July 30 2012

WQXR article can be viewed here

“The final entry of pianist Lisa Moore’s three-part EP series may be its most listenable. It’s certainly its most mesmerizing. Each EP has approached the piano in a wildly different fashion, offering Moore the opportunity to display every angle of her versatile chops.

2009’s “Seven” features the jazz and gospel-tinged compositions of Bronx-based clarinetist and composer Don Byron. 2011’s “Lighting Slingers and Dead Ringers,” by composer Annie Gosfield, colors pinging prepared piano with gauzy synth distortion and digital blips.

With “Stainless Staining,” Moore takes on two works by Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy that pull the pianist into uncharted waters. Equal parts texture and pulse, and built on hypnotic rhythmic repetitions, the music pendulums between active and passive listening. The title track, written specifically for Moore, pairs solo piano with a soundtrack of recorded and (sometimes) manipulated samples taken from a piano retuned so that it produces 100 overtones based on a low G# fundamental (the struck pitch). A seamless, propulsive blend of (wo)man and machine, the piece reflects Dennehy’s newfound fascination with the rhythmic pulsing of the overtone series.

The second piece on the EP is Dennehy’s 2007 work Reservoir. In the liner notes, the composer compares the piece to a Bill Morrison video in which a naked man is gradually submerged in water. The similarity was unintentional, but it’s easy to hear in the first half of the composition, which begins with high staccato piano notes that mimic incessant droplets of water. As the music progresses, the single notes become clustered double-stops as gentle, minimalist chords pool beneath. The piece becomes even more water-like in its second half with dissonances and rhythms blurring together over a depressed sustain pedal, climbing in register over fortissimo explosions of low-end clusters.

Headiness and allegory aside, the music on “Stainless Staining” constitutes an accessible and compelling EP. Packed with subtleties that become increasingly apparent with each repeated listen, it’s a fitting and memorable close to a trilogy that illuminates the multidimensional virtuosity of Moore’s playing.”

Apr 22 2011

New York Times article can be viewed here

Lisa Moore, an Australian pianist long based in and around New York, has always been a natural, compelling storyteller. Even so, it’s possible you could have missed that trait during her years as the hard-working, resourceful keyboardist of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, given the energetic, eclectic hurly-burly that usually surrounded her in that busy group.

Since leaving the All-Stars in 2008, Ms. Moore has flourished as a soloist and chamber player, in the process extending her repertory backward even as she has continued to forge ahead. Recent concerts by TwoSense, Ms. Moore’s duo with the cellist Ashley Bathgate, have included canonical works by Chopin, Prokofiev and Janacek. And in a recital at Bargemusic on Thursday evening, Ms. Moore deviated from her contemporary path for a fond glance back to Schumann.

Ms. Moore started on familiar terrain, demonstrating her confident technique in Philip Glass’s “Mad Rush.” Unsurprisingly, Mr. Glass’s tumbling arpeggios and shifting rhythmic currents posed no threat to her. But what captivated most about her approach was a thoughtfully applied rubato that lent the music variety without sapping its drive. Complemented by waves lapping against the boat, the performance had an entrancingly amniotic sway.

Invited to introduce “Fur Elisa,” a brief work newly written for Ms. Moore, the composer Tamar Muskal described a somewhat tentative rapprochement with tonality. Accordingly, the music bubbled in tranquil lines and spurted in brash gestures, slipping fitfully among harmonic centers like a bar of soap sliding through wet fingers. Ms. Moore’s steely virtuosity and bold imagination showed equally during commanding accounts of three movements from Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Musica Ricercata,” followed by three selections from his first book of Études.

Dispensing with fireworks in five selections from Schumann’s “Waldszenen,” Ms. Moore phrased with a breathlike lyricism in the introduction and finale; between those points she showed her capacity for illuminating character, most vividly in a haughty, preening “Vogel als Prophet.”

In John Adams’s “China Gates,” Ms. Moore’s keenly judged gradations of touch brought clarity and nuance to a barrage of coruscating patterns. The program ended with another piece created expressly for Ms. Moore, “The Dream of the Lost Traveler,” an imaginative evocation of Blake’s wild poetry composed by Martin Bresnick, Ms. Moore’s husband.

