Friday, July 13, 2007

59. Overview -- Concluded

17. Beginning with the last section of post 46, I introduced the most speculative and problematic of all my various inquiries with the presentation of one version of a bit of Chinese history well known to many musicologists, the myth of the "Yellow Bell." I find several aspects of this story particularly meaningful, though the connection with my research is far from obvious. First, it is an origin myth, the story of the origin of music through the construction of a bamboo pipe, precisely tuned to match either a human voice (in one version of the story) or the call of a bird. Second, it takes us a very long way into the farthest reaches of Chinese history, so far back that, as musicologist Fritz Kuttner suggests, the origin of the myth becomes as mysterious as the origin of the events it describes. Third, it tells the story of how a simple act, the construction of a reed pipe, becomes the basis for many other developments of great sociocultural importance, such as: a highly sophisticated system of musical tunings and scales; a philosophy harmonizing heaven and earth through the opposition of male and female principles (yin and yang); a basic unit against which all things must be measured; a system of harmonic ratios leading to the development of a mathematical system along lines quite similar to that of the Pythagorean school of ancient Greece.

18. Inspired by a remarkable insight of the great Picasso, who stated "art is a lie that makes you see the truth," I attempt to create a myth of my own that might help me locate the truth pointed to by the "lie" of the Yellow Bell myth. Progressively, through posts 46 to 49, I work my way through various versions of the Yellow Bell story and various interpretations of its meaning, until, in post 50, I am ready to expound my own version. According to my myth, neither the Yellow Emperor nor the Yellow Bell were Chinese, but must have been African, in which case the myth must be taken very seriously indeed. Why? First because the origins of the myth itself go back so far into the depths of Chinese prehistory that the notion of "China" could not yet have existed; second, because all the evidence points not to Asia but Africa as the place where tuned pipes originated; third, because, as we have already learned, traditions can persist far longer than is generally thought possible; fourth, because certain basic elements of the story, such as the bird associations, the classification of each pipe as either male or female, the tuning in fifths produced by overblowing, and the production of a pentatonic scale, fit so well with all sorts of other information, both cultural and musical, on the nature and role of tuned pipes among all sorts of tribal and "folk" peoples, both in and "out of" Africa; because, in short, there is so much that rings true about this "myth" once we move the locale to Africa and the time to something much closer to the year 000001.

19. From post 51 on I concern myself with certain clues suggesting that, "Yellow Bell" or not, the invention of tuned pipes could have had something to do, not only with the origin of music, but language as well. If we review the evolutionary process I've proposed, leading from primate duetting/chorusing to yodeled hocket, characterized by discrete pitches, it's not difficult to see how the development of hocketing pipe ensembles, tuned to the same discrete pitches, would be a very natural and simple next step. The development of language, on the other hand, must have been a far more complex and time consuming process. Yet, as Hugo Zemp points out, the existence of tuned pipes already implies the existence of some type of music theory, which in turn implies the existence of language, if not full blown, then at least in some prototypical form. So, according to my myth, language could have been born from the objectification (literally, reification) of musical tones in the form of tuned pipes. This would account for two important elements of language as we now know it: the birth of phonemes (vocable classes) from the equally "emic" pitch classes produced by pipe tunings and scales; the birth of the signifier/signified relation in the relation between each pipe and the pitch class it signifies. Moreover, each set of pipes could be said to signify a particular scale.

20. There is one more issue to be dealt with: as we learn over and over again from the study of cultural context, tuned pipes (and other, similarly hocketed instruments) are frequently characterized as either "male" or "female" in a wide variety of cultural settings from a wide variety of locations, from Africa to China, to Indonesia, Melanesia, South America, etc. If tuned pipes did, indeed, play a significant role in the early development of language, then it's possible they could have played an equally important role in what we now call the "construction of gender."

Is there any way of testing any part of what's covered in my "tuned pipe" myth, from the association of pipes with the origin of music, notation and music theory, to the origins of language and even gender? Probably not. On the other hand, since a great many pieces in my little box of clues do seem to fit together rather neatly, I feel confident there could be something to it, certainly enough to warrant further exploration along similar lines.

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