Friday, July 6, 2007

49. Art is a Lie . . .

The relatively clear cultural, archaeological and genetic division between Highland and Coastal/Lowland New Guinea makes this island particularly useful for the sort of testing that most concerns us here, as it distinguishes those populations most likely to retain "archaic" cultural traits from more recent groups with more complex histories. The strong correlation produced between interlock and highland residence is therefore especially interesting, as it suggests that interlocked vocalizing could indeed be among those "archaic" traits associated with African ancestry. Our results with respect to the co-occurrence of interlock and yodel are slightly less strongly correlated, but, as they link two highly distinctive traits, possibly even more significant.

Unfortunately the picture for Island Melanesia (i.e., all islands in this region other than New Guinea) is far less clear, as there is nothing comparable to the New Guinea highland-lowland division to separate out the indigenous populations from the (relative) newcomers. The table showing all instances of vocal interlock in Island Melanesia is reproduced below:

MELANESIA AJIE Austronesian New Caledonia 4
MELANESIA 'ARE 'ARE Austronesian Solomons Malaita 9
MELANESIA BAEGA Austronesian Solomons Malaita 1
MELANESIA BUKA Austronesian Buka Island, north of Bougainville 1
MELANESIA GUADALCANAL Austronesian Solomon Islands 2
MELANESIA kanak Austronesian New Caledonia 2
MELANESIA NASIOI Papuan Bougainville 2
MELANESIA TORAU Austronesian Bougainville 1
MELANESIA VELLA LAVELLA Papuan Vella Lavella Island, Solomons 1
While the predominance of Austronesian speakers in the above table might appear significant, the great majority of all Island Melanesians are Austronesian speakers, a statistic reflected in our sample, where only 9 out of 50 groups have been classified as Papuan. The Austronesian newcomers had more of an impact on the smaller islands than they did on New Guinea and as a result many of the indigenous groups appear to have lost their original languages and now speak some form of Austronesian. Since most of the groups in the table have yet to be tested genetically, we have, at present, no clear means of distinguishing original populations from newcomers and thus no basis for establishing a correlation. Since the musical evidence suggests that all these groups, like the ones in New Guinea, might well belong to the older population strata, they represent excellent candidates for the sort of genetic research that could put such a hypothesis to the test. What would make such a test particularly interesting is the fact that at least some of these groups have vocal (and instrumental) practices especially close to the more complex types of P/B, i.e., style families A2, A3 and A4. I am thinking especially of the 'Are'Are, Guadalcanal, Buka Island and the Nasioi speakers of Bougainville.

Since Cantometrics is concerned essentially with vocal music, our database isn't much help in tracing the migration of the closely related African wind ensemble tradition we've been discussing. There is, nevertheless, a considerable amount of information available from more traditional sources, notably field studies, areal studies, compendia of various sorts, and media such as audio recording, film and video. I've already covered much of this ground in my essay, so won't go into detail here. It's important to realize, however, that African-style hocketed wind ensembles, featuring free pipes, whistles, horns, trumpets, "clarinets," flutes and panpipes, are very commonly found along the same "Out of Africa" path we've been tracing -- and beyond. Which brings us rather smoothly to my third topic, prompting yet another categorical collapse, as we return once again to the Yellow Bell and the puzzle of the origin of pipes, panpipes, music, music notation, music theory, language and mathematics, all rolled into one lovely myth.

Which is what I'll be doing here for a while, weaving a myth of my own out of all the various other myths I've been drawing upon in the last several posts. Before I continue, I want to quote one of my all time favorite sayings, attributed to one of my all time favorite artists, Pablo Picasso: "Art is a lie that makes you see the truth." That for me is a truly profound observation, with enormous resonance in all possible directions. I think the same can be said for myth -- so I'll say it: "A Myth is a lie that makes you see the truth."

In that spirit, I'll ask some questions that I, for one, find especially intriguing about the myth of the Yellow Bell: who was the Yellow Emperor? where did he live? when did he live? what was the Yellow Bell? where was it first created? when was it first created? The assumption behind literally all interpretations of this myth is that it takes place at some indefinitely defined "ancient" time, possibly 2 or 3 hundred years BC, somewhere in China.

To better evaluate that assumption, let's return to a much simpler myth, the one about the American slave:

A story handed down by ex-slaves claims that one evening a slave was feeling low in spirit and heard a plaintive cry of a night bird. The sound inspired the slave to get a piece of cane from a canebrake and cut some holes in it. He then commenced to play a “blues” on his whistle. As time went by, the instrument evolved into a set of “quills”.

According to this myth, the panpipe, or as it was sometimes called by African-American bluesmen, the "quills," originated in the United States. We know that can't be true, however, because of overwhelming evidence that this instrument antedates the founding of the United States and, indeed, the discovery of the Americas. So the person inspired by the bird could not have been an African-American slave, as the story implies, but someone who lived at a time far more remote than either slavery or America itself.

I believe the same critical thought process must be applied to the myth of the Yellow Emperor and the Yellow Bell. If we are to seek the truth pointed to by the myth, we must both take it seriously and treat it skeptically, tease out the "lie" behind it so we can see the truth toward which it is pointing. All the evidence tells us the Yellow Emperor could not have been Chinese and the Yellow Bell could not have originated in China. (And if we read the myth carefully, we'll see that it never explicitly says they were.)

In a very thorough, ingeniously worked out study of the history behind this myth, musicologist Fritz Kuttner summarizes his argument as follows:

(*) Tuned bells came later than the more primitive bamboo pipes, as was to be expected. Pipes and bells are not likely to have been co-existent in experimentation at the time the first group of Lü names was introduced.
(*) The complete system could not have been established before the advent of bell-casting and bell-tuning.
(*) A fragmentary four-or five-tone Lü system, as partly represented in the pitch names containing the word Lu, came into existence before the bronze bell. Furthermore, by the time the twelve-name Lü system was complete Lü probably meant "semitone," and not ''tube" or "pipe" anymore.
Since tuned bells dating from the early Shang II period have been found in quantity, the first partial Lü system might easily go back to Shang I times. This is an almost shocking conclusion because it pushes the beginnings of the traditional Chinese tone system back into pre-historic times (Shang I), in the direction of the legendary dynastic dates which every serious student of China's history would dismiss as naive. It seems that here we have a musicological tiger by the tail because our conclusion must be unacceptable to orthodox sinology. May the musicologist be forgiven for this situation which he did not
create; he found it ready-made. ("A Musicological Interpretation of the Twelve Lüs in China's Traditional Tone System,"
in Ethnomusicology, Vol. 9, No. 1. (Jan., 1965), pp. 22-38.)

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