Thursday, April 10, 2008

146. Music of the Great Tradition -- 46. Europe

In the last several posts I've been discussing some different, but nevertheless closely related, hypotheses: 1. considerable evidence points to the survival, mostly in remote "refuge" areas, of various so-called "Old European" oral traditions of polyphonic vocalizing, possibly dating, as convincingly argued by Jordania, to the Neolithic or earlier, almost certainly antedating the largely monophonic/unison "mainstream" oral vocal traditions now dominating the continent, which appear to have originated in western and/or central Asia; 2. the most unusual of these traditions, represented by a type of complex and highly distinctive "contrapuntal" vocalizing, typically featuring practices such as hocket/interlock, stimmtauch, canon, ostinato, and in some cases yodel or falsetto, would appear, due to its wide (though also rather sparse) diffusion throughout the continent, to antedate the other polyphonic vocal traditions, all of which have more limited distributions; 3. the earliest notated polyphony of the medieval church and monastery may have originated in attempts by the clergy to incorporate and adapt various types of traditional oral polyphony, as described in both 1 and 2 above, encountered among certain autochthonous populations while missionizing in remote areas; 4. the "contrapuntal" tradition considered above as possibly the oldest in Europe, due to its widespread though discontinuous distribution in that continent, has, in addition, very distinctive characteristics suggesting that it could be truly archaic, a survival from the earliest migration(s) "Out of Africa" during the Upper Paleolithic.

Strictly speaking, each of the above can be treated as independent of the other. We don't need to establish an African link to postulate either an ancient tradition of polyphonic vocalizing in "Old Europe" or a possible connection between such a tradition and the origins of polyphony in the medieval church. As Jordania has demonstrated, there is more than enough evidence within Europe itself for the survival of an "Old European" strain of polyphonic vocalizing. And as I hope I have demonstrated, with supporting testimony from music historians such as Bukofzer, Dalglish and Burstyn, there is ample evidence within Europe itself for linking medieval hocket, stimmtauch, round and canon with certain oral traditions reported in the past and still being practiced today.

What's truly remarkable, however, is that some of the strongest and most convincing points of similarity lie not within Europe, but between Europe and Africa -- more precisely, between what appears to be the oldest surviving musical practice in Europe (the "contrapuntal" style referenced in point 2 above) and the highly distinctive Pygmy/Bushmen style (P/B) I've been pointing to as the most likely source of a worldwide "African signature." For example, the Russian panpipers recorded by Velitchkina sound closer, according to Velitchkina herself, to certain examples of African piping than anything to be found in Europe. Compare this recording from Plekhovo, Russia, for example, with this, of Ouldeme pipers from the Mandara Mountains of Cameroon. Less striking, but nevertheless compelling, is the remarkable structural similarity between the Sumer Canon, as sung by St. George's Canzona, and a "round" sung by this group of Mbuti Pygmy women: Amabele-o-i-ye. Would it be too much of a stretch to compare this perhaps somewhat over-refined head-tone performance of a Medieval hocket, HoquetusMusicalisSciencia-SciencieLaudabili, with a more straightforwardly sung example of Ju/'hoansi Bushmen yodeled hocket, from the village of Dobe? We have already had occasion to compare -- in post 138 --some notated examples of Medieval hocket/interlock with a remarkably similar example of African instrumental hocket provided by Nketia. The resemblances are striking, as a visit to post 138 will demonstrate.

So, yes, I do think there is a case to be made for a "Great Tradition" with roots in Paleolithic Africa, and branches in, among other places, Europe -- leading us all the way from what may well be the most archaic musical tradition of that continent to the origins of notated polyphony in the Middle Ages -- which in turn forms the root of both the "popular" and "classical" traditions of our own time.

However, the situation is not quite as simple and straightforward as it might seem, in the admittedly somewhat biased manner I've been presenting it up to now. Because there is an important practice I haven't yet considered, that isn't so easily explained by my "Great Tradition" hypothesis. As Jordania's study makes clear, the most commonly encountered type of traditional vocal polyphony in Europe is not counterpoint, but a somewhat different practice of great interest and importance that he discusses in some detail: drone polyphony. And the problem for me is that drone polyphony, while common in a great many "refuge" areas of Europe, is in fact not at all typical for Africa south of the Sahara, and in all likelihood did not originate there.

(To be continued.)

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