Bergen International Festival, 26 May 2016: a curtain of sound opens the work Instrument of Speech. On stage is the Asamisimasa ensemble, in the audience the work’s composer Henrik Hellstenius. Into the soundscape are woven samples of a 45-year-old speech. A well-articulated Oxford English voice can be heard uttering phrases such as
When we use the word language we inevitably associate it with verbal language [...]
We think of speech as being the instrument of language
How should these samples be interpreted? And why have they been incorporated into this work of music?
A complex sign system
“The phrases are taken from a lecture given by the English philosopher, physician and mystic John G. Bennett in the 1970s,” explains composer and NMH professor of composition Henrik Hellstenius.
He is project manager of the artistic development project Music with the Real in which five composers are contributing new works incorporating audiovisual samples from everyday situations in a dialogue with instrumental music. Instrument of Speech is Henrik’s contribution. In the work we can hear the sound of someone scribbling and leafing through books and samples of the spoken word in the form of conversations, lectures, shouting and crying. The speech is also displayed in writing on a large screen.
“My approach to the project is that I want to explore the relationship between language and music, both as concrete material and as a manifestation of meaning. In his speech Bennett points to how common it is to see the spoken word as the most important means of making yourself understood. I find such a hierarchy of meaning interesting. The sound of speech is also interesting to me as a composer. In semiotics speech is described as the most complex sign system there is. There are infinite potential combinations between sound and semantic meanings. I wanted to investigate how new meanings can emerge when concrete language enters into a dialogue with abstract music. Navigating this field is a big artistic challenge, partly because different sign systems are prioritised differently by human perception,” says Henrik.