Sunday, June 17, 2007

34. Music Degree Zero?

Could music have originated as a result of the same speciation event that created what anthropologists call "Anatomically Modern Humans" (AMH)? And was this a sudden or gradual process? I've been doing some reading on an evolutionary theory called "Punctuated Equlibrium," as formulated by Ernst Mayr, Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, that makes a great deal of sense to me. According to this theory, speciation is not a gradual process, as most evolutionists once believed, but relatively sudden, the result of the marginalization and drastic reduction in size of certain populations -- i.e., the sort of bottlenecks that can lead to founder effects, the same sort of mechanism the population geneticists are exploring with respect to human history and what I've been considering as the most likely explanation for the origin of certain musical style families. It occurred to me that perhaps the best way to deal with the question of musical origins was to consider human speciation in such terms and work the musical evidence into that context -- but on second thought I'm afraid such a discussion would be too speculative and take us too far afield, so have decided to put it on the back burner, at least for now.

Let's return instead to our most problematic question and try to deal with it as simply and straightforwardly as possible: is there a basis for thinking that any or all aspects of A1 might have originated in some form of pre-homosapiens vocalizing, as exemplified in the vocalizing of certain of our primate cousins today? I've already discussed, in section 21, some of the clues I've been following, primarily the "duetting" and "chorusing" of various species of apes, notably bonobos, as described by Merker and de Waal, but also Siamang gibbons, as their duetting has been carefully studied and some excellent videos are available. Here again are the links to the Siamang videos, to refresh your memory. And here's one more, an excellent example of Siamang chorusing. Pay special attention to the tendency of the animals to shout, or if you prefer "bark," back and forth in a reasonably steady rhythm. Scientists in fields such as primatology, paleontology, cognitive science and linguistics are paying close attention to this sort of phenomenon, apparently quite common among many different ape species, which is being carefully studied for its possible relevance to the origins of both music and speech. While all sorts of speculations are being proferred, pertaining to the essential nature of both of these very distinctive human accomplishments, considered in the abstract, in terms of genetics, cognition, infant psychology, brain anatomy, linguistic theory, etc., no one aside from myself appears to believe that ethnomusicological research could have some relevance and might lead to some insights in this area.

My own thinking in this regard has been profoundly influenced by the research presented in my "Echoes" essay, where I was able to demonstrate, to my satisfaction at least, that certain musical style families can persist for tens of thousands of years essentially unchanged. While some of the ideas presented in that essay are admittedly speculative, that conclusion is, for me, rock solid, as the evidence is truly overwhelming. And if that's the case, then it does make sense to consider whether any of these families could possibly be survivals from the earliest history of the human species.

I've zeroed in on what I call "shouted hocket" for several reasons: first, because, as I argued in the essay, it has a "pedigree" taking it all the way back to Africa well prior to the "Out of Africa" migration; second, because, for many reasons also discussed in the essay, "Pygmy/ Bushmen" interlock appears to be the earliest of all musical style families, with shouted hocket representing P/B in its simplest, most elemental form; third, because shouted hocket so dramatically resembles exactly the sort of primate duetting and/or chorusing that's been getting so much attention from so many scientists interested in musical and linguistic origins.

What makes the connection even more compelling, however, is the evidence I've been considering in the last few posts with respect to A1a, the subfamily of A1 characterized by the sort of gutteral, "panted" vocalizing involving rapid alternation of in- and out- breaths verging on hyperventilation -- as exemplified by circumpolar "throat-singing," the Bushmen Tcoqma ceremony and the ritualized chanting of Maasai warriors. Many primates vocalize in a remarkably similar manner, as exemplified by the so-called "pant-hoots" commonly heard among both bonobos and chimps, but possibly also the very rapid duetting and chorusing sequences I've been focusing on. According to a recent article in the International Journal of Primatology, "Apes and larger gibbons may be able to produce fast extended call sequences without the risk of hyperventilating because they can re-breathe exhaled air from their air sacs. Humans may have lost air sacs during their evolutionary history because they are able to modify their speech breathing patterns and so reduce any tendency to hyperventilate." (The whole issue of the role of primate air sacs in continuous vocalizing raises all sorts of interesting questions with respect to possibly related issues in musical evolution, such as the the role of certain instruments requiring recycling of the breath, such as the didjeridoo, or instruments like the bagpipe, with air sacs built in.)

