May 18, 2022

Tongues: A Grapho-Linguistic Score & Performance

By Luisa Muhr

Editor’s Note

In the Bible-Babel-Torah, language is primary. At once music, math, and magic—God’s speech creates something from nothing, giving form to matter by carving it out of the primordial block of mute chaos. Once the world has been created through God’s speech, humans take it upon themselves to taxonomically catalog creation by naming all other animals in the garden, inadvertently invoking the first instance of existential angst. For it is only through such naming that humans are able to acknowledge their own sense of loneliness and isolation from all that they have named. 

In both instances—God’s creative speech and humanity’s index of names—language is the mechanism whereby other than one is created; first the world, then the others within it, and finally (if ever) the self. We can see this pattern expressed in the development of a child, whose acquisition of language occurs in parallel with their process of individuation. In this way, language, a collective key, opens the door to increasing alienation if left unchecked or unbalanced. How do we return to the place that language led us away from, without losing ourselves and all we have learned and gained through the process?

In the Bible-Babel-Torah, following the flood (mabul), we learn that a new city has been built (Babel). Though intended to unite, it only further divides. In the moment at which all humans share the same language, they overextend their ingenuity. The result, once again, is a splintering of sameness, scattering sparks of difference through semiotic dispersal. A flood of tongues fills the land, frustrating one of humanity’s innate drives—to unite and collaborate—through an inability to communicate, until further notice. 

Luisa Muhr’s Tongues takes such polyvocality as a starting point, and seeks to move beyond it, without collapsing its perspectival distinctions. Through a kind of phenomenological distillation, language is deconstructed into its fundamental building blocks of image, sound, and movement. A single phrase from the written Torah becomes a script to be recited and recorded, an image to be generated, a score to be crafted, a moment to be translated—a conversation without words. Through embodied, transdisciplinary collaboration and improvisational performance, Tongues invites us to experience and consider the expressive potentials of language by other means.

—Eden Pearlstein

Performers for Babəl debut, Roulette, NYC, June 24, 2021: Jen Anaya, Trina Basu, Judith Berkson, Patricia Brennan, Luisa Muhr, Wendy Eisenberg, Rebecca El-Saleh, Tamrin Goldberg, Luke Stewart

Artist Statement

How can one communicate without language—and what happens when one looks beyond language into abstraction, a wide-open abyss of mystery, yet accessible to all? These are the fundamental questions I sought to explore in Babəl, a three-part interdisciplinary performance piece based on the biblical image and fable of the “Tower of Babel.”

To answer these questions, I turned to the nonsemantic mediums of music, sound, movement, dance, and imagery. For the final movement, “Rotunda,” I created a graphic score and game-like structure to guide the performers in a series of improvisational “conversations.” The graphic score, which appears below, is entitled Tongues: an invocation of the metalinguistic experience of glossolalia. 

Making of Tongues

To create the score, I first asked each performer to record themselves reciting the biblical phrase “Everyone on Earth had the same language and the same words”1 in their native tongue or in a language of their heritage.

Then I processed those nine different recordings through an oscilloscope, which “translated” the sonic structure of the recordings into moving images. 

English Translation
Yiddish Translation

Next, I took a number of still photographs of each oscilloscope rendering and cut them into strips in order to deconstruct them and weave them back together. These hand-sewn weavings (each their own language/score) created the broader graphic score for the nine-part improvisational cycle of “Rotunda.”

How to Play Tongues

During the performance, nine artists rotate in a circle around the audience, moving from station to station as the piece progresses. At each station, the performers find one of the nine languages/scores and a musical instrument or mode to engage (with stations for vocalization and movement as well). 

Throughout the course of “Rotunda,” each performer gets to play each score and instrument, to explore someone else’s “language.” After playing everyone’s else’s “instrument,” each performer ends at their own station, concluding the piece in a free, collective improvisation, until unison is found.

The complete performance of Babəl can be found here.

Footnotes

  1. Genesis 11:1.

Luisa Muhr is an interdisciplinary performer (focusing on voice and movement), improvisor, installation artist, sound artist, director, and experimental theater maker. Originally from Vienna (Austria), Luisa lives and works in New York, and finds a home in the experimental/avant-garde. 
 
Her creations range from interdisciplinary installation performance works, experimental and music theater pieces, performance art, improvised music and movement, graphic scores and compositions, to video works and opera. Luisa is also the founder and curator of New York’s leading interdisciplinary series for womxn/non-binary artists, Women Between Arts (to be called Between The Arts) at The New School, and is a member of the free improv band PlayField (577 Records), the audiovisual collective Dilate Ensemble, NowNet Arts Lab Ensemble, and the vocal-movement ensemble Constellation Chor. Additionally, Luisa is a Deep Listening® Practitioner (certified by the Center for Deep Listening in the tradition of Pauline Oliveros).

Luisa has been awarded various residencies, collaborated with artists like Arturo O’Farrill, Shelley Hirsch, John Zorn, and others, and performed at countless venues including Lincoln Center, The Getty Museum, and Pioneer Works. Luisa has been commissioned to create new works by the Austrian Cultural Forum New York, and Roulette Intermedium, where Luisa premiered Babəl in June 2021. Learn more about Luisa’s work at www.luisamuhr.com.