains for ten hours and returned to his place of departure (Hong Kong) because he refused to be fingerprinted and photographed at JFK airport. Such experiences are surely repeated with ever increasing frequency in these reconfigured times. In What Language? – subtitled ‘A Song Cycle of Lives in Transit’ - protests this situation and asserts the richness of individual identity against the anonymity of crowds. In doing so, a common experience of suffering caused by exclusion, suspicion and violence is clearly delineated.

The songs cast a variety of characters’ viewpoints against an everchanging backdrop of musics. Characters include an Asian porn actor angry at the intrusiveness of customs officers, an Iraqi businessman scarred by violence, a Yemeni woman dreaming about winning the lottery and so on. Each story is told differently by a cast of four speakers: some are poetically abstract, some angry, some mournful. Together they create a latticework of possibilities. Meanings are not always clear, but who has the temerity to expect to understand everybody who passes through an airport, each with their own culture, identity and personal history? Here lies my (minor) reservation about the project: the act of poetic mediation is mediation nevertheless. The inclusion of actual testimonies alongside poetic counterparts would arguably have made the underlying message still more convincing.

The music is a fluid tapestry woven from modern funk, jazz, drum’n’bass, ambient, etc played by a seven piece group. Threaded throughout are elements of yearning and anger, frustration and tiredness both in Mike Ladd’s libretto and in Vijay Iyer’s impressionistic melodies. Iyer’s name may be familiar from his jazz trio Fieldwork or as a member of the Burnt Sugar collective. Mike Ladd is leader of the Infesticons and comes from the same spoken word scene that has given us Ursula Rucker and Saul Williams.

In What Language? is an act of revealing and creative investigation that might be viewed alongside Mike Davis’s sociological analysis of the history and architecture of Los Angeles, City of Quartz - both question a hugely problematic status quo. In What Language? is an impressive, sorrowing and defiant reminder of the suffering imposed by the West on people of colour seeking to escape from poverty and persecution or who wish simply to travel through its territories on their way to other destinations. It also paints a vivid picture of peoples on the move all over our planet.

Colin Buttimer
January 2004
Published by the BBC