Sunday, January 13, 2008

119. Music of the Great Tradition -- 19:Georgia

Shortly after I completed the last post, ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl, with whom I've been corresponding, sent me a pdf copy of a fascinating book by a leading authority on Georgian music, Joseph Jordania. This was a remarkable and very welcome coincidence, not only because I am currently discussing Georgian music, but also because what Jordania has to say about the meaning and origins of European polyphonic vocal music generally is so relevant to the discussion of this same tradition that I've been planning to get into here. In fact, there are a great many ideas and arguments in Jordania's book, entitled WHO ASKED THE FIRST QUESTION? The Origins of Human Choral Singing, Intelligence, Language and Speech, which I find remarkably astute and also quite sympathetic. Jordania's knowledge of vocal polyphonic traditions generally, as found all over the world, is both extensive and impressive. And many aspects of his interpretation of their meaning and origin are very close in many ways to my own.

(In addition to the thorough treatment of the vocal traditions, on which Jordania appears to be quite authoritative, the book contains many speculations regarding the relationship of music generally to the origins of, as his title states, "intelligence, language and speech," that I see as problematic, though always interesting and thought provoking. Where he and I differ most is that his theories of musical -- and linguistic -- evolution are grounded in the "multiregional" model of human history, whereas mine follow the more recently developed "Out of Africa," or "replacement" model. Our differences complement one another in a very interesting and, possibly very useful, way. I hope to get into some of these more basic issues in future posts.)

As Jordania is so authoritative on the subject of Georgian and European polyphony, and since his ideas are so close to my own on this subject, I've decided to quote from his book wherever appropriate. Here are some of his thoughts on the special role of Georgia in European history:
Georgia (in Georgian "Sakartvelo") shows an array of important signs of unbroken cultural ancestry. Autochthonous residents of the Transcaucasia, Georgians still speak the Georgian language, which survives from the epoch of the pre-Indo-European languages. The only possible relationship of Georgian language outside the Caucasus
seriously discussed by linguists is that with the Basque language, the only survivor of the pre-Indo-European languages in Western Europe. Geographically Georgia is part of the region known as "Transcaucasia", situated on the southern slopes of the Great Caucasian mountain range, stretching from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea (more correctly – the Caspian lake, the world’s biggest lake). Being surrounded by the highest mountains of Europe (reaching at several points more than 5.000 meters), the Caucasian mountain gorges represent the ideal "hiding spot" from outer influences for isolated populations. [p. 74]

There follows, in pages 74 through 104, a fascinating description of extraordinary interest and value, including many excellent transcriptions, of many different types of Georgian vocal polyphony, from various regions, both secular and religious. I can't hope to summarize this here, but will be discussing certain points of particular interest in future posts.

Jordania's extraordinary book can be downloaded from the website The Traditional Music of Georgia. The link appears close to the top of the page.


joseph said...

Victor, thank you for your very interesting blog. Here is my comment.
You are right, we have plenty of point of contact in our views of the origins of music.
Most importantly, we both think that music as a phenomenon has exstremely old origins, andf that it can survive without major changes for very long periods of time. Of course, there are also differences between our assessment of time frames, as I believe that the origins of music started with the apprearance of rhythm (absent among animals) at the point when humam ancestors descended from the trees (at least 2 million years ago), and I suggest that the main function of the first "music" (loud rhtyhmic shouting/singing/dancing together with throwing stones) was to scare away big ground predators after our ancestors left safe tree branches and descended on the ground. You suggest (following the "Out of africa" model) that music has about 100 000 years history (this is 20 times less than my suggestion of 2 million years). I also suggest that after the appearance of speech music was eventually marginalised, and after that moment humans are losing their musical abilities with every new millenium and every century (for example, there are plenty of historical examples of losing polyphonic singing tradition, and I could not find a single case of appearing polyphonic singing from monophony in tradsitional music - see in my 2006 book you are mentioning, pages 198-210).
Of course, you are right - the main theoretical difference between our approaches to human evolution is that I support (or I should say - my data support) multiregional hypothesis, whereas you support "out of Africa" hypotheses. It is not only the data of polyphonic traditions that support "multiregional" model, but the differences in stuttering prevalence in different populations, as well as the data on acquisition of phonological system by Japanese and American children, plus the prevalence of dyslexia in different culture). I believe all these data support multiregional hypotheses.
Here I must say that although I support multiregional model, I do not think that the name "multiregiuonal evolution" does justice to this model.
There is a very important confusion (mostly because of the name of the theory) among scholars about the "multiregional" model - many think that multiuregionalists proclaim that homo sapiens was formed AFTER our ancestors left Africa. This is not correct. According to multiregionalists, so called "Homo erectus" WAS already the homo sapiens (its archaic form).
Generaly speaking, there is ONLY the time difference between these two models (I mean "Out of Africa" and "Meltiregional" models), otherwise tyhey are very similar: Both theories suggest that homo sapiens was formed in Africa, and both theories suggest that after the first human groups left Africa, they settled in different regions ot the world and developed in different rasial groupd on different continents and different environments. The main difference is that according to muslitiregional model this happened within 2 million years, and according to "out of Africa" model this happened around 150 000 years ago (and of course, "Out of Afrcia" model suggests all the previous popuilations, who lived in different continents for many hundred of thousands or even millions of years, were wiped out by newcomers from the same Africa). So, to be more precise and objective, I believe that these two hypotheses should be titled as "Ancient African Origin" and "Recent African Origin" theories.
The name "multiregional theory" is in fact disastrous for this model, because it
(1) does give a wrong impression as if Wolpoff (and his followers) think that Homo sapiens was formed in different regions of the world, and
(2) the name "multiregional" gives a wrong impression that Homo sapiens was formed several times in different regions of the world (which is NOT what the multuiregionalists are saying), with all the political implications...

