Monday, November 19, 2007

106. Music of the Great Tradition -- 8

I have only one more item to add to the list -- for now. I'll sneak it in here:

19. Most songs in both traditions are sung to meaningless vocables. Meaningful texts are used, but play a strictly limited role.

The list is remarkable for many reasons. First, because it represents so many striking points of similarity between the musical traditions of peoples living at such great distances from one another, and in all likelihood, as I've argued, separated for tens of thousands of years. Second, because so many of the shared traits are so distinctive: e.g., interlocking "counterpoint"; hocket; yodel; the remarkable ways in which polyphony and heterophony are conflated in both traditions; melodies functioning as unsung mental referents; temporal displacements ("canonic" imitation); the "unification of musical space" through the equivalence of horizontal and vertical intervals, etc. Third -- and this will be my focus for the rest of this series of posts -- certain items in the list read like a menu from which all sorts of other peoples, in completely different parts of the world, have drawn in the development of their own musical styles.

In order to understand the (possible) significance of this last point, we need to back up just a bit to consider the significance of all the evidence suggesting such a great age for "Pygmy/Bushmen" style. As I've argued in my essay, "Echoes of Our Forgotten Ancestors," we have good reason to believe that P/B was the dominant musical style not only of the earliest "modern" humans in Africa, but also the small band of migrants that first ventured "Out of Africa" to become the ancestors of all non-Africans alive today. If this is the case, then P/B must be regarded as the ancestor of all the music we hear in the world of today. And the question we must answer is: what happened during all these many tens of thousands of years that resulted in such a great variety of musical styles today?

I'm not sure I can provide a completely satisfactory answer, but I can say this: when something changes it never changes completely, there are always some aspects that change and others that remain the same. Which means that in many cases we might be able to find some traces of the original, ancestral form, in something that now appears to be "completely different."

For example, since P/B style conflates polyphony and heterophony, and if it is prototypical for all types of music that developed subsequently (as one might expect if one accepts the Out of Africa theory of human evolution), then perhaps certain musical traditions that are now predominantly either polyphonic or heterophonic represent aspects of the original tradition that have survived. Similarly, all the many musical styles of today based on cyclically repeating structures might also have inherited this basic principle from the original source.

We find a great many examples throughout the world of "strophic" structures based on a melody that repeats with different text in each verse. Could this practice be a survival of P/B, based on the importance of item 5 on my list? And what about all the nonsense refrains so important in European and British folk songs? Could they have derived from the nonsense vocables so prevalent in P/B style (see item 19 on my list)?

Now please, before someone has an absolute fit: I'm not saying that this is what actually happened. All I'm saying is that the combination of what I've been arguing with regard to P/B style in itself -- i.e., the possibility of it being of great antiquity -- plus the completely new way of thinking about history mandated by the Out of Africa theory, forces us to consider certain possibilities very seriously that we previously might have felt we could dismiss out of hand. In future posts I'll be considering some of these one at a time and in some detail.

I won't be posting on this blog for a while as I'll be visiting with family over the Thanksgiving holiday, starting EARLY tomorrow morning. Have a happy holiday, everyone -- I'll see you back here soon.

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