Thursday, February 21, 2008

131. Music of the Great Tradition -- 31:Old Europe -- More Examples

Here are some more examples of "Old European" polyphonic vocalizing, from "refuge" areas in Eastern and Southern Europe. First, some truly remarkable harmonizations from the Tosk speakers of the southern Albanian mountains (from the Anthology Of World Music: Music From Albania). Here's another, simpler, example from the same region, in two parts, one of which is a sustained drone. Note the amazingly virtuosic glottal embellishment of the solo singer, so remarkably close to yodel (from Voices of the World).

Also from the Voices of the World collection, is this example of polyphonic vocalizing from the Mediterranean island of Corsica, followed by an example from the island just to the south, Sardinia.

While each of the various regions whose music we've been examining in this series has its own unique style, all are examples of singing in harmony by untrained singers from "backwoods" areas, in mountain and/or island locations. In almost all cases, there is no evidence that any of these singers have had much if any exposure to art music. Some traditions are, however, associated with Christian liturgy and the church, as in the Sardinian example. I'll have more to say about the relation between these traditions and aspects of church music in future posts.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

130. Music of the Great Tradition -- 30:Old Europe -- Liguria

A remarkable tradition of contrapuntal vocal polyphony, known as "Trallalero," survives in the mountainous region of northern Italy known as Liguria, situated between the southern Alps, the Appenines, and the Mediterranean Sea. Though Alan Lomax and his Italian collaborator, Diego Carpitella, were the first ethnomusicologists to record Tralalero performances, the tradition has a long and somewhat complicated history, part "folk," part "classical," part "popular." Though fully aware of this history, Lomax was nevertheless convinced of the tradition's roots in antiquity, relating it to "the ancient Slavic drone style," arguing that "polyphony using intervals of thirds and fifths was a folk development of the Alpine regions of Europe, almost certainly antedating its adoption by the fine arts composers in the courts and cities." For more information on this fascinating music, I refer you to the excellent notes by Goffredo Plastino, Edward Neill and Lomax himself, in the CD The Trallaleri of Genoa (from the Alan Lomax collection, produced by Rounder Records).

Here's a clip from the first track of this recording, La Partenza (the parting), and my transcription of the first 11 measures (double click on the score to enlarge it):

While this is clearly in a hybrid style, with elements suggesting classical and/or popular melody and harmony, dating, as Lomax has noted, to certain genres popular since the Renaissance, we must remember that it is being sung by untrained "folk" musicians -- longshoremen, in fact -- who migrated from the surrounding mountains to the city of Genoa in search of work. It's easy to assume such harmonies must be the product of "modern" influences, but this is far from clear, especially given the long and complex history of mutual influence, back and forth, between "folk" and "classical" traditions during all phases of European history, from the Middle Ages to the present. I'll have more to say about this history in future posts.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

129. Music of the Great Tradition -- 29:Old Europe -- The Swiss Alps

In America, yodelling is popularly associated with the Alps and Switzerland. The prevailing theory is that it has something to do with individual herders calling out from one peak to another, as though its orgins lay in purely practical concerns. (The common tendency to interpret various traditional practices as pragmatic responses to environmental or social challenges is what could be called the "folklorist fallacy" -- a similar set of assumptions became the basis for the "functionalist" school of anthropology.)

In his recently published book, Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World, Bart Plantenga presents a very interesting and amusing "Summary of Origin Theories and Cultural Strategies" associated with yodelling (p. 24). Noting that neither the "echo theory," the "affect theory," the "Alphorn imitation theory," the "phonation theory," the "race theory," the "shout theory," the "magic theory," the "need to communicate over great distances," theory, nor the "basic human need to be musical" theory are completely convincing, he is most sympathetic to a theory offered by a man named Leuthold, who argues that yodelling is among the earliest musical activities of humankind, a practice related to the "development of early language awareness in small children." Perhaps. Though the yowling I've heard from small children sounds a lot more like -- well -- yowling, than anything resembling yodel.

I agree that yodeling probably does go back to our earliest musical efforts, but for reasons very different from those of Leuthold (see posts 21-24, from June, 2007). With Jordania, I see the yodelling of the Alpine herders as part of the same set of Old European traditions highlighted by Gimbutas -- i.e., as associated with the survival of an old, autochthonous, pre-IndoEuropean polyphonic tradition, ultimately originating in the yodelled P/B style polyphony of the earliest "Out of Africa" migrants.