Before the performance, Mr. Bresnick recited a passage of Blake’s verse; midway through the piece, after brassy perambulation and dreamy reverie, Ms. Moore sang the verse as she played.

Wish as you might that Mr. Bresnick’s wistful closing bars could fade at length into silence, you couldn’t begrudge an audience its boisterous approval. For an encore Ms. Moore played from memory Frederic Rzewski’s Piano Piece No. 4, which opened with cascading thunder and closed with piercing repeated B flats, each jab awash in a metallic corona.

Jan 5 2011

Lisa Moore and Ashley Bathgate established their reputations as eloquent new-music interpreters through their work with the Bang on a Can All Stars, Ms. Moore as the group’s original pianist, Ms. Bathgate as its current cellist.

Lately they have joined forces as TwoSense, a duo devoted to performing the latest works (and commission as many as possible), with occasional oldies, by which they mean mostly 20th-century scores, as ballast.

Ms. Moore and Ms. Bathgate, along with a few friends, showed the first fruits of their collaboration at Le Poisson Rouge on Tuesday evening, and if they have not reformatted the cello recital as thoroughly as, say, Maya Beiser — another Bang on a Can alumna, who plays multimedia recitals these days — they certainly have a fresh approach and a taste for variety.

Curiously, the most mold-breaking works were pieces that moved beyond the boundaries of the duo. In Andy Akiho’s “21” (2008), for cello and percussion, Mr. Akiho played steel pans, and Ms. Bathgate oversaw both a graceful, bright-hued cello line and a vigorous kick-drum part. Ms. Moore, on her own, played Jerome Kitzke’s “Bringing Roses With Her Words” (2009), a theatrical piece that required her to walk onstage clapping and vocalizing, and to play a vigorous, if episodic, piano line embellished with a bit of percussion, as well as shouts, whoops, purring, babbling and laughter, before leaving the stage, still singing.

Ms. Moore and Ms. Bathgate were joined by Kelli Kathman, a flutist, for Paul Kerekes’s “Hail” (2010), a work that uses sharp, irregular, bouncy rhythms and tightly entwined textures to create an almost tactile picture of a storm. And in an extended trio set with the violinist, singer and composer Iva Bittova, Ms. Moore and Ms. Bathgate wove supple lines around Mr. Bittova’s earthy vocal lines and sang harmonies on a few pieces, most notably Martin Bresnick’s lovely arrangement of a Brahms song, “Nein Geliebter.”

That is not to say that the straightforward duets were either unappealing or commonplace. Ms. Bathgate’s rich tone, fluid dynamics and imaginative phrasing captured the magic of Janacek’s “Pohadka” (“Fairy Tale,” 1923), the opening work.

Stephen Feigenbaum — at 21, the youngest composer here — inventively avoided one trap of writing for a stringed instrument and the piano: Instead of allowing the cello to sound like the principal instrument, with the piano as its accompaniment, he built his “Suspended Animation” (2010) on the tension between a lyrical cello line and aggressive piano writing. Kate Moore (no relation) explored a similar disparity in “Velvet” (2010), its title referring to one quality of the cello’s tone, with the piano alternately matching and countering it.

However TwoSense proceeds — whether purely as a duo, or as an open-ended chamber project — its adventures should be worth following.

Wed 1 Dec 2010

Sentinel-Tribune article here.

Lisa Moore performs tonight and Thursday New Music has been good to Lisa Moore.

Not that she always appreciated it. As a young pianist she was exposed to work intended for young pianists by composers in her native Australia. She found them “too dissonant and slow.” Then when she started her studies at the Sydney Conservatorium her first music history class was in 20th century music, taught by Richard Toop who had worked with Karlheinz Stockhausen, the groundbreaking German composer. That master’s work as well as that by Gyorgy Ligeti and John Cage caught her ear.

“I also befriended the composers in the class,” she said. That led to them asking her to play their compositions. She found “I was good at it and was getting more performances.”

That served her well as she moved on through her studies, and when she moved to New York City in 1985 and started working as a freelance musician. Those skills at new music “helped me break in.”

