Friday, July 6, 2007

50. On the Origin of Tuned Pipes

The Yellow Bell was originally a wooden reed pipe, apparently made of bamboo, cut to a particular length, to correspond with a tone produced by either a human voice or the call of a bird. Based on the length and diameter of that original pipe, a set of additional pipes were produced, according to a carefully worked out system. Note that the myth describes free pipes, not panpipes, though clearly the binding of such pipes into a single instrument would have been only one short step away. According to Fritz Kuttner (see previous post), the original set could not have consisted of more than five pipes, systematically tuned, up a fifth, then down a fourth, etc., resulting in what is now known as an "anhemitonic pentatonic scale," i.e., a five tone scale containing no half steps -- i.e., the classic "black note" pentatonic stereotypically associated with Chinese music for as long as anyone can remember. As Kuttner argues, the remaining seven tones (making up an equidistant 12 interval "chromatic" scale) seem to have been a much later development.

In his concluding remarks, Kuttner succinctly summarizes the logic behind his conviction that the original set of reed pipes could only have been produced prior to the era when tuned bells were being cast. If that had not been the case, there would have been no reason for the two different types of terminology employed. (I won't get into the details of his argument, which would take us too far afield.) And "Since tuned bells dating from the early Shang II period have been found in quantity, the first partial system [i.e., the original five tone scale] might easily go back to Shang I times." Kuttner finds this conclusion "almost shocking," because it would push the origin of the whole system back to a "legendary" prehistoric era too remote for serious scholars to consider. For Kuttner, however, the conclusion is inescapable: the musicologist "found it ready-made."

Since I'll be weaving a myth of my own, it won't be necessary to examine Kuttner's reasoning too carefully. Even if it contains a flaw, it nevertheless expresses, as I see it, the simple truth hidden behind an elaborate facade. Because, according to my myth, the Yellow Emperor could not have been Chinese, or even Asiatic -- and certainly not an emperor. He must have been African, possibly an early ancestor of the Bushmen, who are often described as having yellowish complexions (to go with the epicanthic folds in their eyelids). In certain documents he's described as the ancestor of all the Chinese people, but since in my version he's African, maybe he was everyone's ancestor, the first "modern" human. His assistant, or possibly descendant, the creator of the Yellow Bell, must also have been African -- though he might not have even been a single person, but possibly a group, all working and thinking together. He might not even have been a he, but a she.

Sinologists will no doubt protest, as Kuttner anticipated they would. But on what grounds? If the Yellow Emperor and the Yellow Bell both date back to some mythical past, then who's to say where -- or when -- they originated? And if anyone wants to claim the originator of the myth clearly intended it to be about China and nowhere else, then we're back where we started, with more speculation about origins -- this time the origin of the myth itself. And who's to say where that got started -- and by whom? As I see it, therefore, my version is at least as good as anyone else's. Better in fact, because, as should be clear from this entire blog, I have a great deal of evidence to back up my version.

Tuned pipes are, indeed, an important part of the history of Chinese music, Chinese music theory and even Chinese philosophy. They go back a long way into Chinese pre-history, to at least 1100 BC, the estimated date of a set of bird bone pipes found in a tomb in Henan Province. But as most geneticists now believe, the Chinese themselves did not originate in China, but, ultimately: Africa. And, as we work our way backward in time from the earliest migration to East Asia by "modern" humans, I see no reason to assume such pipes were independently invented in that region, especially since they are now so common not only in Africa, but so many other places along the original migration path, and many other places as well, complete with bird associations, male-female pairing, and (in many, though not all cases) pentatonic tunings.

Such instruments, still so common in those parts of Africa mapped by Blench, must have originated on that continent, not in China. Which would make the Yellow Bell an African instrument, and the first tuned pipes an African invention -- very possibly, as I've argued in earlier posts, dating at or near the beginnings of music itself, back in the year 000001, as vocal "overblowing" (i.e., yodeling) associated with shouted hocket could have led to, or been associated with, the overblowing of reed pipes, which could in turn have triggered the process described in the Chinese myth, involving a systematic method of tuning sets of pipes in fifths.

At this point I'm wondering whether the myth itself, the myth of the Yellow Bell, might also have originated in Africa -- to be passed down from generation to generation along the same migration path that carried the pipes themselves, along with the tuning system destined to become the basis for Chinese music, mathematics and so much more.

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