Last year I wrote a letter to Milford Wolpoff, suggeting that the name of his theory "multiregional evolution" does not adequately represent the main idea of his model, as he and all the "multuiregionalists" believe that Homo sapiens was formed ONCE, in Africa, and all human populations are descendants from this one group. I suggested to Wolpoff, that besides giving the wrong message about the theory itself, this name does not sound "politically correct" as well. I suggested him to use the name "Ancient African Origin", to make it clear that the main difference between the two theories is the TIME SPAN (2 000 000 and 100 000 years). Interestingly, Wolpoff wrote me a reply, where he agreed with my words about the awqward name with the wrong message, but, unfortunately, he also wrote that he was reluctant to change the name of his theory, as this "would cause a major confusion in the scholarly world"...

Of course, those who think that Victor's idea about 100 000 ye3ars history of human music is an exagerration, they might be extremely sceptical about my assessment of human musical origins at least 2 000 000 years. Well, I hope that the origins of music will be quickly getting older and older... The main problem will be what we call "human music". I suggest that human music appeared at the moment when rhythmic group unity was introduced.
Well, after many years of starvation on such discussions, it is great to discuss these topics with the colleagues...
Joseph Jordania

Victor said...

Greetings, Joseph. It's a pleasure to see you posting here. There are always going to be differences between any two theories by any two people on any topic whatsoever, but what surprises (and encourages) me are the many points of agreement between us. I would rather, for now, concentrate on these, as sorting out our differences with respect to the "Out of Africa" timing (which we will eventually need to do) is going to be a very complex and probably time consuming matter.

I agree that "Ancient African Origin" is a better name than "Multiregionalism." By the same token, it might be better to speak of "Recent African Origin with Bottlenecks," since this model makes sense only if it takes into account the many opportunities for founder effects (both genetic and cultural) that such bottlenecks can produce. It is only when we take bottlenecks into account that the musical (also genetic and morphological) evidence fits the recent origin model.

As you can see from my discussion of musical origins on this blog, I place more emphasis on the vocal aspects rather than on rhythm in itself, seeing primate "pant-hooting," duetting and chorusing as "proto-yodel" and "proto-hocket" (and thus proto-polyphonic). Of course, rhythmic interaction (or "entrainment") is a part of this as well. This does not necessarily contradict your ideas on the origins of rhythm, which also seem reasonable to me. I do want to emphasize, however, that my thoughts on this matter, as with my thoughts on the origin of language, are highly speculative and exploratory. I'm not sure we will ever be able to sort out what actually happened during the transition from "ape" to "human" with any degree of confidence.

Since the principal objections to my "Echoes" paper involve extreme skepticism regarding any tradition that could persist for tens of thousands of years, it's refreshing to see you arguing for millions. That makes me look much more reasonable by comparison, so thanks! :-)

As I'll be posting for a while on Georgian and European vocal polyphony, and quoting you, I hope you'll continue to read here -- and let me know if I get anything wrong.

joseph said...

Thank you again Victor, for the interesting discussion. I agree we need to concentrate on the points we have in common.

You are right, after my suggestion of "millions of years" for the history of music origins, your suggestion of "hundred thousdand years" sound much more conservatove and sensible... As this point (very ancient origins of singing in human prehistory) is crucial for both of us, let me explain why I think that music (and singing) origins has such deep roots:

If you have a look at the singing species of the world, you will see that they live either on the trees (like birds, or primates), or in the seas (seals, ir whales). If you listen to the sounds of the forest, almost 100% you will hear ONLY sounds coming from the "upper floor" - tree branches and sky (mostly birds in non-tropical regions, and tree-living monkeys as well in tropical regions). Here is the million dollar question that no one has asked yet: Why? There is a huge difference for singing lovers whether they live on the tree branches or on the ground. On the tree branches every living being lives according to their weight, so 50 kilo leopard can not get 20 kilo monkey, so monkey can freele "sing" while he is out of reach for the leopard (the biggest enemy). It is totally different on the ground: On the ground every living thing lives on the same floor, so being silent for ground dwellers is very important to stay alive (for prays) or to get food (for the predators). Humans are different: Out of ground living animals ONLY HUMANS SING. Only big and strong predators (like Lions and volwes, who make loud long vocalizations), are not afraid their sound to be heard... So, I think that there is a strong possibility to consider that human ancestors came down from the trees ALREADY as singing primates. No way that primates descended from the safe tree branches to the hazardous ground and they started singing... So I believe that singing started much earler in our prehistory than desceding from the trees to the ground. Desscending from the trees happened much more than 2 million years ago. Primate ancestors of the australopithecines must have been already singing primates. Australopithecines (the first grounf dwelling ancestor, who came down from the trees about 4 million years ago) were not only singing, but drumming primates. So I think drumming has a history of about 4 million years. To survive on the ground australopithecines were drumming and shouting in big groups in precise rhythmic unison. That;s how they managed to stop predators, and to get meet (chasing predators from ther kills by group rhythmic shouting/singing/stone-throwing). Most likely intimidation of the predators was behind many other evolutionary changes. For example, they stood up on their hind legs to look taller (very well known practice to intimidate opponents and predators), and few other element of human evolution that receives explanation from this vocal intimidation" model: (1)why male voice is so much lower than female voice, (2)why humans have long hair and males have beards, (3)why australotithecine's teeth started to get smaller, (4)why humans started using stone pebbles to make first stone tools, etc...)

