What separates music and language? They are both means of communication; both engage body and mind; both are defined by tone, rhythm, syntax, and pitch; and, taken together, both separate us from animals. Philosophical and scientific questions about musical and linguistic perception are frequently intertwined. American composer and music theorist Fred Lerdahl and American linguist Ray Jackendoff’s Generative Theory of Tonal Music (1983), for example, describes the musical grammar of the human mind in terms inspired by Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal (linguistic) grammar, which holds that the ‘language faculty’ is innate and ‘genetically based’. Indeed, such similarities led Aniruddh D. Patel to challenge the long-held psychological assumption that music and language are processed independently by the human brain.
However, differences remain. According to Jackendoff, whilst language ‘can convey information about past, future, visible things, invisible things, and what is not the case’ and thus operates in the domain of the propositional and conceptual, music is defined by its capacity to generate mood, emotion, and the ‘enhancement of affect associated with an activity’, from lullabies to rock concerts; religious worship to Muzak.
The fraught and complex conceptual and affective interactions between language and music underpin Tongue of blade ‡ Ears of mud (CAP Records, 2021), an outstanding compilation of contemporary sound art featuring nine international artists who met during their studies at the Royal College of Art, London. Released as a limited run of 50 cassettes, numbered on the double-sided 4-panel J-card, each is unique thanks to the colour variations of the recycled plastic body and beautiful original artwork and design by Faye Rita Robinson.
Across 11 tracks, Tongue of blade ‡ Ears of mud takes the listener on an eclectic journey that vacillates between the uplifting and deeply unsettling. Combining spoken word, samples, and electronic music, the compilation explores themes of self and identity, alienation, political resistance, transgression, and the social contract. The most enduring theme, however, to which all works circle back in one way or another, is that of the connection between language and music.
In the opening track of Tongue of blade (Side A), Kevin Siwoff’s ‘Please Call Stella’ examines the relationship between language, technology and the body using the logic of sampling. Cutting and pasting rhythmic repetitions of phonological language learning from entries in the online speech accent archive at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, Siwoff creates a disturbing whirl of language in which informational meaning begins to crack and strain. As the samples become increasingly choppy and frenetic, language becomes unmoored, led by the power of technology onto the purely affective domain of music.
This concern with language samples continues in ‘Zero’ by Anita Marante & Pedro Tavares. The track builds to create a confusing, disorienting circle of words, with excellent use of panning to generate the feeling of being surrounded on all sides by disembodied voices. There is poetry in this – after all, the circularity of language is its primary characteristic. Language points only to itself, words to more words, signifiers to the endless chain of signifiers, as Ferdinand de Saussure told us. In this way, Marante and Tavares show us how language apes the number 0: maddeningly circular, an invention of the mind without which human endeavour would be impossible but which brings with it some of our most intractable philosophical anxieties.
Luis Tapia’s ‘The English Lesson’ begins with a child asked by a demanding teacher to stand before the class and read out a sentence. A bloated and pitch-shifted vocal enters, choric in its vastness, ‘singing’ unintelligible words as the child tries to grasp the ‘proper English spelling’ of various words. Like Siwoff and Marante & Tavares, Tapia explores the point at which the boundary separating language and music dissolves, where conceptual intelligibility shades into affect.
Chloe Langlois’s ‘Little Red Pens’ probes the profound semiotic function of red, as a matter-of-fact voice-over lists ‘fire engines, lipstick, children’s toys, danger, bright and cheerful’ among the colour’s many significations, whilst a chorus of backing vocals chant ‘little red pens, little red pens’. The track then takes a surreal turn, as the voice-over narrates a confrontation between an ‘underage lad’ and a DVD seller. In a scuffle, the lad ‘screams he’s been stabbed’ but, when the narrator looks up, ‘I see the lad’s leg is full of those little red pens’, a literalisation of a macabre yet ultimately illusory ‘cartoon violence’. This note of surrealism (repeated, as we shall see, later in the compilation), invites us to consider the irrational unconscious of language and music, in which the body courses with red pens and a sonorous refrain is somehow both ‘danger[ous] […] and cheerful’.
The longest track on Tongue of Blade ‡ Ears of Mud, running to nearly 11 minutes, is ‘Before Us’ by Nexcyia (AKA the sound artist and experimental ambient musician Adam Dove). Opening with the diffuse sounds of a busy restaurant or dining room, we listen in on people catching up, sharing conversation and cake. A pad intervenes, creating a lush ambient canvas onto which voices come and go, circulating snippets of chatter that rise and fall like an oscillating synth. This evocation of atmospheric ongoingness, the texture of the everyday backed by an otherworldly synth, soundtracks a dance between the quotidian and the extraordinary, the body and technology, language and music.
Ears of mud (Side B) opens with Effy Harle & Finbar Prior’s ‘Father’s Head’, which itself begins with foreboding percussion, like a marching prelude to some obscure ceremony or forgotten rite of the occult. In fact, Harle and Prior present a narrative-driven, surrealist trip (in all senses of the word) to a house haunted by dark memories, bizarre visions and nightmarish apparitions. Harle’s voice introduces: ‘a severed head, bearing an eerie resemblance to my father, stares ahead with glazed-over eyes, from his niche in the back wall,’ hinting at a gothic, psychoanalytic subtext. Marking a shift from the deconstructive bent of Side A, in which language threatened to jettison all meaning, Harle and Prior offer us a Freudo-Lynchian world saturated with it, overflowing with connections, echoes, and imagistic language, combining in an eerie, uncanny, yet rich and vivid ensemble.