She ended up helping to found and touring with the Bang On A Can All Stars, a pre-eminent contemporary music ensemble. And she collaborated with musicians who helped transform music in the late 20th century – Ornette Coleman, Philip Glass, Elliott Carter, Brian Eno and Meredith Monk as well as other younger exponents of music that spans the classical, avant garde and jazz idioms.

That range of experience will be on display when she performs two concerts in Bowling Green, the first tonight at 10:15 at the Clazel Theatre in downtown and Thursday at 8 p.m. in Bryan Recital Hall.

Tonight’s performance will feature works by Brian Eno, Rufus Wainwright and Randy Newman as well as by the noted jazz clarinetist Don Byron from Moore’s most recent album “Seven.” These pieces will draw on Moore’s improvisational skills.

The impetus to ad lib goes back to her earliest days at the keyboard, before she took lessons, when she played, like so many before and after her, “Chopsticks” and a little boogie woogie. Then she started taking lessons. No one ever took those earliest forays into playing seriously.  “It took me years to realize it’s good to take ‘Chopsticks’ and boogie woogie seriously.”

When she was 18, she purchased a fakebook, a collection of jazz and popular standard tunes reduced to the minimum notation. “I was always a private improvisor.”

In playing the music of Frederic Rzewski, whose music often include improvisation, Moore said, “there’s a change of pace in the music, there’s a change in the atmosphere” when it moves from what’s written to what’s extemporized.

For someone trained in classical music, jumping into improvisation “can be intimidating” because it requires learning a new musical language.

“Improvisation makes you feel exposed,” she said. “I like that now, but it used to make me uncomfortable.”

Moore maintains anyone can learn to improvise. “If you practice you can do it.”

Improvising helps her take a looser, though not in regards to her faithfulness to the score, attitude toward the compositions she plays. Playing composed music though also informs her improvisations. “There’s physical gestures that can be taken and used in improvisation, and this feeling of structure that can shape an improvisation.”

Thursday’s concert will feature two compositions based on literary texts: Rzewski’s “De Profundis”  based on the letters of Oscar Wilde, and Martin Bresnick’s “For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise,” inspired by the works of William Blake and includes projected images of Blake’s art. On the Bresnick, as on some of the pieces by Byron, Moore sings along with her playing. On the Rzewski, she recites.

She’s comfortable with this dramatic element, Moore said. “As a kid I wanted to be an actor”.

Melbourne, Thurs 15 May 2008

Lisa Moore is bringing home musicians with tastes as diverse and questing as hers, writes Jessica Nicholas:

The restless spirit that has fuelled much of Lisa Moore’s career was born long before she became a professional pianist. She inherited it from her parents, who spent several years travelling around the world with their three young children in tow. By the time she was 13, Moore had visited over a dozen countries.

The daughter of an art historian and a high-profile economist in Canberra, Moore remembers the family home being filled with “strange and interesting people”. Among the artists to frequent the house were Charles and Barbara Blackman, who later rescued Moore from educational conformity with their unconventional School Without Walls.

Other artists and encounters presented challenges and inspiration in equal measure. There was Albert Landa, a remarkable piano teacher who persuaded the rebellious Moore to take her talent seriously. There was an unplanned pregnancy leading to several months of confinement, during which the 17-year-old Moore had little to do but play piano (she gave her baby up for adoption, but has since been happily reunited with her daughter). And there was the Sydney Conservatorium, where Moore was surrounded by young composers who helped set her on a career path in new music.

And what an astonishingly diverse career it has turned out to be. Moore broadly defines her field as “music by living composers”. But she finds it hard to sum up her own performance practice it one neat phrase, even though she has been asked to do so for over two decades. “I usually tell people I play some popular music; some semi-popular music; and some unpopular music’,” she says with a laugh.

Moore, who has been based in New York since the mid-1980s, was a founding member of the influential Bang on a Can collective. As a soloist she has performed over 100 commissioned works for piano, stretching across classical, theatrical and contemporary music domains.

