Tuesday, June 19, 2007

35. Musical Beginnings

Having covered our first two questions, we move to the third: can style family A1, "Shouted Hocket," be regarded as prototypical for more elaborate types of interlocked vocalising (and instrumental performance) as found among the Pygmies and Bushmen and other indigenous groups in various parts of the world? Other questions present themselves at this point as well. Because if A1 is indeed a survival of some type of protomusical vocalization tradition of our pre-homosapiens ancestors, then what might have developed out of it that could be considered music "proper"? And what would be the difference?

To answer the last question first, we must return to the working definition of music I proposed some time ago: music can be understood as the use of discrete pitches or regular rhythmic patterns or both. Many A1 performances, like primate pant-hooting, duetting and chorusing, come close, but not quite. Shouting, chanting and primate vocalizing do not employ discrete pitches. The repetition of a shouted or hooted vocable does come close to what we could recognize as rhythm, especially when, as in all the cases we've considered above, the time intervals between such repetitions range from fairly regular to precise. But there is no pattern, only simple repetition.

At this point, the value of my working definition should be apparent. Because, regardless of all the many different types of audible expression, ranging from bird song to the roaring of lions and the howling of wolves, that could, in principle, be accepted as "music" (and under certain circumstances probably should be so accepted), we need to draw the line somewhere if we want to recognize that music is, like speech, a uniquely human achievement. While the working definition may be flawed, overly simple and incomplete, at least it enables us to make this very basic and in my view essential distinction.

So, assuming A1 was some sort of prototype, what could have been the next step that actually took us there? Or, more realistically, since I've posed an almost metaphysical problem: what clues do we have that might help us orient ourselves to such a question? Here's one, a recording we've already heard as an example of "shouted hocket," from the Dani of New Guinea. Here's another, from a group living in the same general area, the Huli. Note the way the Dani example combines shouting with yodeling. The Huli example sounds quite similar but the "shouts" are, like the yodels, pitched. The example I presented from the Esime section of the Aka Mokondi ceremony is, on the other hand, unpitched throughout. It is, however, only an interlude between episodes of fairly elaborate interlocked and pitched counterpoint, also featuring yodel.

What I'm getting at is first of all the strong similarity among all three examples, but also the ease with which precisely pitched yodeled cries fit with the shouted hocketing. Yodeling is an important part of the mix we haven't considered yet, but I have a feeling it's especially important at this juncture. For one thing yodeling is only one step removed from "hooting," as good a word as any to describe many types of primate vocalization. For another, it's centered in the "glottal" area of the vocal canal, thus also one step removed from the "gutteral" vocalizations so characteristic of the Tcoqma ceremony and the chanting of the Maasai, not to mention, once again, certain types of primate vocalization. Yodeling is in fact a very interesting practice, developing almost naturally, it would seem, from certain physical properties of the voice -- yet found only rarely among all the many musical traditions of the world.

One thing I find particularly interesting about yodel is the way it operates as a kind of vocal "overblowing," not very different, acoustically, from the overblowing so characteristic of wind instruments. As with a pipe, whistle, flute or trumpet, once the performer gets into the right "place" both mentally and physically, the lower notes of the natural overtone series can be produced almost effortlessly. And, as is well known, these pitches, transposed to within a single octave, form more or less exactly the sort of scales we so often find in so many different musical traditions worldwide. Musicologist Robert Fink has been particularly active in researching the implications of this relationship, and has formulated some theories of his own worth looking into.

I don't know of any primates or any other animals that seem interested in "overblowing" their voices in this manner to produce clearly articulated, discrete pitches. But this might have been one of the crucial differences between our ancestors and ourselves: the interest in both producing and "playing" with such tones in the context of duetted or chorused hocketed interchange.

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