‘In this long house’, Harle says, ‘rooms line up, one after the other, like pearls on an antique necklace’. Our ghoulish tour takes in ‘the kitchen floor, made entirely of perfectly square pieces of rib-eye steak’, ‘the whinney of a horse in the neighbouring farm’, a ‘grandmother’s parrot’ buried in the garden, which ‘stretches’ out like a Dalí clock. We discover more ominous objects and entities—a black cat, ‘a shrivelled piece of my little sister’s umbilical cord’, ‘age-old burgundy drapes cast[ing] a drunken glow over yellowish walls’—but the most formidable character is the house itself.
As ‘Pines shiver below the [its] blind gaze’, the ‘house hosts my father as a parasitic ear worm’. It was Jacques Lacan who said ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’. But in Harle and Prior’s vision, the mind is structured like a concerto: the house ‘breaks into a requiem’ like a ‘spirited soprano, greeting me with her false accord.’ The attic, we learn, is ‘the house’s own consciousness, a mass of grey dust resting atop the innards below.’ As the air thickens with heat, the music shifts, adding guitar and dissonant synth. The gothic narrative and soundtrack create what Harle calls an ‘elemental wilderness, not for comfort, nor for pleasure.’ But is this wilderness a desert or a jungle of meaning, of musical affect? How far can we push the interpretation of dreams or nightmares? These are the anxious questions suffusing our ghostly expedition, and it is left up to the listener to arrive at their own answer.
In ‘Awkward Silence’, Louise Ørsted Jensen remembers how her father used to produce homemade bombs for fun, presenting the unsettling experience of an explosion being greeted with cheers and applause. There follows a series of blasts and gunshots cut across by a child’s playful vocalisation of bomb detonations, eventually fading into a discomfiting whine that simulates the experience of tinnitus after exposure to excessive noise. Jensen’s work flags up disturbing questions about the meaning of sound: when does a percussive beat become an explosion? When is a sustained high note the sign of irreparable hearing damage? When does the presence of sound signal death, loss and nothingness?
Amelie Mckee & Melle Nieling’s ‘Coaxial’ opens with dreamlike pads and a rhythmic trance synth line that is melancholic yet strangely moving. Sampled and chopped up vocal lines interrupt the ambience, leading us to an aggressive, pulsating bassline. Building a dense soundscape of industrial whirs and electric textures, ‘Coaxial’ rises to a crescendo in which the voice is once again the focus. Yet these are unintelligible, guttural sounds, musical in their impenetrability to linguistic comprehension, and thus they pass from the conceptual ground of language to the affective space of music.
Marante & Tavares’s second track ‘Pines’ introduces a pensive sonic milieu as a voice speaks of ‘Bursts of energy and exhaustion’—a nod to the basic structural principle underlying both sides of Tongue of blade ‡ Ears of mud. ‘Silence is a force that raises my body up’, the voice says, as the barely human noise of ‘Coaxial’ gives way to language that is seductive in its clarity and poetic in its lyrical connection between the body and music: ‘Our blood is a sound wave’.
Kevin Siwoff’s ‘7 ways of emptying myself’ picks up where ‘Please Call Stella’ left off, pushing language to the point where signification shades into affective musicality as a series of layered vocals combine to produce a guttural and dissonant chorus. These pulsating drone ambiences fade to leave a solitary hum, a note held which, in its vulnerable corporeality, brings us back to the body itself as the seat of the voice, an instrument capable of both language and music.
Finishing up the collection, Alessandro Moroni’s ‘Cancer Season Manifesting Arpeggios’ constructs a cascade of heavenly arps, an ethereal wall of synth given rhythm, purpose, and increasing aggression by a pounding bass drum and crisp tech hi-hats. As the ambient, emotional background washes over the listener, heavy industrial percussion creates a sense of contemporary Futurism. This is an operatic, utopian sound-world founded on the relentless march of technology, timed to the authoritarian beat of a clipping bass drum, in which language and music eventually fade to nothingness.
Tongue of Blade ‡ Ears of Mud is a powerful testament to the vitality and richness of contemporary sound art. Its great achievement lies in framing conceptual questions and theoretical topoi in aesthetic terms, thus affording a critical alternative to scientific and linguistic approaches to enduring problems surrounding the relationship between language and music. Above all, Tongue of Blade ‡ Ears of Mud shows us how intractable questions surrounding the conceptual and the affective might be best approached not through music theory, psychology, or linguistics but through art, a sonic fabrication of new possibilities for language and music.
Buy Tongue of Blade ‡ Ears of Mud here.
CAP Records was founded by Effy Harle and Alessandro Moroni in 2021.
Josh Mcloughlin is a writer from Merseyside. He is the editor-in-chief of New Critique, a Wolfson Scholar in the Humanities at University College London, and he was shortlisted for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize (2019) and the International Awards for Art Criticism (2020). He writes for The Times, The London Magazine, The Spectator, Engelsberg Ideas, The Fence, and others.
 See: Ray Jackendoff, ‘Parallels and Nonparallels between Language and Music’, Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal 26:3 (2009), 195-204, 196.
 Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff, A Generative Theory of Tonal Music (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983); Noam Chomsky, ‘The Galilean Challenge: Architecture and Evolution of Language’, Journal of Physics: Conference Series, 880:1, (2017), 012015, 1–8. See also: Chomsky, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1965).
 Aniruddh D. Patel, Music, Language, and the Brain (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
 Jackendoff, ‘Parallels and Nonparallels between Language and Music’, 198.
 Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin(London: McGraw, 1959), 120.
 Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX, trans. Bruce Fink, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999), 48.