In the days leading up to the election yesterday, when so much news programming was devoted to the stale-mated and shallow arguments of two dominant political parties and their fervent-yet-frustrated supporters, the NPR program All Things Considered livened things up one day by interviewing an Italian entertainer named Adriano Celentano.
Celentano was the writer and performer of a 1972 dance song that might just be history's first rap song. The interview took place on the eve of the song's 40th anniversary: the artist is now 74 years old. In 2009, an old music video produced for Italian television went viral on the internet, introducing many people to a song whose language no one could quite place. It sounded like English, but the only recognizable English expression anywhere in the song was "all right." Everything else sounded like gibberish, or -- as many people pointed out -- what English might sound like to a non-speaker.
I became weirdly obsessed with the video. The incantatory refrain and the angry energy of the soloist, ranting in improvised syllables, accompanied by an orchestra and some fierce harmonica playing, made the song irresistible itself. As a music video, it is bonkers. The dancing is intense, the dancers in scary-looking black uniforms echoing the movements of the lead dancer, Rafaella Carra, whose movements are bursting with a kind of erotic abandon. Yet Celentano is dressed like a hobo, weirdly anticipating Tom Baker's Dr. Who, an interloper in this tightly choreographed community.
The video reflects the spirit of the song's creation, as Celentano described it on NPR:
Ever since I started singing, I was very influenced by American music and everything Americans did. So at a certain point, since I like American slang - which, for a singer, is much easier to sing than to sing in Italian - I thought that I would write a song which would only have as its theme the inability to communicate. And to do this, I had to write a song where the lyrics didn't mean anything.
So to make a comparison, it's like what happened with the Tower of Babel. Everyone wanted to go toward the sky, and they were punished because God confused all the languages and no one understood each other anymore. This is the reason why I wrote this song.
Gibberish, or nonsense language, is often used in acting exercises in order to practice a variety of skills. Replacing words with verbal sounds, so that speech sounds like mysterious foreign language, removes one prop on which actors depend. They need to communicate in such a way that the listener is strongly affected by something other than the content of the words; and on the other side, active listening is necessary in order to perceive what the other actor is communicating. Two or more actors are forced to develop their scene non-verbally, and this often leads to more courageous and highly physical acting. Sometimes the actors' use of their voice, of resonance and articulation, suddenly improves.
If I had an opportunity to teach a course on rhetoric, gibberish would be used to practice the execution of effective rhetoric. Depending on the performance, Hugo Ball's legendary sound poem Gadji Beri Bimba may sound like a magical incantation, an address to the troops, a dictator's speech, or perhaps a Catholic mass.
Listen to a performance of it:
If it sounds familiar, you may recall a Talking Heads single from 1979 that turned Ball's poem into a rock song:
There is also just the sheer joy of playing with language, tugging at its outer edges, inventing new words. The sheer joy of reading Jabberwocky out loud and asking children to draw pictures of a "slithy tove" or a bandersnatch; or pulling down volumes of Spike Milligan's nonsense verse, filled with words and phrases of complete gibberish, trying to read it out loud without laughing in delight.
A pattern that interests me is when artists use gibberish to explore certain feelings of disconnection or fractured identity, either personally or in terms of what is happening historically. Elsewhere in that interview, Celentano talked about feeling dejected and alienated after a period of writing songs that engaged issues directly. Artists picking up on fractured community, fragmented identities, or blocks in communication will find abstract ways to express the breakage. The dada movement arose from the madness of World War I and the use of nonsense was not random or careless. It was not merely an expression of satire. It constituted revolt. And judging from the number of dada performances that led to strong audience reactions (even riots), it was effective.
One of Pink Floyd's eeriest (some say unlistenable) recordings was this creation by Roger Waters in 1969, a collage of sounds and a weirdly evocative rant in a mock language:
The more different sounds the actors make, the more "fluent" they become in their gibberish language, actors sometimes make expressive leaps and emotional connections to things they could not, or would prefer not to, express in coherent language.
Gibberish is a way of bypassing the censor and allowing things to bubble up from the subconscious. This was part of James Joyce's aim when writing Finnegan's Wake, although this use of language was not gibberish, strictly speaking, but rather a complex work of composite words, words from different languages mixed together, puns, and more. The form of such expression and its implications are not for everyone. In 1928, H.G. Wells wrote a fascinating letter to Joyce in which he protested Joyce's elaborate idioglossia: "The frame of my mind is a world wherein a big unifying and concentrating process is possible (increase of power and range by economy and concentration of effort), a progress not inevitable but interesting and possible. That game attracted and holds me. For it, I want a language and statement as simple and clear as possible."
Elsewhere, Joyce said, "What is clear and concise can't deal with reality, for to be real is to be surrounded by mystery."
And mystery awakens the senses and arouses the imagination, it induces a bit of "don't-know mind," a disposition towards curiosity and attention. As an empty bowl is prepared to receive an offering, when the surface intellect is open, a person can make spontaneous connections and see new patterns.
Is this a way of scaling the forbidden tower? Does punishment await us if we approach the top? A lightning bolt that will short-circuit and break our consciousness at last? I do wonder.