Wednesday, April 23, 2008

150. Music of the Great Tradition -- 50:Drone

Of all the various types of polyphonic vocalizing characteristic of what I've been calling "Old Europe," drone polyphony would seem to be the only one bearing no trace of the "African signature" I've been associating with the "Great Tradition." While "heterophonic" polyphony (see "stratum" no. 2 in the previous post) doesn't seem to be particularly common in Africa, its conflation of heterophonic and polyphonic elements does in fact reflect an important and highly distinctive feature of P/B, suggesting that it could be a European variant with African roots. The simpler types of parallel motion or descant polyphony described in "strata" 3 and 4 below are commonly found in various African Bantu traditions, usually associated with "call and response" interactions of a type also not uncommon in "Old Europe," suggesting either a direct influence from Africa or, more likely, musical "mutation" along parallel lines, possibly reflecting the effects of separate population bottlenecks at different times on both continents. (For an explanation of bottlenecks and musical "mutations" see post 17, "The Bottleneck.")

Drone polyphony, on the other hand, doesn't seem to share any distinctive characteristics with P/B or any other typically African practice. That's not to say it can't be found in sub-Saharan Africa at all -- certain groups, notably the Bahima and Massai, vocalize using drone effects. But judging from its relatively sparse distribution on this continent, the practice is likely to have developed many thousands of years after the "Out of Africa" migration that led to the initial population of Europe with "modern" humans.

This might not, at first, appear to be such a terrible conundrum. After all, drone is only a single trait, while the various styles I've been tracking on this blog have usually been defined as composites of two or more inter-related traits. It's not difficult to see how, as a single, isolated feature, drone might well have been "independently invented" more than once and for various perfectly understandable reasons. After all, by having most of the singers intone one or two basic pitches over and over again, it's possible to produce the euphonious effects of polyphony among groups with relatively little interest in -- or talent for -- harmonization. Or, as Jordania has suggested, drone could have developed in some instances as a hybrid, combining the polyphonic proclivities of established "Old Europeans" with the elaborated melodic development favored by west Asiatic invaders. A somewhat similar encounter could have led to the development of drone polyphony in the Medieval church, where, in this case, the "drone" part carries the original chant melody (most likely reflecting the influence of the "Eastern" church) as a "cantus firmus," in juxtaposition with "Old European" style elaborated counterpoints above and around it, as, for example, in the work of Perotin and the Ars Antiqua style generally.

Such explanations may well account for the presence of drone polyphony in many parts of Europe and, indeed, many other places in the world where drone of one type or another can be found. So far so good. No problem.

The real difficulty arises due to the presence of certain polyphonic traditions where drone is only one element in a rare complex of traits defining a highly distinctive, easily identifiable style, a unique approach to drone polyphony usually associated with certain mountainous regions of the Balkans, best known due to the enormous popularity of a CD entitled Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares.

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