Her creative approach, she says, is as borderless as possible. “During my 15 years with the Bang on a Can All-Stars, I had to improvise in a jazz style, use my voice, work with electronics… And we worked with so many composers – from Meredith Monk and Philip Glass to people who do really experimental music – that for me, now, there are no boundaries.”

Moore’s latest project is a directorial as well as musical one. She is the guest curator of ‘Sounds Alive’, a new music concert series within this year’s Canberra International Music Festival (concluding this weekend). Two of the acts featured in the series will come to Melbourne before returning to New York, and Moore is thrilled to introduce Australian audiences to such unique creative artists.

Don Byron is a superb jazz clarinettist whose music – like Moore’s – embraces a wide array of styles and genres (in his case, klezmer, hip hop, Afro-Caribbean and avant-garde chamber music). Byron and his New York-based Ivey-Divey Trio will perform their idiosyncratic tribute to saxophonist Lester Young.

And the astonishing Czech-born vocalist and violinist Iva Bittova will perform as a duo with Moore on piano. Bittova dissects Czech folk and classical music as imaginatively as she explores the full range of her voice. “She can sing like a bird, very high and chirpy, or with a low, guttural, gypsy sound. It’s incredibly earthy, and… really, you’ve never heard a voice like it in your life,” enthuses Moore.

“And Don (Byron) is incredibly virtuosic. Both these artists play music at the highest level – music that’s challenging, but also very accessible. We may never have them in Australia again, and I’m excited to see how audiences react to them. I just can’t wait for the concerts, really.”

Keys to the Future, Greenwich Music House, NYC April ‘08

With the changing of the pianist, came a changing of the mood altogether. Lisa Moore walked onstage to play three pieces from three composers, the first being Ingram Marshall’s Authentic Presence, written in 2001 for pianist Sarah Cahill. The music, lasting about 12 minutes, is described as “a continuous state of mind.” If that is indeed so, it must be a restless mind—for the piece is periodically interrupted by forte passages and pauses, acting to reverse the underlying forward motion. Authentic Presence is demanding: hands are frequently crossed to deliver the main theme that resurfaces in different keys and dynamics throughout. The middle section, a meditative segment based on the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” is the only time the mind is at rest. The music returns to its agitated mood soon afterwards and Ms. Moore managed to join the seemingly disconnected parts to sound like a whole.

China Gates, dating from 1977, also composed for Ms. Cahill by John Adams, is a complementary piece to the composer’s Phrygian Gates. The music can best be described as “an etude for composers.” A root note in the lower register sets the tone for the patterns of eighth notes immediately following in the high register, alternating between figurations and modes. The overall effect is that of a rock falling in churning waters and creating seemingly irregular, infinite ripples. This playful music benefited immensely from Lisa Moore’s intricate finger work.

Ms. Moore continued with the first movement from Kevin Puts’ Alternating Current (1997), its baroque character helped by toccata-like fast monophonic runs and Bach-ian bridge passages in thirds. Puts uses modal and metric changes as well as constant key shifts. However, Ms. Moore was brilliant once again in providing all that the score asks for, and as the highlight of the evening, it was a shame that the whole piece was not performed. But Mr. Puts was in the hall, and received a warm ovation from the audience.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Last night my friend Len, who always knows he can call me at the last moment, invited me to join him for a free percussion concert in the Winter Garden. By percussion I do not mean the construction going on at night in the pit of the World Trade Center… this was the uber talented and hip group So Percussion performing three pieces of new music. They played beads, coils of metal, flower pots, xylophones, and a variety of drums. The music was melodic, varied, enticing, and recorded live for the New Sounds Live radio program at WNYC 93.9. I loved it all, but by the last piece I was ready for it to end, percussion is not soothing, like mime or opera in subtitles, it takes extra concentration to enter their world. Funny how less makes more in art…by ignoring perspective or light source in painting or writing haiku, people take some choices away and what is left evokes all.

The talented Ms. Lisa Moore played a variety of percussive instruments and mostly the Steinway grand in the Martin Bresnick piece as images by Goya filled the stage. I did this sketch of her. But Arvo Part’s Fratres for Percussion Quartet and Paul Lansky’s Threads were just as wonderful, even without the pianist.

