Tuesday, April 8, 2008

145. Music of the Great Tradition -- 45:Europe

Before proceeding, it's necessary to point out certain problems with some of the "contrapuntal" traditions listed in the previous post. The Ligurian "Trallalero" sounds in some ways like the product of more "modern" developments, and indeed appears to have a history associating it with popular Genoese tavern music of the 19th century. As I see it, such repertoires are rarely if ever invented out of whole cloth, especially where untrained singers are involved, but including it in my survey might be a bit of a stretch, I admit. The Algarve fishermen's song is one of a kind, the only example I know of from this tradition, which makes it somewhat difficult to assess. Moreover, the Algarve region, located on the Portugese coast, is neither mountainous nor forested, nor is it an island or desert, thus hardly a "refuge" area of the type pointed to by Jordania. As the Algarve has a long history of both trade with and invasion by outside groups, including the Phoenicians, the Visigoths and the Moors, the fishermen's song could, for all we know, represent an imported tradition, rather than something native to the Iberian peninsula. To more fully assess its meaning, we would need more information regarding the history and origin of the Algarve fishermen and their culture.

Admittedly, the oral contrapuntal vocal traditions of Europe are relatively few, far between, and in some cases problematic. As I see it, what makes them especially meaningful nevertheless, in addition to their wide distribution in so many isolated pockets of the continent, is the presence, in one form or the other, of what I've called the "African signature." Thus, not only is the "interrupted distribution" (see post 143) of these closely related (see post 144) traditions throughout the continent in itself suggestive of great age (see the argument presented in post 143 and the quotation from Sapir), but the many tantalizing points of similarity with Africa -- specifically, the hocketed and yodelled run-on counterpoint so characteristic of P/B style -- raise the very interesting, though certainly controversial, possibility of an origin dating all the way back to the earliest migrations of "modern" humans into Europe during the Upper Paleolithic.

It might be a good idea, at this point, to revisit Nketia's skeptical remarks (as quoted in post 139) regarding the possibility of anyone drawing precisely this type of inference:

We are told by some historians that in Western music the hocket was a device -- indeed some of them describe it as a naive device-which showed itself in two forms: (a)in the form of interspersed breaks in one voice accompanied by semibreve movement in the other parts, or (b) in the form of divisions of a melody between two voices. The latter it is said, is to be found mainly in theoretical treatises rather than in actual music. There was a certain arbitrariness in the use of this device, but we learn that it was "a genuine attempt to obtain that particular emphasis of rhythm which is now styled staccato." . . .

In African music practice, the hocket is not merely a device but a technique of building up single or parallel linear structures in various types of interlocking patterns. The hockets are not arbitrary artistic devices; they are functional, in the sense that they arise out of melodic and polyphonic considerations. They are often a means to an end, not an end in themselves, and are used for achieving overall effects of continuity, for building up interlocking, and sometimes complex structures, out of relatively simple elements (ibid., pp. 51-52).

Nketia dismisses the use of hocket in Western music as a mere "device," "to be found mainly in theoretical treatises." As we have learned, this is most certainly not the case. As Dalglish and others have demonstrated, hocket was an especially important and indeed pervasive feature of both Ars Antiqua and Ars Nova polyphony. The preposterous notion that hocket originated as some sort of attempt to produce "what is now styled staccato" is no doubt a reflection of the difficulty so many musicologists have had in accounting for the existence of a practice that appears so odd and so out of place in the context of their expectations regarding the liturgical music of the time. There is nothing in what Nketia says about African hocket in the last paragraph that could not also be said about European hocket, both oral and notated. The notion that the European hocket was "merely a device" is an unwarranted and incorrect assumption. To my knowledge, Nketia never made any serious attempt to study this practice outside of Africa, in "the West" or anywhere else, so his comments may well be pure speculation.

To be fair, at the time Nketia wrote this essay there was no reason to associate African and European traditions of any kind, since there was no basis for connecting the history of the two continents at so early a period, or, indeed, at any time prior to it. Almost all archaeologists and paleontologists were in agreement that Africa and Europe had entirely different histories, with Europeans in all likelihood descended from earlier pre-homosapiens humans from the same continent, either identical with or closely related to European Neanderthals. Our picture of world prehistory has now changed, so radically and so abruptly that many anthropologists, not to mention musicologists, remain either unware or in a state of confusion regarding the most recent findings and the profound implications they bring with them.

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