THE MUSIC OF LANGUAGE

 

July in Middlebury is a wonderful time to be outdoors. The landscape is soft with green and light lingers well into evening. Yet on a Friday evening at 8 p.m., the Mahaney Center for the Arts concert hall was filled with those anticipating seeing internationally known and Grammy-nominated jazz singer Stacey Kent perform as part of the Language School’s Centennial celebration. Kent—who first attended the Italian and German Language Schools, then more recently spent three years studying at the Portuguese School followed by another three as an artist in residence—was met with glad applause as she took the stage. Joined by her husband Jim Tomlinson, playing tenor sax and flute, along with the rest of her band, she addressed the audience, saying how much she loves returning summer after summer. “I am a Middlebury addict!” she said. Then the music began, a night of sophisticated, warm jazz arrangements, with Kent singing pieces in English, French, and Portuguese.

SETTING THE STAGE FOR LANGUAGE ACQUISITON

Kent’s career is admirable and global. She has ten studio albums to her credit, and she tours the world performing her music. In the upcoming months, as 2015 winds down, she has gigs in the UK, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, Poland, Portugal, France, and the Czech-Republic. Certainly her voice makes her an international draw. Her sound is clear and open, and she has an understated, calibrated, and beautiful performance style. But what also surely contributes to her worldwide success is her ability to draw listeners in to the emotional landscapes of her songs.

“I think of my role as a storyteller. So for me personally, I couldn’t perform in a language I didn’t understand. As a listener you can be moved at an abstract level, but as a singer my role is principally to tell the story.”

—Stacey Kent 

Kent’s entwined interests in language and music started early. While her parents don’t speak other languages, her grandfather was Russian. 
“An immigrant who left Russia too young to feel Russian,” Kent says of him. Having lived a longtime in France, he always regretted moving to America, and to ameliorate his sense of cultural loss, he began teaching his granddaughter French. Once she learned it, it was the only language they spoke together. She felt encouraged to study, because she understood it gave her grandfather joy.

She also as a young girl had a passion for music and thought of it—like language and poetry—as an entrance into the world. “Certain chords I’d hear—my mother playing the piano—I’d just devour them. They moved me. Lyrics also meant so much to me.” 

She didn’t, however, decide to pursue music until after she graduated from college. She’d gone abroad and, on a whim, applied to study music at the Guildhall School of Music in London. It was there that she met her future husband, Tomlinson, who, like Kent, while having other academic interests, also loved music. They fell in love, she says, and started playing music together. From there, they started being offered jobs and word spread about them. “There was such good dialogue between us—just conversing, but also as musicians as well. So it grew quickly,” she says.

How does someone who tours the world find time to return summer after summer to the Language Schools? “As an undergrad, I was just crazy about this school, I really was,” Kent says. “It’s not just the intensity of the classes, but living together with classmates, having the support of professors, especially the kind of professors who come here: for seven or nine weeks, to do this 24 hours a day is exhausting but also special. I knew I’d come back. I was always saying that to Jim.”

She and her husband, who shares her passion for Brazilian music, talked for years about attending the Language Schools, but finding time was difficult. However, after a life-changing experience in 2008, they decided it was time. “Our album had just gone platinum, but we were thinking, ‘‘What are we here for? Only to tour? No, to get the most out of life.’”

And now, she says, “We have Portuguese days around the house. We travel in Portuguese speaking countries, we read Portuguese books. It’s a great adventure to have with my husband.” 

“It’s also bigger than we could’ve imagined. We didn’t have an understanding of the culture, but by studying Portuguese, we learned, for instance, about the culture during the dictatorship; we learned how the country developed both culturally and historically. It’s not just a poetic understanding, or a musical one, but a multilayered one.”