Sound & Language

Chess Set. Photo by Alan Light

The human voice is the most specific expression of an individual. With its infinite potential for sound effects and imitation along with its prime role in communication, it is clearly the most versatile and valuable instrument.

In 1939, Marian Anderson captivated an audience of 75,000 and millions of radio listeners during her Lincoln Memorial recital. Her response to weeks of debate fueled by the refusal of the Daughters of American Revolution to grant her a permit to perform at Constitution Hall was, “Music to me means so much, such beautiful things, and it seemed impossible that you could find people who would curb you, stop you, from doing a thing which is beautiful. I wasn’t trying to sway anybody into any movements… I just wanted to sing and share.”

Four years earlier in 1935, Melvin Tolson an English professor and poet inspired his students to organize Wiley College’s first debate team that moved on to face off Harvard University’s national champions. The Great Debaters is a dramatic depiction of the true story of Tolson, his life at Wiley, the people of Marshall and the four brilliant aspiring team members. The debate scenes are a testament to their consuming passion for language, education, and freedom.

The acclaimed writer, painter, and educator N. Scott Momaday said, “If I do not speak with care, my words are wasted. If I do not listen with care, words are lost.” Care for language, its look, meaning and sound is what we experience in the work of Jenny Holzer (Season 4). Also Laurie Anderson (Season 1) gives a multimedia spin to the use of language in her spectacular storytelling performances. In Writing on the Wall: Word and Image in Modern Art, Simon Morley has compiled the first comprehensive survey of the use of word in art from the past 140 years.

A completely different approach to sound is encountered in the sculptures of Martin Puryear (Season 2). We imagine and hear silent sound, especially in his Ladder for Booker T. Washington as it reaches the sky. On the other hand as Barack Obama is reaching closer to becoming the next president, we look forward to hearing his upcoming debates.

Chess Pieces. Photo by Alan Light