So, according to my model, the first important element of human music (which is absent in animal kingdom) - rhytmic group unity -came with australopithecines, first ground-dwelling pre-nominid primate about 4 million years ago (Kortland and Livingstone wrote about their singing in the 1970s). As for singing (and group singing, but without precise rhythm) I believe it started long before our ancestors started descending from the trees.

That's why I believe humans did not start singing as a cultural (or as the opposite sex-charming) activity. For me the role of music in our evolution was much more important. The role of music was (1)to defend themselves from predators, and (2)to get protain-rich food from more specialized predators via confrontational scavenging. The date 2 million years ago, is the date when humans (already homo sapiens) started actually moving out of Africa, not when they started singing and using rhythm.

Victor, as you know there are growing evidence that shows tremedously deep roots of human musicality (babies have absolute pitch wheh they are born, babies start vocalising and reacting on singing much earler
than speaking, many elements of music is in the more "ancient" right hemisphere, etc etc...).

The old idea of Spencer (that singing started out of emotional speech) does not make any evolutionary sense, when you consider all these growing evidence. Darwin was correct to criticise Spencer' ideas. It is really strange to me that even today some still consider singing as a by-product of speech (like Pinker does). Linguists need to get used to the idea that singing and musicality was the key factor of early hominid evolutionary success...

I think within the next 10 years we will see the complete change of attitude towards very ancient origins of human singing abilities. Humans did not "invented" singing, it was actually more the other way round -- singing contributed to so much elements of hominid early evolution (allowing them to descend from the trees, to start bipedal locomotion, to defend themselves from predators, to provide meet, to decrease the number and size of therr teeth, to give them the idea of stone tools...) - so we can even say that it was singing that helped hominids to survive and to start a long process of creating homo sapiens.

Victor said...

Joseph, your comments on the early history of human vocalization are very interesting and make a great deal of sense. Up to a point. Your observation regarding the fact that almost all "singing" animals can be found above us, vocalizing from the safety of their trees, are especially insightful and interesting. But it's hard for me to see a connection between the sort of vocalizing that humans can use to scare off potential predators and singing. Why wouldn't shouting do as well? And while it's true that one can shout at an attacking dog to scare it off, I don't see how shouting in rhythm would scare it more. In fact I've never noticed anyone trying to scare off any animal by singing, either with or without regularly organized rhythms.

Similarly, I can't see any survival value that could be attached to vocalizing with precise pitch relationships, an important aspect of music that you don't address.

One of the strongest arguments in your book is your critique of musicologists who assume that music "must have" developed from monophony to polyphony, simply because such a development seemed more logical and reasonable to them. But aren't you doing something similar here? Just because it seems reasonable to assume that humans "must have" developed rhythmic vocalizations to ward off predators, is no reason to conclude such a connection actually existed and that this is the ultimate explanation for the origin of music. You are in good company here, I must admit, since a great many very intelligent people have made similar assumptions when proposing theories of musical -- or linguistic -- origins.

Also it's important to remember that animals do not employ "strategies," for survival or anything else. While this is only a manner of speaking, as I'm sure you're aware, it's easy to start thinking that way when discussing evolution. If most land animals tend to be quiet, it's not because they have developed a strategy for survival. They are quiet because the noisy ones got eaten!

By the same token I don't think we can say that early humans developed music or anything else for a particular reason or function. The survival value of any practice or lack of same is manifested AFTER the fact, during long periods during which the most functional practices tend to survive and the least functional die out, along with their advocates.

Thus, for me, the most likely source of music is in the vocalizations that already existed among tree dwelling primates prior to the descent of man from the heavens to the earth. And as I believe I've demonstrated in some earlier posts, certain primates, such as the gibbons you yourself have noted, already vocalize in a kind of hocketed interchange, which already contains the seeds of rhythm.

I agree that these early humans, with their noisy tree dwelling habits, would have been more vulnerable while living on the ground. But that wouldn't have stopped them from vocalizing -- because that was already ingrained, as an instinct or a tradition, from long before. So there must have been some factor that caused them to survive IN SPITE OF their vocalizing, not because of it. At least that's how I see it.

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