Wednesday, June 6, 2007

24. Ontological and Epistemological Issues

While primates and all sorts of other animals vocalize and some, notably birds, but also dolphins and whales, have been said to "sing," music is usually thought of as a characteristically human activity. Where does one draw the line, however? In the light of certain modern discussions of music, where all the traditional aspects are being questioned and everything pertaining to sound, and even silence as well, has been admitted into the "musical" arena, some musicologists have almost twisted themselves into pretzels trying to understand what music really is, or really really is -- for real! Or whether it even exists. As a composer who for many years was deeply involved with electronic music and computer music, who has written poems and even made (silent) films and computer displays intended to be experienced as music, and a huge fan of John Cage besides, I have no problem including just about anything you can think of into the realm of what a creative individual might want to present as "music." As an ethnomusicologist, however, I need not concern myself with the term as currently understood in the hothouse environment of today's "advanced" society, but far more simply, as it has been understood traditionally among peoples living among us who value, and strive to preserve, their traditions. It has been argued that many such peoples have no word for "music," and that is true. Many also have no word for "culture" or "history," or even "language," but that has not prevented ethnologists, historians or linguists from studying their culture, history and language. In any case, almost all peoples have words for "singing" and words for "playing instruments" -- put them together and we have "music."

What is it, then, that all traditional notions of music, or, if you prefer, singing and playing, have in common? That's a question that can't be answered because most indigenous peoples are unable or unwilling to discuss abstract issues of that sort. Well, then, what is it that "we," in the West, have traditionally regarded as music -- and in fact been able to recognize as such in just about every society everywhere in the world? And in this context, I do think a relatively clear working definition is possible.

Music can be regarded as the use of discrete pitches or regular rhythmic patterns or both. Simple enough. Also very possibly ethnocentric, since people from cultures other than our own might disagree. Or too narrow, since it isn't always possible to discern discrete pitches or decide whether a rhythm displays a pattern or not. As a working definition, however, it seems useful, because the great majority of instances of what has been presented as "music," in concerts, on recordings, in fieldwork studies, etc., do seem to fit reasonably well.

Ethnomusicologists often complain about the inadequacies of music notation, which is, of course, a product of Western society, and is all too often incapable of doing justice to all the nuances of pitch, rhythm and timbre found in non-Western (or even certain Western) traditions. What goes unnoticed is the significance of the fact that so much of the world's music can indeed be represented, however inadequately, by notation. This in itself is, for me, an important clue to the nature and meaning of music, powerful evidence, in fact, that all the different forms of what could be called music from just about every culture in the world might very well have a common root. I won't get into the details of that subject here, but if it interests you I recommend the next to last section of my "Echoes" essay.

If we draw the line between what is music and what is not music, or not yet music, on the basis of the above working definition, then perhaps it is safe to say that primate chorusing and/or duetting are not music, because they lack both discrete pitches and rhythmic patterns. Unless, of course, we want to consider simple repetition according to a more or less regular "beat," a pattern. It's the regularity of the repetition that interests both Merker and de Waal, and also sets Bonobo (and Siamang) chorusing apart from the vocalizations of certain other primates, such as Chimps. So from our perspective let's say, not not music, but not yet music either. So perhaps we can indeed, as do Merker and de Waal, think of such a practice, tentatively for now, as a kind of "missing link." But linked to what?

I've presented several examples of what I've called "shouted hocket" for us to consider as possible next steps. Some are actually very much like primate chorusing or duetting insofar as they don't have discrete pitches, do have repetitive rhythms and are interactive (i.e., interlocked). Others go a step farther, employing discrete pitches, but on only one note. And still others, such as the Huli example, employ two discrete pitches, producing an identifiable interval (major third) in a manner that most would, I think, agree to be consistent with music proper. Some other cases, notably the Ju'hoansi Tcoqma and Balinese Ketchak examples, don't employ discrete pitches, but do present fairly intricate rhythmic patterns that, again, most of us would consider as a type of music.

The question now is: what can we make of all these examples, what do these resemblances mean, how seriously should we take them, are they significant or superficial? Many ethnomusicologists today see information gleaned from a recording to be almost meaningless in itself. Some dismiss it as merely "acoustic," with only some sort of vaguely aesthetic relevance, as opposed to the rich array of cultural information to be gleaned from ethnographic studies of music as it functions within the day to day life of a particular society. Such criticism goes to the heart of the Cantometrics project, since Cantometrics was designed expressly as a system for rating recorded performances. Since Cantometrics has played such an important role in my research, past and present, with the analyses of recordings generally serving as especially useful tools in the development of my theoretical standpoint, it's important that I address such issues as thoroughly as possible -- as I intend to do in subsequent posts.


Brodie said...

Hello Victor-

I can't define music but I know it when I hear it. The recordings you presented from various cultures are music while the recordings of primates are not. Is that in itself evidence that humans have a deeply primal, instinctive connection to what we call music?


DocG said...

I think music probably stems from some deep seated "drive" with biological roots, yes. But that drive must have been there long before music proper emerged. And as you can see, I've associated the origin of music with primate vocalizing, which is, I suppose, instinctive, though that terms makes me a bit uncomfortable.

Many things formerly assumed to be instinctive are now thought to have cultural rather than biological roots. And it is now recognized that culture is not exclusively human. Primate dueting and chorusing might be instinctive but might also be cultural, I'm not sure if there's any way to tell the difference.