Trying to translate

Composer: Katharine Norman. Performer: Philip Mead.

Duration 15 minutes, composed 1992 (revised electronics, 2014), for piano, live electronics and digital sound.


Please note that there are currently no performance materials for the electronics part of this application. It would be fairly easy for a determined person to make a max or pd patch (the ‘effects’ are fairly simple – but I have updated it several times since its beginnings in 1992 and have now officially given up!)

In Trying to translate I treat the distinction between a recorded sound world and the live piano performance as a metaphor for translation more generally.

Much of the recorded source material comes from a radio documentary in which a female speaker describes the problems of translating from Gaelic to English and how translation affects meaning, vocabulary and ‘takes away from the magic of the sounds’. In the course of this discussion, she describes the decline of Gaelic music since the 1950s ‘with the advent of television’, and in particular Gaelic heterophony, where congregations sing ornate renditions of psalm and hymn tunes, each person singing at their own speed. I was struck by both the beauty of the speaker’s voice and the emotion behind her meaning; I share her sorrow that old ways of making music about, and for, everyday life have disappeared or faded from general use, and also have a particular fondness for the glorious, but intimate, sound of Gaelic psalm singing, which appears in the fixed sound part and — transcribed and ‘translated’ — forms the basis of the piano writing.

Trying to translate was commissioned by the Mead/Montague duo, with funds provided by the Arts Council of Great Britain, and was first performed at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London in 1991.The speech is from a BBC Radio 3 Soundings documentary, and is used by kind permission of the BBC (I don’t know the identity of the speaker). Trying to translate is recorded on Transparent things (Metier), music by Katharine Norman performed by Philip Mead.