Tuesday, November 6, 2007

102. Music of the Great Tradition -- 4

I've been doing a lot of research and writing on "Pygmy/Bushmen" style these days, trying to make sense of all the various pieces of evidence and all the theories from a variety of sources. As I've mentioned in earlier posts, two leading researchers in this arena, Susanne Furniss and Emmanuelle Olivier, both students of Simha Arom, have declared that the two traditions, while "acoustically" very close, are in fact "radically opposed" in terms of basic "concept." If this were actually the case, then my "great tradition" would be stopped in its tracks before it could get started. I would simply be on the wrong track. That is of course still possible. But hear me out.

After careful review of their research, both in itself and in comparison with other, equally authoritative sources, such as Nicholas England and Michelle Kisliuk, I remain even more convinced than ever that the two traditions are in fact extraordinarily close, not only "conceptually" but also in just about every other respect one could name. This conclusion is supported in a variety of ways, from careful inspection of the musical transcriptions they offer, to comparison with certain very different examples provided by England and Kisliuk, along with the very different interpretations they have offered.

For example, while Furniss and Olivier have insisted that Bushmen music is based on a strictly linear "mental referent" as opposed to Pygmy music, which is, for them, fundamentally polyphonic in concept, Nicholas England's intensive study of essentially the same tradition led him to a diametrically opposed conclusion: "Bushman music . . . is polyphonic at its very basis." Similarly, my review of Kisliuk's research reveals the Pygmy music she studied to be fully as "linear" as it is "polyphonic."

Nevertheless, Furniss and Olivier are not completely mistaken. As can rather easily be demonstrated, once all the many academic and theoretical cobwebs are removed, the two traditions can be regarded as both polyphonic and heterophonic -- which means that neither can be regarded as either exclusively linear or multi-part at base. And here I must briefly pause to define my terms for those of you who are not music theoreticians. "Polyphonic" music is usually understood as conceived in multiple parts, which when performed together, produce harmonies. By "heterophony" is meant a musical structure where all parts perform a somewhat different version of the same melodic line, with occasional, but not essential, moments when some type of harmonic interval could be present. Certain Pygmy and Bushmen musical practices conflate both possibilities, and in a truly remarkable manner, characteristic not only of their own cultures, but certain others as well, as found in various parts of the world that partake of what I am calling "the great tradition."

Over the years I have noted several very interesting points of similarity between the two styles and, thanks to the work I've been studying lately, by Furniss, Olivier, England and Kisliuk, I have recently become aware of certain others. In my next post, I plan to list as many of these as seem relevant, to provide us with a baseline we can use as a reference as we follow the great tradition down the corridors of history, from then to now.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for such an interesting website. Congratulations. All the best.

"the Dude" said...

the absurd position that Pygmies and other traditional peoples face when outside corps take over, leaving a few pocket parks:

the music is fading, now mostly noise.

Victor said...

Thanks for the nice comment, clepsidra, that's much appreciated.

Hello again, "dude". Sorry I didn't get back to you on your last comment, but I have been thinking about it, especially what you said about the function of air sacs, which I hadn't considered before. There's a lot I don't know about what happened prior to the year 000,000 and your contributions in that regard interest me. That's an area I haven't studied at all, unfortunately, so will have to leave it to more knowledgeable people, such as yourself, to explore.

Thanks for the link to the article on Pygmies and logging in the Ituri Forest, which I hadn't heard about. It's ironic that just at the moment in history when the importance of these Pygmy and Bushmen groups and their traditions is becoming increasingly evident, mostly via the genetic research, their way of life is being systematically destroyed. Actually, though, I think it's the strenous efforts of the missionaries that has always done the most damage, since it goes to the heart of the culture and belief system that sustains it.

As the article indicates, the logging companies are at least attempting to come to some sort of compromise with the traditional way of life in the forest. Let's hope they are sincere.