Tragically, the truly magical polyphonic yodelling tradition of the alpine herders has been almost completely supplanted by a virtuosic solo tradition that has, very sadly, become popular in some of its most embarrassingly cornball manifestations. (There does seem to be an ancient solo yodelling tradition, by the way, that can be traced back to the reindeer "herders" of paleolithic Europe and remains alive among the Saami of Lapland and the Paleosiberians of northern Asia. Many variants of this tradition can be found in Europe and also the Americas -- e.g., the "cowboys" -- where it is almost always associated with herding. IMO this tradition can also be rooted in the "Out of Africa" migration tree, though via a different branch.)

Fortunately, some excellent examples of Swiss alpine polyphony have been recorded, initially by the pioneering Romanian ethnomusicologist, Constantine Brailoiu, and more recently by Hugo Zemp, released some years ago as part of the anthology Voices of the World: Appenzell-Yodel, Zauerli.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

128. Music of the Great Tradition -- 28:Old Europe -- Lithuania

An especially interesting type of Old European polyphony, the sutartine, can be found in the Aukštaitija (literally, "highlands") region of Lithuania. An informative discussion of the various forms of sutartine, with some very useful audio clips and transcriptions, can be found on a website devoted to Lithuanian folklore, compiled by Skirmantė Valiulytė.

Most sutartines take the form of canons or rounds, usually in two contrapuntal parts, though they can be sung, or played, by two, three or four performers. Here's a transcription, from Valiulytė's website, of a particularly interesting three voice example, Turėja liepa, lioj taduvėla:

Here's an excerpt from the audio clip on the same web page: Tureja liepa. As with the examples from Russia (see previous post), there are many striking similarities with aspects of P/B style, as enumerated in posts 103 and 104, below. In this instance: interlocking or interweaving parts, producing a "contrapuntal" effect; cyclic structure -- most vocalizing in both traditions is based on an underlying, regularly repeating, rhythmic cycle of anywhere from 4 to 16 "beats"; conflation of polyphony and heterophony; temporal displacement -- notes, motives or phrases can be displaced in time, to produce an echo or canonic effect; repetition; unification of musical space -- melodic lines and harmonies are tonally unified in that both employ intervals of the second -- dissonances produced by simultaneous seconds are a distinctive feature of the sutartine style; continuous flow -- though the underlying cyclic structure is based on what could be called a melody or phrase, the polyphonic foreground lacks any clear melodic sense of direction, nor are phrases articulated by cadences, as in most other types of music, either tribal, folk or otherwise. Instead there is usually a continuous flow of unarticulated, interwoven motives, to produce the musical equivalent of a "run on sentence."

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

127. Music of the Great Tradition -- 27:Old Europe -- Plekhovo

One of the most remarkable of all "Old European" polyphonic survivals is presented -- and analyzed -- in an excellent essay I've referenced a few times already in this blog, The Role of Movement in Russian Panpipe Playing, by Olga Velitchkina, as published in the Internet journal, Ethnomusicology Online. In the introductory section, she presents a brief video clip of three Russian women from the village of Plekhovo singing and playing together with unbound panpipes. (You may need to click on this QuickTime video twice before it starts.)


Velitchkina presents a transcription of a "duet" from this repertoire, clearly demonstrating how intricately the vocal and instrumental parts interweave:Here is her recording of the first performer's part, as shown on staves a (vocal) and b (pipe): Veltichkina-Audio9. As Velitchkina notes, the transcription is a bit misleading, as the performers never sing and play at exactly the same time. A more detailed transcription would make the basis in hocketing even more evident. Note also the delicate balance between polyphony and heterophony, especially evident in measure two. Another remarkable point of similarity between this tradition and the African models I've been pointing to, is the cyclic organization of these pieces into distinct periods. Moreover, as Velitchina's analysis makes clear, variation from one period to the next is an important element in this style, as it is in P/B. Many other points of similarity with P/B, as already enumerated below, in posts 103 and 104, are evident from both the recordings and her analysis.

Velitchkina herself makes the point that "[o]n first listening, this music seems closer to African forms (for example, to the Ba-Benzele pygmy music) than to any European folk instrument traditions." Here is an example of Ba-Benzele hocketed vocalizing with pipes, for comparison: Song After Returning from a Hunt. Here's an even closer example, from the Ouldeme people of the Mandara Mountain region of Cameroon (another typical "refuge" area): Ouldeme Pipes. To me, the resemblance with the Russian pipers is uncanny.