Journeys Across the Midlands
‘What if multilingualism refers to something more than just the languages that are spoken in twenty-first century Britain?’ Variations on this question have intrigued me for a long time. It was my interest in the intersection of language, place and history that led me to study the early medieval languages of Britain and Ireland for my undergraduate degree. But ancient texts are not simply historical artefacts. Yes, written texts preserve a snapshot of a language at a particular moment in time. But languages are constantly changing and evolving, absorbing influences and adapting to the cultures and societies in which they exist.
During my first meetings with Rajinder Dudrah, these were some of the ideas that arose in our discussions about multilingualism. As academics, the interaction of different languages has informed much of our work, although in quite different ways. Rajinder’s research covers areas such as film, media and literature, with particular focus on Bollywood cinema. As a composer, my interest in languages has often led me to write music in which the sounds of early poetry (in languages like Old English and Old Irish) are an important element of the creative process. As the ideas for our collaboration began to take shape, our conversations turned to the sounds of the languages that we encountered in and around Birmingham. It became apparent that our train journeys to and from work were a significant part of our daily lives. We found that we were both fascinated by all of the different voices, accents, dialects and languages that we heard during these journeys. The seed of Journeys Across the Midlands had begun to germinate.
As all commuters will know, travelling along the same route every day forms part of a daily, weekly and even yearly rhythm. The features of our journeys acquire a superficial familiarity. Place names, landscapes, and the voices of fellow passengers and train crew become part of this rhythmic repetition of sights and sounds. During the early stages of the project, I recorded the sounds of my journeys to and from Birmingham. I became very conscious of the cyclic, repetitive quality of these journeys – one journey sounded much the same as another. I became aware of subtle changes to the sounds I was experiencing – the particular noise of heavy rain against the carriage windows in late November, a group of laughing teenagers on the way to school, and half heard snatches of bizarrely funny conversations between other passengers. I began to edit and assemble fragments of my recordings into a type of musical collage, transforming some of these sounds into chord and motifs.
At the same time that I was working with the sounds I had recorded, Rajinder suggested that we should each contribute a text based on our respective journeys. Rajinder’s narrative included quotations and fragments of the languages that he heard on his way to work. My text became a poem, which I began to compose during my journeys on the small, branch line train that runs along the river valley below my house. There is a certain bleakness to the countryside in late November, and I found that my mind was repeatedly drawn to an Irish poem about the coming of winter. This poem, known as Scél lem dúib (‘I have tidings’) has only three syllables per line. The poem’s distinctive rhythm reminded me of the rattling of the train as it passed along the tracks. In response, I experimented with writing a text that began with only one syllable per line, increasing to lines of three syllables at the end. I included a reading of Scél lem dúib as part of Journeys Across the Midlands. I also included another text that was in my mind as I worked on the piece – short lullaby that is probably the earliest British poem by a woman. This text, known as Peis Dinogat (‘Dinogad’s Cloak’) is found at the end of the Early Welsh epic Gododdin. Peis Dinogat relates to the time around the sixth or seventh century when much of the area that we now call England was Welsh speaking. Although this must have been a period of profound linguistic and cultural change, fragments of the earlier Welsh language remain throughout the landscape of the Midlands. I have always been intrigued by the way that Peis Dinogat refers to the Derwent – a common English river name, which is also the river that runs near to my house in Derbyshire.
As I worked on Journeys Across the Midlands, I thought about the ways in which our daily commutes run in parallel to the different languages, past and present, that shape our lives. From the Early Welsh language that gave its name to the parish in which I live, to the West Germanic languages that formed the building blocks of English, to Scandinavian, and Norman French, echoes of distant voices resound in the place names that give structure to our journeys. This multilingual history speaks the landscape into being. But it is also a living history, shaped by voices from the present as well as by those of the past.
Between late 2018 and early 2020, Rajinder Dudrah and Edmund Hunt worked together on a creative project exploring the multilingual identity of the Midlands. During a series of discussions about the form and direction of our collaboration, it became apparent that our journeys into work at Birmingham City University were an important part of our daily experience of multilingualism. Drawing on the rich diversity of people, places and landscapes that we encountered on the way to work, we each began to write short texts. Time spent commuting, which can often feel wasted, took on new importance as we each listened and observed. During November 2018, Edmund made sound recordings of a series of journeys between his home and Birmingham. These recordings formed the basis for the work that became Journeys Across the Midlands. The end result was a piece of just under twenty minutes in length, containing poetry, prose, recordings of journeys, and electroacoustic transformations of these sounds.
You can download a transcript of Journeys Across the Midlands here.
Edmund Hunt (@Edmund_Hunt on Twitter) composes instrumental, vocal and electroacoustic music. In April 2018, he became a Postdoctoral Researcher at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Birmingham City University, focusing on composition, live electronics and early medieval text.