Tuesday, January 29, 2008

125. Music of the Great Tradition -- 25:Old Europe and the Role of Women

Is there some sort of universal cause and effect relation at work between the role of women in society and certain aspects of musical style? More specifically, is there a cause and effect relation, as Lomax claimed, between male-female complementarity and polyphonic vocalizing, relaxed voices, and "good" tonal blend? Or are the correlations he found due to historical processes at work in a specific time and place -- in this case neolithic Europe -- affecting both the treatment of women and many other aspects of culture, as Gimbutas' theories suggest?

Universalist claims of this sort can be tested by determing whether or not the correlations still hold in a completely different socio-historical context. Consider, for example, native North America. Here we have both hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists, simple tribal cultures and advanced civilizations. We also have patrilineal societies, where women are clearly subordinate, and matrilineal societies, where women have considerable influence and freedom. Yet throughout the length and breadth of this vast area, we find only the barest trace of polyphonic vocalizing, mostly in very limited areas, such as pockets in the Northwest Coast and, in northern California, among the Hupa -- who are patrilineal. The music of just about every other native American tribe north of Mexico, whether matrilineal or patrilineal, aggressive and warlike, or relatively quiet and passive, is dominated by unison singing, with little to no trace of polyphony. Evidently, the correlation Lomax found between complementarity and polyphony cannot, therefore, be regarded as universal, as it doesn't seem to apply in North America.

As for the other musical characteristics Lomax associated with complementarity -- relaxed voices and "good" tonal blend -- the picture is not so clear. The Navaho and many Pueblo groups are matrilineal -- and have indeed been characterized as "Apollonian" (as opposed to "Dionysian") cultures. Their voices do in fact tend to be more relaxed than is typical for native Americans in the north -- and Pueblo singing is noted for its smooth vocal blend. The Apache, however, close relatives of the Navaho, and also matrilineal, tend to have a more strident, tense and harshly blended style of vocalizing. Since it's not clear whether or not the Apache pattern could be a response to relatively recent historical events, additional research would be necessary before a firm conclusion could be reached.

Returning to our consideration of Europe, we are probably safe in concluding that Old European polyphonic vocalizing, associated by Lomax with the role of women, was most likely the product of historically contingent, rather than universally necessary, forces -- as implied by both Gimbutas and Jordania. There would seem to be no hard and fast rule causing humans to sing in harmony wherever women are treated as equals.

Nevertheless, as Gimbutas would surely point out, the Old European pattern does suggest that gender-balance, acephalous, egalitarian political systems, group integration, cooperation, and sharing, along with an overall lack of competiveness and aggression, do seem to go hand in hand, both with one another and also with musical practices expressing harmoniousness, social integration and simple pleasure. It does seem reasonable, therefore, to associate smoothly blended, relaxed voices, singing spontaneously together in harmony, with the sort of harmonious culture one might expect when both women and men are socially integrated on a free and equal basis, with minimal opportunities for sexual rivalry and tension to arise. In other words, while the correlations Lomax discovered do not necessarily point to cause and effect relationships, they strongly suggest that the various aspects of any culture can best be evaluated as parts of an integrated whole, with each tending to influence the other.

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