One of the consequences of having lived in two different countries is the chance to observe bafflingly dissimilar opinions, ways of thinking, and tastes in music. In the case of Japan (my second country), I'm struck by how little attention has been given, by the progressive rock network here, to the Italian group Le Orme. In America they were always about second in popularity, behind P.F.M., among prog-rock enthusiasts. I'd like to use Le Orme as an example of one solution to the problem of European neo-progressive groups who compose and sing lyrics in English.
Many of us are familiar with Le Orme's great concept-album "Felona e Sorona", an album of which there appeared an English version, with lyrics written by Peter Hammill. They certainly made a wise decision, as did PFM in employing Peter Sinfield for their particular forays into English. Probably countless native English speakers have spent some time wondering about the meaning behind the words to a song in a foreign tongue, be it Italian, French, or any other. And, as has been said before, the lack of knowledge of the language doesn't inhibit our enjoyment of the music as a whole. Often it heightens the fascination. For those of us outside of Europe, these places have a strong cultural identity that we feel is so uniquely embodied in the music of our favorite groups. Many of today's neo-progressive groups are attempting to steer things in our direction by singing in English. But is this such a good idea?
Historically, English has been the language of rock music because the rock music industry is dominated by English speaking countries (for better or for worse). In Mozart's time Italian was the dominant language for opera. But he had the luxury of an Italian librettist. Likewise Le Orme had access to Hammill's talents, and were in a better position to make international impact in the seventies than most of the groups now. I can see why a group like Fancy Fluid would want to use English lyrics, and certainly don't fault their intentions. But even given a good command of the language, and clear pronunciation, there still remains the question of culture. I think these bands are doing themselves and their fans a disservice.
Not to be defeatist, but it's a foregone conclusion that progressive rock, or this neo-progressive music, has largely become the domain of hardcore fans and independent labels that exist independently of the majors, and elude coverage in the popular press. A bid to sing in English can't do much to change the situation. I think what they need (and what fans want) is a return to using their mother language, to strengthen the connection to their own culture. Many of these bands probably envy the Anglo/American groups, whose native language is English, and don't realize that we envy their vastly rich cultural heritage.
I can't deny the great command of languages that many Europeans have. And, of course anyone is free to use whatever language he or she wants; pronunciation can be constantly worked on and improved. But to write lyrics well in any language is a demanding task, even if translating directly. Problems arise when trying to transfer something into a different culture. For the lyrics to have the desired effect they would have to express a sentiment that is largely universal. To properly express something in English one would have to rely on text or subject matter that is appropriate for the English language. For those who haven't reached the level of writing English lyrics (or achieved the status by which to attract their own equivalent of a Hammill or Sinfield), there is always the wealth of English literature, just waiting to be set to music.
Those who doubt the importance of this issue should note that the greatest contributions to the humanities have been made largely by England, Spain, France, Italy and Germany. These are all countries who (unlike many of their neighbors) all share one characteristic: A single national language. Can there be a correlation between this and their cultural dominance?
"Of Language and Culture" originally appeared in Expos?/a> #8