The semantic ECHO with/within/without languages: An annotation approach to the electroacoustic composition Globalalia by Trevor Wishart through a comparison with the visual installation A Book From the Sky (  书) by Xu Bing

Weiwei Jin
Date of publication: 

1.0 Abstract

The objective of this paper is to describe a personal interpretation of two contrasting works: the electroacoustic composition Globalalia by Trevor Wishart and the visual installation The Book From the Sky by Xu Bing. Both works puncture into human languages and capture the fundamental constructional elements of the linguistic system. Globalalia decodes the sounds of 26 different languages into syllables while The Book From the Sky deciphers the shapes of Chinese language into radicals[1]. Thus both works transform, reconstruct and create their own particular system and structure of a language-like medium displayed via sound and writing system, in their own particular artistic media. Both works present a narrative thread that shows how technology can be used to manipulate our ideas about language. As a spectator who is invited into, and at the same time let free between these two worlds of creation, I allowed my subjective interpretation as a valued tool to guide this communication. I was able to create a personal bridge between the two works and give a new meaning to the experience.

Keywords: electroacoustic music, visual art, fictional language, language semantic, subjective interpretation, asemic writing, ideasthesia

2.0 Introduction

A number of studies have shown that using language is one of humanity’s unique abilities because it has the properties of productivity, recursivity, and displacement, and because it relies entirely on social convention and learning. Language is the human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication. It can be encoded into media using auditory, visual, or tactile stimuli. The long and continuous evaluation of language enables us to cooperate, to express, and to exchange ideas, thoughts and emotions. Language originates from culture and characterises our individual social identities. Depending on modality, language structure can be based on systems of sounds (speech), gestures (sign languages), or graphic and tactile symbols (writing) (Goldsmith 1995). Listening to speech and reading written graphic symbols, are probably the two most practiced methods in our cognitive process of using and learning languages, perceiving semantics and the meanings of communication. Although it depends on individual’s language and cultural background, the correspondence between sounding and visualization of language is still highly predictable among modern language users.

The Chinese language is my very first system of communication, thus it structured my fundamental perception of language. Time outside of China changed this. The daily usage of English and Swedish, the notable influence of Spanish and Persian and Europe’s multilingual surroundings has reshaped my perception and understanding of language. These experiences impacted on my means of communication and expression. However, the listening experience of Globalalia resonated a magnificent visual journey for me. I interpreted and responded to the language speaking like sounds in Globalalia with the shapes and the appearance of my mother tongue, Chinese. As with the classic comparison between music and colour (synaesthesia), I came up with this idea of comparing and relating Globalalia with The Book From the Sky. I unfolded both works and entered their created semantic world.

3.0 Globalalia by Trevor Wishart (2004)


My interests lay more in what was common to human speech practise. I wanted to explore the similarities of human speech expression between different cultures, to focus on what we hold in common as human beings. Globalalia uses a multitude of sound sources and is organised as a suite of small pieces, or ‘narratives’, exploring the qualities of the sounds of language itself (Wishart 2012).

In Wishart’s book Sound Composition (2012), chapter 12, the composer provides the details of the background and compositional processes of Globalalia. We are informed as follow:

  • Sounds from 134 voices in 26 different languages are used in the composition. The sound sources are decomposed into constituent syllables and syllable-pairs, producing 8300+ sounding units.
  • The multiple sound sources are selected, prepared and organised, then orchestrated into an electroacoustic vocal ensemble.
  • Formed and presented in a suite of short connected pieces or narratives, Globalalia forms into a nonlinear storytelling hyper audio book.
  • Decontextualized sounds of languages are reconstructed in the context of reunification of common human speech practice.

Wishart says Globalalia is a frame tale, takes the narrative model of Scheherezade (The Arabian nights), where one story (the frame) is used as a device to tell other stories. Led by the varieties of forms of the Scheherezade theme, the listeners are poetically carried through sonic stories. The composer has invented his own language to describe each subsection of the work. A full explanation of these names and themes is beyond the scope of this article. These are listed in (Wishart 2012): “Commotion, Ma-rrr, Maccordion, Blcl, Mamumi Hocket, Ra Trumpets, So_Saiso, Morphing Hocket, Pipapobo, Stscsp, En Masse, Rasp, Tristan, Ts (chochiche)_canon, Funk, Chunchincha, Ceracu and Rocrio”.

