Friday, December 14, 2007

113. Intermezzo

I must interrupt my disquisition on the "Great Tradition" to update my loyal readers (you know who you are) with respect to some noteworthy events. First, an essay of mine, originating with some posts on this blog, has recently been published: "New Perspectives on the Kalahari Debate: A Tale of Two Genomes," in the online anthropological journal, Before Farming. Here's the abstract:
While the ‘Great Kalahari Debate’ hinged almost exclusively on the interpretation of sparse and confusing archaeological and historical data, abundant and convincing genetic evidence from the realm of biological anthropology has been largely ignored, while equally compelling cultural evidence drawn from the musical traditions of the populations in question has been overlooked entirely. In this paper, I attempt to demonstrate how genetic and musicological research can be combined to provide a compelling case for the ‘traditionalist’ position in this ongoing controversy. To this end, I draw upon an important but little known musical ‘genome’, the Cantometric database, compiled under the direction of the late Alan Lomax, at the Columbia University Bureau of Applied Social Research.

Unfortunately, you'll need a subscription to read the paper online. If you send a request via email, however, I'll be happy to respond with an attached offprint, in pdf format.

My second piece of news concerns a presentation given at the recent meetings of the American Anthropological Association, based on my collaboration with genetic anthropologists Drs. Sarah Tishkoff and Floyd Reed, of the University of Maryland, and Dr. Anna Lomax Wood, director of the Association for Cultural Equity (founded by her father, Alan Lomax), thanks to whom the Cantometric database has been updated and made available for current research. Floyd Reed put this together at the last minute, in the wake of many distractions, much travel, travail and illness, and after months of work back and forth between the two of us, trying to find the most effective ways of querying and interpreting the Cantometric data -- and comparing it with the extensive database of African DNA put together at the direction of his boss, Sarah Tishkoff, a major figure in anthropological genetics for some time (an important publication on African genetics and history, by the two of them, should be coming out soon). It was titled: "A Comparison of Genetic and Musical Affiliations in Subsaharan Africa." Here's the abstract:

Recent advances in anthropological genetics have prompted an interest in possible correlations between cultural and genetic inheritance. Thus far, however, research along such lines has typically been limited to the consideration of linguistic distances as a metric of cultural change. While linguists have, indeed, made great strides in categorizing the language families of the world and reconstructing their histories, another field, arguably of equal interest and importance, the comparative study of musical traditions, has received little if any attention from genetic anthropologists. We have consequently taken a novel approach, comparing two databases, one genetic and the other musical, in order to make inferences about African population history. The genetic database, compiled under the direction of Dr. Sarah Tishkoff, at the University of Maryland, represents 1,374 highly variable autosomal loci genotyped in a diverse world-wide sample of thousands of individuals, including 84 ethnolinguistic populations in Africa. The musical database, compiled under the direction of the late Alan Lomax, at the Bureau of Applied Social Research, Columbia University, represents over 5,500 sung performances, drawn from 857 culture groups worldwide, including 181 from subsaharan Africa, encoded along a range of 37 parameters. Limiting ourselves at this point to Africa, south of the Sahara, we apply a variety of statistical and analytic techniques to both
databases, to investigate the degree to which the study of musical traditions might shed light on aspects of genetic-cultural co-evolution.

Though I wasn't present, I understand that Floyd's presentation generated considerable interest. Which brings me to my third piece of news, a report on the presentation, recently published in the journal Nature. Earlier today, I was able to access the article in full, but now I see that only the first paragraph is freely available -- to read the rest you'll have to send a payment or subscribe. What a shame, especially since I didn't think to copy it myself when I had the chance.

My fourth news item is the announcement of my recently completed essay in response to the views of Susanne Furniss and Emmanuelle Olivier regarding Pygmy and Bushmen music and whether or not the two traditions are, in their words "radically opposite." Needless to say, my views are radically opposed to theirs -- and for good reason. Here's the abstract:

The highly distinctive contrapuntal vocalizing of the so-called “Pygmies” and “Bushmen” of Africa has been a topic of considerable interest to musicologists for some time. In comparative studies, many striking stylistic and structural similarities among almost all such groups have been observed. Surprisingly, however, recent research by ethnomusicologists Susanne Fürniss and Emmanuelle Olivier has led them to a very different interpretation: though the two traditions may be “acoustically” very close, they must be regarded as,
nevertheless, “radically opposite” due to a fundamental difference in conception. This unexpected and challenging conclusion, based on the distinction they draw between the stylistic features of a musical tradition and the“ideas” underlying it, encouraged me to undertake a thorough re-examination -- part ethnomusicology, part music theory, part hermeneutics -- of the musical structures underlying both traditions and the manners in which such structures may be understood and interpreted. In this paper I draw upon insights into the nature of Pygmy and Bushmen music afforded by the research of Fürniss and Olivier to argue against their interpretation of its meaning. In the process, I hope to demonstrate how extraordinarily close, conceptually and otherwise, the two traditions really are.

I'll be making this paper freely available somewhere on the Internet soon, so stay tuned.

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