On this basis, we could postulate a situation in the distant past where a newly "speciated" band of Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH) were attempting to continue an older tradition involving some combination of pant-hooting, duetting and chorusing that might have sounded very much like A1a, only without air sacs, which would have placed their vocalizing dangerously near the threshold of hyperventilation, unconsciousness and trance. The only significant difference between the vocalizing of their predecessors and the newly minted AMH version would have been the need to work out some sort of strategy for avoiding or at least delaying hyperventilation and its effects, which does indeed seem to be an important feature of A1a. However, the continual danger of falling into trance while vocalizing in this manner might provide a clue to the common association of music with trance and the origins of shamanism as well.

According to the above theory (admittedly highly speculative, but nevertheless rather interesting I should think), style family A1, with its two branches A1a and A1b, would represent not so much the origin of music as the survival of a hominid tradition that preceded it.


Jeremy F. said...

Hi Victor!

I just wanted to say that the upgrades to the site look great (wow!), and your writing continues to address interesting and worthwhile questions and lines of thinking.

Hopefully, I'll get a grasp on the subject matter to actually contribute something useful!


Victor said...

Hello again, Jeremy. It's really encouraging to see that you're still hanging in here and still finding it worthwhile.

As far as your grasp of the subject matter is concerned, I must say I'm beginning to wonder whether very many at all of the professionals in Ethnomusicology, or any other field, have a sufficient grasp of the subject matter to evaluate what I'm attempting here. I do know of some fellow old timers, such as Bruno Nettl and Robert Garfias, who made it their business to gain a wide ranging overview of the many and varied styles of world music. But the field has changed drastically, to the point that most if not all the younger people (and by that I mean younger than ME :-) ) have, despite all the classes they've given on "world music," a sufficient grasp of the issues I'm raising to develop a meaningfully critical -- or supportive -- view of this terrain.

I must say that I was unusually fortunate, back in my 20s, to have the opportunity of working with Alan Lomax on the Cantometrics project, probably the most ambitious -- and heavily funded -- musicology project of its kind. For roughly four years I was actually being paid to listen to, and analyze, all sorts of music, much of it truly wonderful, from all over the world, thereby gaining what might now be considered a unique perspective on what's out there and what it might mean.

It's possible, and I hesitate to say it because it sounds so awfully arrogant, that no one else knows as much as I do about world music -- not because I'm any great scholar, but because of the circumstances I was thrown into so many years ago and the unparalelled opportunity I had.

This places me in a very strange and awkward position, however, because if I'm the only one in a position to test my ideas against the evidence, then how will I ever be able to convince others I have something meaningful to offer? I guess what I'm hoping is that there will be enough in what I say to ring some bells in the heads of certain specialists who might be able to see that, at least as far as their own special area is concerned, my work and my ideas do make some sense and might be of some use. I'm also hoping that my work might inspire younger people like yourself, who are starting out in this field, to get involved in comparative studies and start getting a feel for some of this "evidence." I can assure you, the study of world music is one of the most inspiring and beautiful types of research one could ever hope to do.

Brodie said...

Hello Victor,

I see that as usual you were already way ahead of me on applying the model of Punctuated Equilibrium to your ideas about the impact of bottleneck events on music! From what I understand, the generally more accepted theory is that evolution occurs as a series of gradual changes over many generations. I'd like to learn more about this debate and the arguments for and against Punctuated Equilibrium, if you know of a good resource.

Also, if your goal is to inspire a younger generation to take up this line of inquiry and similar research, I can say that with me at least you've succeeded. I'm extremely excited about these ideas. I don't know if I'll pursue a graduate degree in Ethnomusicology or anything, but I do know that I'm fascinated by this subject and want to learn more.