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Dying Languages Cry Out in ‘Last Whispers’

MONTCLAIR, N.J. — The earth spins onscreen amid an eerie, uncomfortable sound, like a building rush of air. It’s an ominous, galactic vision that swiftly condenses into an intimate one: A dot of flickering light in the middle of darkness; a woman’s voice singing, her fragile intakes of breath audible; an electric guitar strumming with spare, melancholy sweetness.

Her words are unfamiliar, a little guttural, the consonants chewy. A title tells us that the woman is singing in Ingrian, a nearly extinct Finnic language spoken now by just a handful of people in western Russia.

It is one of over three dozen endangered languages heard in “Last Whispers,” a film and surround-sound experience that will be screened Oct. 16-20 at Peak Performances at Montclair State University. Its creator, the artist Lena Herzog, calls it “an oratorio for vanishing voices, collapsing universes and a falling tree” — as good a classification as any for an unclassifiable work.

The 45-minute piece confronts a startling reality: According to Unesco, nearly half of the world’s approximately 6,000 languages are endangered. But Ms. Herzog approaches this dismal subject in a decidedly poetic, almost abstract way, conveying the aura of all that’s being lost rather than haranguing.

So reverberant chant in Bathari, a language spoken by perhaps a few dozen people in Oman, sounds alongside enigmatic footage of rock formations. A blurry figure walks in the distance, eventually covered by pages and pages of scrolling script, as we listen to the evocative Ahom language of India. A child speaks Light Warlpiri, which has a few hundred native speakers in northern Australia.

That we don’t see the speakers and can’t know what’s being said is the point of this austere and poignant Babel. The musical landscape is sometimes gentle, sometimes aggressive, but it always keeps our attention on the rich, incomprehensible, often overlapping chorus of words. The camera slowly approaches ghostly forests, bodies of water and, through space, our planet — imagery that suggests the language crisis interacts with, and is in part caused by, even graver threats to earth’s sustainability.

Ms. Herzog dates the origins of “Last Whispers” to more than 15 years ago, and her interest in languages even further — back to when, as a young girl growing up in Russia, she struggled to learn English to understand a Sherlock Holmes story that turned on the deciphering of a code presented as dancing stick figures.

“The more you learn about languages,” she said in a telephone interview, “the more you learn they’re all vanishing. What was confounding to me was how little we know about that extinction. And we are losing languages at a more rapid pace.”

A photographer, she years ago found herself in the habit of listening to archival language recordings while printing in her darkroom. At first, she envisioned creating a gallery full of portraits of last speakers of these languages, with recordings emanating from behind the prints.

“But we separate ourselves from them because they’re in portrait, they’re the other,” she said. “I wanted us to feel enmeshed in them: They’re us.”

The more literal, visual aspect of the portraits began to disappear, but the notion of immersive sound remained. (The artist and anthropologist Susan Hiller has also made work about vanishing tongues that focuses on sound.) Poring through endless audio files of endangered languages being spoken, Ms. Herzog began a largely intuitive selection process.

“I would mark the ones to which I responded,” she said. “I couldn’t articulate it in words. I knew how I wanted it to feel. I wanted it to be haunting, to be able to get into your cerebellum. I would go through hours listening to these voices talking, chanting, whispering, confessing.”

Since she lacked a background in music or sound engineering, Ms. Herzog cast around for a composer-designer who could help her organize this sprawling archive of voices. Eventually she settled on a pair: Marco Capalbo, a composer and director, and Mark Mangini, an Academy Award-winning sound designer (“Mad Max: Fury Road”), who each contributed sections of the finished piece.

Their styles ended up being complementary: Mr. Mangini treats the voices with a lyrical, Romantic touch — a “21st-century version of Rachmaninoff,” as Ms. Herzog put it — while Mr. Capalbo’s landscape is tougher and more aggressive, laced with the sound, translated into audible frequencies, of collapsing stars.

Some early ideas were a bit outlandish: At one point, Ms. Herzog intended to pump the sound mix through the root systems of trees, for an effect that would be audible by listening closely to the trunks. (“No park would let us,” Mr. Mangini said dryly.) Then there was a notion of mounting speakers high up in a forest grove.

Eventually, the collaborators settled on a more traditional theatrical experience: a film element and surround-sound accompaniment. Or, depending how you look at it, a surround-sound oratorio — a kind of sonic sculpture — with an accompanying film.

“It’s not a documentary, in the classic sense,” said Jedediah Wheeler, the director of Peak Performances. “It’s not spelling out the problem. It’s coming from a deep place in Lena.”

The screenings in Montclair will be paired with panel discussions, featuring scholars and activists, about language revitalization efforts in the New York area and worldwide. (Ms. Herzog has also created lastwhispers.org, which has more information about the issue.) Together, “Last Whispers” and the accompanying programs will present two sides — the artistic and the direct-action, the suggestive and the concrete — of a global tragedy.

“The form this extinction takes is silence,” Ms. Herzog said. “By definition, this extinction takes place in silence. How do you show that? You show it by sounding what has gone silent.”

Last Whispers

Oct. 16-20 at Montclair State University, Montclair, N.J.; peakperfs.org.

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