Sunday, December 2, 2007

108. Music of the Great Tradition -- 10: Gamelan

Let's look more closely at the two examples from the previous post, beginning with the BaAka pygmy song, as outlined by Michelle Kisliuk:

As Kisliuk explains, the polyphonic songs of the Aka are cyclic, based on a recurring fundamental melody, or "theme," which may or may not be actually sung during any given cycle. In the above instance, the theme is presented on the uppermost five-line staff, just below the percussion parts. Voices A through D, just below, are labeled "Counter melodies," implying independent polyphonic parts, which they are. Except that they also are not. Because, as I've already argued (see post 102), polyphony and heterophony tend to be conflated in the musical practices of both the Pygmies and Bushmen. I've added vertical lines above all notes in voices A through C that are either in unison or octaves with the theme and, as seems evident from the many matches, all three can be regarded as both heterophonic variants of the theme and counterpoints against it. The only fully independent part is D. (With each repetition of the cycle the parts will be varied, so what we see here represents a typical instance, one of many possible combinations.)

We can now compare the Pygmy example to the Javanese Gamelan score (to which I've added some arrows, for reasons that will become clear momentarily):
Gamelan music is also cyclic, and also based on a recurring melody, usually referred to as the "nuclear theme," played by instruments called "sarons." In this case, the nuclear theme is presented in the Saron barung and Saron demung parts, five staves from the bottom, doubled by the Slentem part, just below. Gamelan music has often been described as essentially heterophonic, as should be evident from the arrows I've placed above those notes either in unison or octaves with the nuclear theme. However, there are many instances of true polyphony as well, as should be clear from careful examination of the faster moving Gender, Gambang and Bonang parts. Clearly, we find a conflation of heterophony and polyphony in both examples.

There are certain other very interesting points of similarity between the African and Indonesian traditions -- and also some important differences. I'll have more to say on both in my next post.

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