Thursday, June 14, 2007

31. On a Clear Day You Can Hear 000000

As I argued in the previous post, there is no reason to assume the throat-singing tradition studied by Nattiez could not be far older than the time span he considers, ca 4000-5000 years. (By the way, this type of "throat-singing" should not be confused with the Tuvan type of throat singing found in Mongolia, where more than one pitch is produced by a single voice -- that's a different tradition.) For now, however, I want to proceed as he did: cautiously. In this spirit, let's do a little thought experiment by projecting ourselves back 4000-5000 years and asking if we have any means of determining what his protoform might have been like at that time. Most ethnomusicologists would throw up their hands at such a question, claiming we have no way of telling what was being sung by any group at a period so remote and undocumented. They would be wrong.

If linguists were to find several different tribal populations, scattered over such a vast territory, all speaking essentially the same indigenous language, they'd be stunned. Because this would imply that either the language was only recently disseminated -- but how could that be, by what means could it have traveled? -- or that it stems from a much earlier prototype that must have been essentially the same as its derivatives, which could not have changed in any significant way in all the time it took for all these different groups to diverge from one another and migrate to all these remote places. This would cause a sensation because, as is well known, language doesn't work that way. All languages that have ever been studied show unmistakable signs of having changed over time, and linguists have worked out sets of rules according to which they believe such changes take place. When considering all the many languages of all the different circumpolar groups encompassed in Nattiez' research, it is certainly possible to assume a common prototype, but another matter entirely to reconstruct it, since all the languages it is thought to have given rise to are now so different from one another.

But the throat-singing traditions are not very different from one another at all! While some are associated with shamanism and others not; some danced and others not; some sung in groups, others in pairs; some sung standing, others sitting, such differences reflect the different meanings this practice has among different populations, i.e., the various signifieds produced from what is essentially the same signifier. This is, in fact, a situation encountered quite often in the realm of music, where we find populations distributed throughout an entire continent, speaking different languages, but very often singing and playing in remarkably similar ways. This is especially true of Australia, but also much of the Americas. And, as I have already argued, there are populations scattered among other populations, such as the Pygmies and Bushmen, who also share a distinctive musical style despite major linguistic differences. Clearly musical traditions operate historically in a manner totally different from those of language.

So, returning to our question about the nature of Nattiez' prototype, the answer is simple: the prototype of 4,000 years ago could not have been other than essentially the same musical "signifier" he has identified among all the various circumpolar groups today. If we want to know what it sounded like we need only play some recordings. How do we know this? If the prototype were different from its derivatives in any important way, then the striking stylistic similarities apparent in all the different groups today could be neither explained nor understood.

Once we fully digest the reasoning behind this fairly straightforward, though by no means obvious, conclusion, we are in better position to press even farther backward in time. Because there is no reason to assume this style or any other musical style would just happen to develop at the same time some languages branched off. Logically, we can assume that throat singing must have already been entrenched as a cultural tradition for a very long time prior to that divergence. And if a musical tradition can persist for well over 4,000 years, then why not 8,000? Or 16,000? Or 32,000? Or longer? How far back can we hear?

Let's consider more evidence. The linguistic divergence identified by Nattiez as taking place 4,000 to 5,000 years ago tells us something not only about throat singing but also shamanism. Since all these groups have shamanic roots (even the Inuit apparently, though they no longer practice it), we can only assume that this practice must also date back to at least the same time as the linguistic divergence -- since again, as with their music, there would be no way to otherwise explain its widespread distribution. And, again, as with the music, we have no reason to assume that shamanism originated at the same time. Like throat-singing, it must have originated many years earlier.

We can say more. Because throat-singing is also, as Nattiez has demonstrated, quite strongly associated with shamanism, either explicitly or implicitly, among all these circumpolar cultures. How far back might that association go?

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