In the piece, the recorded ‘words’ and ‘phrases’ are aurally identifiable, giving a clearly sonic sense of coherence. They are constructed by joining individual syllables to create strong speech-related qualities. The events usually juxtapose syllables taken from different voices, from different cultures, and mixing both male and female speakers. This creates a curious hybrid, a language-like medium spoken by every person (Wishart 2012).

Contextual Analysis

As Wishart decodes the syllables from multiple languages, he also decontextualizes the languages themselves from cultures, races, individual social identities, expressions, emotions as well as semantics from the original sources in their natural context. All the elements are set together and blend into something else, something new to be interpreted by the listener. We are listening to a hybrid audio book, performed by the people around us from our everyday lives. This can be you, me, he, she or anyone else. Without theatrical actors or performance professionals, Globalalia represents a space of perception equality without cultural priorities. Through a creative approach it merges the boundaries of cultures and languages and aims to achieve a form of universal understanding of human verbal expression. It takes a journey of sound to explore human speech practice and to focus on “what we hold in common as human beings” (Wishart 2012).

The human voice and speech materials have a profound and intimate relationship to the listener. These are the sounds produced by and through our biological body, creating an emotional bond between the sound sources and ourselves. Globalalia is a sound based composition piece about speech, but it tells the stories of verbal expressions about us, human beings. While listening to Globalalia, suggested by the sounds, I was visualising the human physical ability to produce sound with our speech organs. I would ‘see’ both female and male faces from different cultures and origins, the movement in their lips, even the vibration and air passing through the vocal tract. Furthermore, suggested by the pitch glides and articulation in the sounds, I would try to fathom emotions from the sounds and imagine facial expressions. Taking one-step further from my audio-visual experience of Globalalia in relation to my experience of language, I desired to discover something more and posed questions. If Globalalia is an audio book that presents a new hybrid language, then what will this language look like? What are its visual shapes? What is the writing system of Globalalia? Can Globalalia be translated, transformed and annotated as a language? As a native Chinese speaker, who annotates phonemes with logograms, let us look at something different...

4.0 A Book From the Sky (天书) by Xu Bing 


The MacArthur Award winner (1999), Chinese contemporary artist Xu Bing spent four years designing a ‘vocabulary’ of 4,000 characters, which appear, in terms of their graphic form and structure, to be Chinese. Even though they are composed of recognizable elements, they are not legible as conventional linguistic signs (ABE 1998). None of them appears in Chinese dictionaries, and they do not relate to any other living or dead, spoken or unspoken language on earth. A Book From the Sky is a visual installation that displays more than 400 hand-printed books, panels and scrolls with thousands of symbols resembling real Chinese characters, all devoid of semantic content. The handmade books are all made with authentic Chinese typesetting, binding and stringing techniques, and are printed in the style of Chinese outdoor newspapers (Doran 2001), in black ink from a hand carved wooden block.

Contextual Analysis 

Studies have also convinced us that the development of writing has made language even more useful to humans. It makes it possible to store large amounts of information outside of the human body and to retrieve it, and it allows communication across distances that would otherwise be impossible. A writing system is an organized, regular method (typically standardized) of information storage and transfer for the communication of messages (expressing thoughts or ideas) in a language by visual (or possibly tactile) encoding and decoding (known as writing and reading) with a set of signs or symbols, both known generally as characters (with the set collectively referred to as a 'script') (Omniglot 2013). These characters, often including letters and numbers, are usually recorded onto a durable medium. Writing systems also represent language using visual symbols, which may or may not correspond to the sounds of spoken language.