Lisa Moore - Winter Garden by Claudia Carlson

June 2003

“Lisa Moore, Joe’s Pub”

My first crush was on a pianist. Mildred Adams was a walking china doll whose pigtail braids draped her shoulders like a shawl. At various elementary school assemblies, sporting her delicate demeanor and rhinestone-studded princess glasses, her piano skills inspired jealousy and awe in her peers. Later in life, I realized that my “crush” was really envy – I desired not only her talent, but the accompanying life of privilege (I assumed) made such a talent possible. Grades later, another paradigm appeared in the person of the coltish Miss Barbara Doyle, she of the Joan-of-Arc haircut and knee-highs. She took great pleasure in wielding the large wooden paddle that hung next to the blackboard, and in a barrelhouse style of piano playing that suited her musical forte: show tunes.

I thought of them both as I watched Lisa Moore take the stage at Joe’s Pub. This engagement accompanied the release of Moore’s CD of music by Frederic Rzewski, titled Which Side Are You On? The first half of the program was a suite of pieces called North American Ballads. This is music to recall an idyllic summer’s day, or re-experience same as a modern elegy; listening to Rzewski’s rhapsodic, rapturous melodies might call Stephen Foster to mind, yet the composer upends that déjà vu with the use of jazz figures, unexpected repetitions and progressions.

Expectation was also challenged by what you saw. Moore is an Aussie lilt wrapped in a petite package of curly blondeness. But we are far from Weill Recital Hall; her dress communicated that she was here to work. Dressed in a white shirt and black slacks, a zebra-striped scarf of gossamer banded one of her arms, perhaps a tip off that this would not be your grandmother’s recital.

It goes without saying that holding an audience with this kind of music requires an artist possessing not only sensitivity, but also a crackerjack technique. My seat afforded a rare view of the physical nature of such an undertaking. Again and again I was struck by how aural lyricism could be contradicted by the visual explosiveness of the playing, notably during a repeated ascending passage that progressed with subtle variations, from sotto voce to pounding pianissimo. An intricate section presented an astounding visual of the pianist’s hands. As one crouched over the other with the fingers of both extended, the conjoining of Rzewski’s composition and Moore’s pianism made me think of diaphanous jellyfish. The suite’s most remarkable physical moment occurred in Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, during a run of bass chords that begin with standard fingering. As the chords broaden, so too does the use of appendages. I had to reassure myself that what I was witnessing was true: elbows out, body hugging the piano, Moore banged out the climatic chords with her forearms.

After a break, Moore re-emerges bedecked in a Pradaesque morning coat; the armband was now an ascot. The piece was De Profundis, based on excerpts from Oscar Wilde’s journal of his arrest and subsequent imprisonment for “gross indecency.” Rzewski hasn’t created a mere piano accompaniment: in addition to speaking and playing simultaneously, the musician taking on this work must master various eccentric vocal affects, singing, whistling, drumming and the playing of a car horn!

Lest you think these elements serve as gimmickry, quickly it’s revealed that their usage provides apt aural metaphors for the parlor of Wilde’s mind in this world of an artist brought low. The gift comes in the juxtaposition of the elements as abstractions play against the formal, as antiquity gets amplified by the now. The piece swings between musical pastiche particular to the era and sequences of vocal/piano or vocal/percussive syncopations.

The music works as subtext – those chaotic passages communicate the difficult moments when those “bats in the belfry” threaten to overcome Wildean rationality, making the textual account all the more moving. Rzewski sets the intelligence and the finesse of the writer like a jewel, lifting the words out of the period and hurling them into the here and now. Wilde’s observations about imprisonment, solitude and their effects on the mind takes on universality – through the symmetry of text and sound, we journey into the minds of every man and woman who ever served time.

In this piece (originally written for a man) Moore communicates a Brechtian air. Certainly no similarity exists between her and Wilde, or any man. Yet, this journey on the wheels of Wilde’s words provide as much excitement and drama as any play you’ll see this season thanks to her dulcet cadences. Again, the physicality on view enhances – towards the end of this twenty eight minute piece, Moore will slam down the lid of the piano, creating a symphony composed of finger pops, hand drumming, whispered words and chants, to recount the intricate process by which Wilde struggles to maintain his sanity, yet observe and chronicle his current reality.

