Sunday, April 5, 2015

The (not quite) Universal Language

            It's probably about time I put some time in on this blog but lately I've been feeling like I didn't have much to say. This, however, has never stopped me in polite conversation so I ought to be able to think of a fairly benign topic now that the vitriol of the last post has dissipated (somewhat). So I thought music might be a nice benign topic.

            Music has been easing the transition to life here, at least for me. Because I can play an instrument with some degree of competence, I've been able to get involved in the local music scene on a couple of levels. One outfit calls itself "TubaBones" and, as you might expect from the name, is made up entirely of lower brass. There are probably around 25 players, the youngest of which looks to be about 9 and the oldest is whatever it says on my passport. The players range from professional to near beginners and the object seems to be just to get together every few months to play and enjoy the company of brother and sister musical outcasts.

            Despite my continuing difficulties speaking and understanding French, rehearsals and performances go okay since music on the page reads the same everywhere and with the jazz bands almost all of the charts (the music) came from the States. There are, however, a couple of other languages I hadn't anticipated having to learn, all of which has made me realize that while music itself might be the universal language, it's terminology is not. Take for instance key signatures. In this handy chart you can see that, in English, every key corresponds to a letter in the alphabet from A to G. 
         Scale tones follow the same pattern so a basic C scale goes like this C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C. The French, however, use a system called solfège, with fixed Do. If you need and explanation for this, you might want to look it up. This post is boring enough already but it means in effect that all the scale tones and keys are named from the solfège syllables Do,Ré,Mi,Fa,Sol,La,and Si(in French, Ti in English). So a B is a Si, A is La and so on. B flat is Si bémol, F sharp is F diése, etc. To keep it straight I have think of that song from The Sound of Music and so end up with the god-damned thing stuck in my head for days.

            As if this weren't trouble enough, what notes themselves are called don't follow the American system. For instance, we call this  
  a whole note, this
  a half note and this 

a quarter note. In French, they're rondes, blanches and noires, which kind of makes sense. Usually there is someone nearby who speaks English and can help me out but if they've learned British English this sometimes leads to follow-up questions like, "What the fuck is a hemidemisemiquaver?" If you've never seen this term, I swear to God there is such a thing.

            It seems monarchy isn't the only thing our British cousins have hung onto past it's use-by date. Despite being able to read music since grade school and having a music degree, I've gone through life blissfully unaware that car parts were not the only things Brits gave different names. Here is a convenient chart that illustrates this schism:

            As you can see, the aforementioned hemidemi,etc., is what we call a sixty-fourth note, it being 1/64th the value of a whole note, or semi-breve on this side of the Atlantic. The rationale for British terminology goes back not quite to the time of Ethelred the Unready but suffice to say it's a bit of an anachronism. I'm not usually given to jingoism but, really, if you walked into a your favorite pub, picked someone at random and said, "You there, quick, what's a minim" how many could answer. Then again, the idea of anyone in an American bar being able to impart coherent knowledge is a fool's errand so maybe I should just admit to favoring the system I'm used to and leave it at that.

            Beyond the musical language I'm slowly getting used to tunes being called in French English. I mean, "Donzeeng Chick to Chick" is easy but I'm not sure how many rehearsals it took for me to realize that "Fahblessoffoebooss" was "Fables of Faubus." However, I'll never stop marveling at how someone who speaks not one word of my language can still sing in almost unaccented English.

            To get out of this, here's a Charles Aznavour recording that's about lovers who don't speak the same language (at least that's what I think it's about).


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