Chinese identity and its relationship to the written word has long been intertwined with concepts of authority and morality. “A man is known and seen by calligraphy”, is an old Chinese saying describing the culturally enforced expectation of writing in China. Revealing Xu Bing’s background as growing up during the unstable Cultural Revolution and subsequent reform in China, his work offers a doubt about cultural authority on a wider level. His experience of how language can be manipulated to serve the needs of the people in power led him to examine the reliability of knowledge. Spears (2009) suggests that Xu believes that writing is the essence of culture, and his subversion of it alerts us to the ever-present need to communicate and the dangers of distorting or eliminating intended meaning. The creation of A Book From the Sky reaches the higher realm of human communication via the artwork itself as well as through the practise of this work being exhibited, viewed, decoded and interpreted by spectators from different cultures regardless of their natural language, and whether they speak or read Chinese. It challenges the narrative within the writing system and with its open semantic form, merges our perception of language text and visual semantic.

Obviously, this book does not need a translation to be read by anyone. For me, a Chinese, I couldn’t pronounce any of the characters and decode the meaning of them. On the other hand, it let me free as a composer, I responded to it with sounds and entered the visuals through my ear, thus, I perceived the semantic echoes.

5.0 Discussion

Does the language in Globalalia absent itself from logograms, and the language in A Book From the Sky leave itself phoneme- less? Do the languages used in both works have their meanings and what do they say, exactly? How do cultural priorities affect our understanding, and is perception equality possible? What is the distance between all of these? Well, The Book from the Sky is an invented script, Globalalia is an invented verbal ‘mix’ – what does ‘semantic’ mean here? Ostensibly neither means anything as language but may have profound meaning as art.

Between synaesthesia and ideasthesia...

Originating from the Greek idea and aesthesis, the notion of Ideasthesia is introduced by Danko Nikolić (2009), meaning "sensing concepts" or "sensing ideas". It is defined as a phenomenon in which activations of concepts (inducers) evoke perception-like experiences (concurrents). Synaesthesis denoting "co-perceiving", implies the association of two sensory elements with little connection to the cognitive level. However, most phenomena that have inadvertently been linked to synaesthesia, in fact are induced by the semantic representations i.e., the meaning of the stimulus rather than by its sensory properties (Dixon et al. 2006; Simmer & Ward 2006; Mroczko et al. 2009; Nilkolic et al. 2011; Chiou & Rich 2014). The researchers provided the following table showing the difference in the properties of inducers and concurrents implied by the terms synaesthesia and ideasthesia.










My subjective interpretation of the two works is a mixed phenomenon both synaesthesia and ideasthesia. I would like to share an example below:

Figures 1-3: Viewing A Book from the Sky from the whole to the details. Figure 4: Xu Bing’s subsequent development of transformation of Latin letters to Chinese radicals.

Figure 1. A Book from the Sky, Xu Bing, 1987-1991 mixed media, installation view (Photo by Shu Hung and Joe Magliaro).

Figure 2. A Book from the Sky, Xu Bing, 1987-1991 mixed media, ink on paper.

Figure 3. A Book from the Sky, Xu Bing, 1987-1991 mixed media, carved wooden printing block used in making the work.

Figure 4. Two-page spread from Xu Bing's Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy. Transforming Latin alphabet into Chinese radicals.

Figure 4 displays Xu Bing’s method (developed subsequently) for the transformation of Latin letters to Chinese radicals, which are the constructive components of Chinese characters. They contain often the semantic and phonetic. This was a key point for me to relate my listening experience with Globalalia. Especially in the section between 08:39-09:24 and 10:36-11:13. The experience of hearing the Chinese language-like sound results in Chinese characters painted for me to “see and read”.

Globalalia suggests possibilities with speech sounds while A Book From the Sky addresses the model silently with words. But the questions remain to be answered by each individual. As in every communication process it is the participant, probably the most important character in the space, who gives a meaning to the experience, regardless of what it is. Our subjective interpretation affects the cognitive process of learning and expressing, and continuously evaluates through time and practise. My very own ‘bridge’ between Globalalia to A Book From the Sky builds upon a range of matters related to me. It echoes within my perception of language semantic and reduces the distance between the two works, and them with me.

What is your bridge?

[1] : The left- and right-side of a split Chinese character, often represent the key (radical) and phonetic parts. The radical often has a semantic function, but may sometimes be phonetic or even an artificially extracted portion of the character. 


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