Bookending the work is a line that goes something like this: “This is where the artistic life leads a man.” That statement provides a multifaceted resonance. Recounting the persecution of a writer who rejected the prudery of Victorian society echoes the recent blacklisting of the Dixie Chicks and Sean Penn, artists who refused to succumb to pro-forma patriotism. A civilized world that would condemn Wilde, yet less than one hundred years later play host to the unmistakable vision of Rzewski and the artistry of Moore, left this listener/viewer pondering the myriad fates in store when the worlds of art, inspiration and morality collide.

by Corinna da Fonseca Wollheim,
March 30, 2016
link: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/03/arts/music/vanishing-languages-reincarnated-as-music.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0

Vanishing Languages, Reincarnated as
The Unesco Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger is a melancholy
document, charting the 3,000 or so languages that experts predict will vanish
by the end of this century. For the most part, ethnographers and linguists are
helpless in the face of the gradual erasure of collective memory that goes along
with this loss of linguistic diversity.
Time to call in the composers?
A growing number of them are turning their attention to languages that
are extinct, endangered or particular to tiny groups of speakers in far­flung
places with the aim of weaving these enigmatic utterances into musical works
that celebrate, memorialize or mourn the languages and the cultures that gave
birth to them. On Saturday, April 9, at the Cologne Opera in Germany, the
Australian composer Liza Lim unveils her opera “Tree of Codes,” which
includes snippets of a Turkish whistling language from a small mountain
village. On her most recent album, “The Stone People,” the pianist Lisa Moore
sings and plays Martin Bresnick’s hypnotic “Ishi’s Song,” a setting of a chant
by the last member of the Yahi, who died in 1916.
In February the New York Philharmonic performed Tan Dun’s
multimedia symphony “Nu Shu,” the result of the composer’s research into a
language and writing system that was passed down among the female
inhabitants of a small village in Hunan Province in China for 700 years. Other
composers who have done their own fieldwork include Vivian Fung, who
investigated minority cultures in the Chinese province of Yunnan, and Kevin
James, who sought out some of the last native speakers of minority languages
in the Pacific Northwest, Australia and Japan.
The aesthetic uses to which the composers put these rare languages vary.
Still, Mr. James, the founder of the Vanishing Languages Project, seemed to
speak for most when, in a recent interview, he said that the goal was “not to
set them to music, but set them as music.”
It’s an important distinction. Classical music has proved adept at
preserving a language like Latin through liturgical settings that expose
listeners to a language they no longer encounter in spoken form. But works
like Mozart’s Requiem or Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” with its sections in Middle
High German, sprang from the same cultural soil that gave birth to their texts.
By contrast, when composers reach for words that are unintelligible to all but
a handful of speakers on the planet, the very notion of music as a vessel for
semantic content is upended. Removed from all context and understanding,
speech — a constellation of rhythm and melody, resonant vowels and
percussive consonants — begins to resemble music.
In a phone interview, Ms. Lim said that what drew her to out­of­the­way
languages in her coming opera and in her dazzlingly polyglot “Mother Tongue”
(2005) for soprano and ensemble was “not so much ‘Oh, here’s a cool
Rather, she said, different languages open up new ways of thinking about
the human body as a “total mechanism” for vocal expression, “running the
whole range from really guttural sounds and breaths through resonant tones,
all as a really powerful communicative vehicle that allows us to travel through
emotional and psychological states.”
A whistling language like that quoted in “Tree of Codes,” she said, speaks
to “how we humans adapt to and interact with our environment, not being
separate, but really being in a merged relationship with everything around us.”
That positive attitude sets Ms. Lim apart from some of the other musicallinguistic
ventures. Most are marked by a sense of loss and melancholy. A
work like Mr. James’s “Counting in Quileute,” which blends his own field
recordings of the last native speakers of an American Indian language from
western Washington State is like a time capsule shot into space — except the
meaning was already opaque at the time of its sealing.
At a performance of “Counting in Quileute” in 2013 at Roulette in
Downtown Brooklyn, a set of speakers encircling the audience created an
