Accent, Notation and Performance Traditions
I recently had a rather wonderful trip back to the island of Bermuda, where my mother grew up and where we still have family. It was intended to be a break from my usual obsessions, but you know how it is - sometimes ideas insist on presenting themselves to your brain even when you’ve put yourself off-duty. To my credit, I didn’t have very many thoughts out there.
But I did spend quite a lot of time thinking about accents. I love the Bermudian accent - not especially for any inherent beauty of sound, but simply because it is the sound of childhood holidays and family closeness. If you met my mother you’d probably think she sounded quite English - and more so, the more formal the circumstance - but even 60 years after moving to the UK, she will revert to a Bermudian accent within the family for certain expressive registers.
(Thus, it was weirdly comforting to do things like going to the supermarket in Bermuda: it was just a shop full of strangers like any grocery store, but sonically it felt like being en famille.)
Now, when I say things like this in real life, people ask me what the Bermudian accent sounds like. And for about two days after I’ve been, I can demonstrate very easily. The vowels and inflections slip into my voice as soon as I arrive there, but back home they only re-emerge when I’m having the sort of family conversation that includes the kind of emotional content we use it for. Put me back amidst English accents and the Bermudian vowels disappear.
And this got me thinking about how performance traditions live in social groups. It is the bits of a language - or musical tradition - that cannot be notated that are in some ways the most telling and distinctive parts of it. The inflection, the timbre, the rhythmic feel all escape notation while encoding identity.
That doesn’t stop people trying to indicate sounds via notation of course - in phrasing and articulation marks, in instructions for tuning, in metric modulations to signify swing. The phonetic alphabet of course was invented precisely to try and deal with the way that normal alphabets get used for such a wide variety of linguistic sounds. And it’s pretty good: it will get you to an approximation of a word sound that is close enough to be comprehensible. Indeed, it will get you to a sound that is probably spot-on in one or another accent within a given language.
But you couldn’t learn a realistic Bermudian accent from it. Or Brummie, Scouse or Estuary English either, for that matter. And if you tried, it wouldn’t be just that your speech would sound iffy, you would also be missing the expressive content encoded in the specific inflections it uses. My mum returns to those vowels not just to construct and maintain our familial identity but also because there are flavours of feeling you just can’t articulate in the vowels of the home counties.
And the same thing is true in music of course. A quartet of classical-background singers who have learned a barbershop tune from a volume of arrangements found in the library are often met with a sense of affront by a barbershop audience. Opera aficionados (shouldn’t that be aficionadi?) may likewise be taken aback by a cross-over artist singing Puccini that a non-specialist audience would accept quite happily as ‘classical’. And again, it’s not just about stylistic identity, it’s about expression. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.
It does make you wonder whether, if we had a time machine, and sent back one of our prime period-instrument groups to, say, 18th-century Versailles to play some Rameau, whether all Louis XV’s courtiers would think it sounded like the French baroque equivalent of Dick van Dyke’s attempt at Cockney...