Friday, December 28, 2007

116. Music of the Great Tradition -- 17:Gamelan

As should be clear from posts 107 through 115, there are many correspondences, on many different levels, between Pygmy/Bushmen style and the structure of gamelan music. There are also significant differences: gamelans are primarily instrumental; they are stratified into hierarchically ordered layers, with each layer playing a rigidly defined role; while variation is possible, it is restricted to certain instruments only -- most simply repeat a melodic or percussive pattern; the basic, or "nuclear," theme is almost always directly stated, rarely implied; each piece is organized more or less as a fixed composition, with predetermined sections and a clear beginning and ending; tempo is flexible; etc. All of the above represent significant differences from P/B style, which is usually vocal (though sometimes performed on pipes and/or whistles); unstratified; non-hierarchical, with everyone present participating equally; with continual variation in all or most parts; with the controlling theme often implied rather than directly stated; loosely organized, with no clear beginning or ending; and performed, almost invariably, in a single, inflexible, tempo.

What are we to make of this array of similarities and differences? Is there some scientific method that would enable us to objectively test the claim I am making, that the gamelan can be regarded as part of a"Great Tradition" rooted in Africa, disseminated along with the "Out of Africa" migration? Unlike the simpler patterns I've been tracing in earlier posts, many of which can be tested, more or less scientifically, through a combination of cantometrics, ethnography, archaeology, linguistics, genetics, etc., the more complex and subtle relationships I'm discussing now probably cannot. There are simply too many variables to precisely manage, too many intangibles to objectively assess.

On this, more complex, more qualitative, level of comparative thinking, we are, willy nilly, forced to move from the objective realm of "scientific" testing, to the more problematic, but also, perhaps, deeper and more challenging, realm of interpretation -- or, if you prefer a more technical term: hermeneutics. It is on this level, the level of subjective, but also critical, interpretation -- of all sorts of evidence, from a variety of different realms, moving back and forth between the whole of history, both musical and social, as we now only dimly perceive it, and its various parts (the so-called hermeneutic circle) -- that we must proceed in our dauntless quest for traces of the "Great Tradition" that might still survive in the music of today.

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