immersive and disorienting experience as torrents of foreign words washed
over listeners and merged with breathy and brittle sounds created live by an
instrumental ensemble.
The millennial gloom hovering over such a project is surely no accident.
This fascination with the death throes of minority languages in remote regions
seems linked to a wider contemporary anxiety over the degradation of the
environment. The wane of linguistic diversity is the cultural equivalent of the
loss of ecological diversity and, as such, a natural source of inspiration.
In a phone interview, Mr. Bresnick said it was a television documentary
about Ishi, the last member of the Yahi tribe, that inspired his work for piano
and voice. He said he related the story to his mother, a fluent Yiddish speaker,
who was then 94 years old. “I told her, ‘You’re my Ishi, you’re the last to speak
this language,’” he said. “She pointedly looked at me and said: ‘No, you are.
Because you still care to know.’”
His setting begins with the pianist’s simultaneously singing and playing
the song, which starts out sounding sunny, and naïve. As the voice drops away
and the piano continues to reiterate the melody, it takes on an increasingly
forlorn and alien feel, the husk of a tune that has long since lost its meaning.
When Mr. James flew to Washington to conduct field research on the
Quileute language, he was immediately confronted with its extreme fragility.
“The day I arrived, the best speaker was airlifted and taken to hospital,” he
recalled. “And the population of native speakers went four to three. The nextbest
speaker had dementia. And the remaining two were old women who had
grown up at a time when they were punished for speaking the language.”
Mr. Tan similarly found himself working against the clock when he set out
to investigate Nu Shu culture at the prodding of his father who, as a native of
Hunan had heard about this centuries­old women’s language. Some of the
remaining speakers were over 100 but in no hurry to let a New York­based
composer in on their secret.
When Ms. Fung, a Canadian, traveled through rural southwestern China
in 2012 to study the music and language of several mountain tribes, she
enlisted the help of a guide who helped her gain access to the homes of
villagers where she might be regaled with drinking songs and other
impromptu performances after dinner. “A lot of them were shy,” she recalled
in a phone interview, “and you’d have to have a meal with them, and drink
some moonshine.”
That sort of hands­on field work makes Mr. Tan, Ms. Fung and Mr. James
the heirs to Bela Bartok, who traveled the countryside of his native Hungary
with an unwieldy Edison phonograph to record and transcribe regional folk
songs: the beginning of ethnomusicology. Ethnolinguistics can seem like a
natural extension: The last vestiges of some minority languages are preserved
as song, and a musical ear can be an advantage in studying the kind of tonal
languages prevalent in parts of Asia.
But some professional linguists are watching with unease as artists,
journalists and other amateur researchers enter their field. “A lot of people
think they can do linguistics,” said Gregory D. S. Anderson, the director of the
Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Salem, Ore. “A lot of
good­intentioned people can wreak a lot of havoc when you work with these
communities that are doubly marginalized and disenfranchised.”
Among his concerns are ethical questions of outsiders’ drawing financial
benefit or prestige from such expeditions, or using the recorded voices of the
dead in cultures where that is taboo. Mr. James said he explained his
intentions in conversations with members of the Quileute tribal council,
making sure to “convince them that this use was a meaningful use of the
voices of their ancestors.”
Ms. Fung described the process by which the material she gathered on her
travels was translated into music as one of filtering and sublimation. She said
she was particularly interested in the wide melodic leaps and in a certain shrill
and nasal vocal tone she encountered in the speech and songs she studied.
Now she’s looking for ways to translate some of these qualities into
instrumental chamber music.
“I don’t want to just state a song,” she said. “It’s about finding the parts of
the research that speak to me — for example those wide leaps — and filtering it
so it becomes mine.”
Mr. Tan, meanwhile, embedded his films of Nu Shu singing into a
shimmering orchestral score that features an unusually muscular and
assertive solo harp part. “I believe that if a tradition is vanishing something
else has to take its place,” he said. “If something is dying there must be a way
to incarnate it into something new.”
A version of this article appears in print on April 3, 2016, on page AR12 of the New York edition
with the headline: Fading Tongues, Morphing Into Melody.