Wednesday, March 5, 2008

132. Music of the Great Tradition -- 32:Old Europe -- Summary

Sorry to take so long between posts, but this has been a busy time for me -- and things may be getting even busier soon, so please be patient.

Now where was I? We've been examining various pieces of musical evidence pointing to the possibility of a very deep historical connection between certain aspects of P/B (Pygmy/Bushmen) musical practice -- the heart and soul of what I've been calling "The Great Tradition" -- and various types of traditional vocal polyphony characteristically found in what Marija Gimbutas called "Old Europe," i.e., relatively isolated mountain, forest or island regions of the European continent (including the Caucasus) where certain archaic cultural practices have apparently survived until very recent times.

For Gimbutas, of course, "Old Europe" represented what she called the "civilization" of the European neolithic, which she treats as more or less an entirely European phenomenon. Since her death in 1994, dramatic developments in archaeology and genetic anthropology have led to the now widely accepted theory that all "modern" humans originated, ca 150,000 to 200,000 years ago, in Africa, with one small band leading a migration that would ultimately take African lineages (and presumably culture as well) to every other part of the world. In the light of this new model of human history, it's not difficult to see how Gimbutas' Old Europe might represent a survival, not only of the European neolithic, but, more deeply, some of the most ingrained traditions of our middle and upper paleolithic ancestors in Africa. The musical evidence we've been examining, linking the "Great Tradition" of P/B-based African polyphony with the polyphonic practices of Old Europe, would, as we have seen, appear to support this hypothesis.

It's important to note, by the way, that we can find only a very few traces of the "Great Tradition" east of the Caucasus. Indeed, almost everywhere we go in Asia we find very different musical traditions, dominated by either solo singing, unison singing, or, as in tribal India, relatively simple forms of polyphonic vocalizing. It's only when we reach Southern China, Southeast Asia and the island cultures beyond, such as the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia and Melanesia, do we find, among many indigenous peoples, musical survivals that could be associated with the Great Tradition. This very interesting, but also very puzzling, gap would appear to be reflected in the genetic evidence as well, which suggests, as I discussed in my "Echoes" essay, the possibility of a major genetic-cultural "bottleneck" centered in South Asia, possibly only a few thousand years after the initial "Out of Africa" migration began.

Returning to our consideration of Europe, it's important to understand the full extent, in a great many relatively remote enclaves, of Old European musical survivals, many of which extended well into the 20th Century before the advent of modern western media and the relentless progress of the "free market" global economy literally devoured and destroyed all but a precious few.

As it's impossible for me to do full justice to the richness and complexity of Old European musical culture here, I'll refer you to Joseph Jordania's book, Who Asked the First Question (for a free download, click on the link at the website The Traditional Polyphony of Georgia), where, beginning with p. 47, an extraordinarily detailed, thoroughly researched and well documented survey of European traditional vocal polyphony, complete with several excellent transcriptions, is presented. While I can't accept all Jordania's theories, I am nevertheless profoundly impressed with his knowledge of European musical traditions, his very thorough, painstaking scholarship and his grasp of many of the same fundamental issues I've been discussing here (though there are, nevertheless, certain very basic differences between us). Part One of his book contains what is probably the most reliable, thorough and detailed survey of traditional European polyphonic vocalizing that I've yet seen anywhere and I recommend it highly.

In addition to the regions I've already covered in previous posts (Georgia, Plehkovo, the Aukštaitija region of Lithuania, the Swiss Alps, Liguria, Southern Albania, Corsica and Sardinia), Jordania points to "Old European" survivals of various kinds in Russia generally (including minorities such as the Abkhazians, Adighis, Balkarians, Karachaevis, Ossetians, Chechens, Ingush, Mordvans, Komi, Mari, Udmurts, Tatars, Bashkirs, Chuvash and Dagestanis), Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece, Latvia, Estonia, Iceland, England, Wales, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, France, Portugal, Spain, Basque country and Italy, in addition to an especially thorough survey of just about all regions of his native Georgia. He discusses, in addition, many apparently similar traditions he has found in certain isolated regions of Asia and the rest of the world as well, far too many to even mention here.

While I've been stressing certain features of Old European polyphony especially characteristic of P/B style, such as hocket, interlock, counterpoint, yodel, etc., Jordania places more emphasis on a somewhat different type of polyphony, centered on the use of a drone or drones, often coupled with an emphasis on sharp dissonances, usually major and minor seconds. While Jordania concedes at one point that the more purely contrapuntal polyphony characteristic of West Georgia, where the drone is relatively rare and yodel common, probably represents the oldest stratum, he nevertheless places a great deal of importance on the drone traditions, and rightly so, as they are widely distributed throughout the world. I now realize that this type of polyphony was neglected in my "Echoes" essay. While I still feel convinced that P/B style hocket/interlock represents the earliest musical stratum of both Africa and Europe, there is no question that drone polyphony is also a very old tradition, of great importance in many parts of the world. As we'll see, both types of polyphony play an important role in . . . Well, I'm running out of steam at this point, so will leave this sentence hanging till next time.

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