Monday, March 31, 2008

142. Music of the Great Tradition -- 42:Hocket

Follow the evidence! And there certainly is evidence, as we have seen. The most important pieces of evidence, from a medieval historian's viewpoint, are undoubtedly the various types of round, canon, stimmtauch and hocket, as found (or reported) in various oral traditions in various parts of Europe, and certain similarly organized examples of early notated polyphony, as found in manuscripts from monastaries and churches in Western Europe and Britain (see previous posts). From the broader standpoint of the comparative musicologist, the strong resemblances between certain examples from both traditions and certain basic features of African music, especially the Pygmy/Bushmen tradition I've been focusing on, are of special interest and potentially far greater importance.

But what are we to make of such similarities? Isn't it possible to simply sift through the repertoires of various traditions that interest us, looking for similarities that could prove our point and overlooking differences that could undermine it? This sort of strategy, often ridiculed as "cherry picking," has been used to "prove" all sorts of dubious theories. To meaningfully "follow the evidence," therefore, we must first of all not fall in love with any particular theory simply because it appeals to us or seems "logical" and "reasonable." And second of all we must make every attempt to critically evaluate the evidence we are considering, to be sure we are not simply cherrypicking the "best" bits and tossing all else aside.

While clearly the notion of a "Great Tradition," as I've been describing it here, appeals to me, it may surprise you to learn that I am not in love with it -- and am perfectly willing to admit I could be wrong. What's most important about such a theory, as I see it, is not whether it is "true" in some literal, absolute sense, but the extent to which it can be profitably explored -- and whether or not it can be tested. And one of things I like about the ways in which comparative musicology can be conducted in the 21st Century is that certain things that in the past were only a matter of conjecture can in fact, for the first time -- to some degree at least -- be put to some sort of meaningful test. For one thing, there are many more recordings, field studies and regional overviews available than ever before and, thanks to the Internet, much of this is now easily accessible. For another thing, we have, in the form of the Cantometrics methodology, a tool that enables us to take both similarities and differences into account, and on a wide range of possibilities, from the local to the regional to the global. Finally, thanks to dramatic advances in the understanding of our DNA, we can check certain musical hypotheses against the findings of anthropological genetics.

From our standpoint at present, the most important regional overview can be found in the recently published book from which I've so often been quoting, by Joseph Jordania. And one of the most insightful quotes from Jordania's book may well be the following:

Most importantly, there is one very important common feature that unites most of the European polyphonic traditions. Mountains, large forests, islands- these are all geophically isolated regions. . . This fact suggests that mountains do not help to create polyphony . . . but as geographically isolated regions, they help polyphony and other elements of the culture to survive [212-213].

Thus, what is most significant about the comparisons I've been drawing between certain examples from contemporary "folk" traditions and other examples from historical sources, is that, in almost every case, the "folk" examples are drawn from oral traditions associated with exactly the sort of "isolated regions" pointed to by Jordania. The musical traditions we have been examining, therefore, have not simply been "cherry picked" from wherever I've been able to find some sort of music that "sounds right," but represent very specific practices to be found in very specific regions of the continent, regions that can, indeed, be associated with what Gimbutas referred to as "Old Europe." When we find this sort of pattern, with a clearly identifiable, highly distinctive, practice found widely dispersed throughout some of the most marginalized, isolated regions of an immense territory, it seems likely that the practice in question must at one time have been far more widespread, and what we now find are variants, surviving in what can only be called "refuge areas."

Sunday, March 30, 2008

141. Music of the Great Tradition -- 41:Hocket

My motto in dealing with fundamental issues such as similarity vs. difference; the superficial vs. the meaningful; what is likely, what is unlikely, etc.; is very simple: follow the evidence. In that spirit, let's continue our survey of various types of hocket, both Medieval and not, with the focus, this time, on listening.

Here are two clips from the CD Monastic Chant -- 12th & 13th C. European Sacred Music, as performed by the Hilliard Ensemble. First, from Hocquetus 'Mediolano' Sanctus. Second, from HoquetusMusicalisSciencia-SciencieLaudabili. In both cases, the hocketing is intermittent -- and relatively simple, with notes from a single melody alternating between the two upper voices. It's worth noting that in both cases the hocketed segments are melodically disjunct in a manner roughly consistent with P/B hocket. Moreover, as the Hilliard singers employ a remarkably pure headtone, this performance has a quality surprisingly close to P/B style yodeling.

Of special interest for several reasons is an anonymous three voice motet from the Montpellier Codex, dating from 13th Century France: Amor Potest. Here's how the opening looks (as transcribed by N. Nakamura, from the Maucamedus website):

While the opening is not (yet) hocketed, it exhibits at least three traits characteristic of both certain types of European "folk" polyphony and P/B: 1. The use of voice-exchange (stimmtauch), a device not unusual for Medieval polyphony (but common also in the oral traditions of both Europe and Africa), in which the highest part is alternately sung by each of the two voices, which regularly cross one another. Compare with stimmtauch as expressed in the Lithuanian sutartines Mano vainikas and Ko tu kad berželi. Continual part-crossing of this kind can produce resultant effects strikingly similar to those of hocket. 2. The design of the lowermost "tenor" part, continually repeating the same three notes to produce an ostinato effect, similar to both the lowermost pes of the Sumer canon and certain types of African polyphony, both vocal and instrumental. 3. The continual repetition, with variation, in the piece as a whole, characteristic of both "Old European" folk polyphony (viz. the above mentioned sutartines) and many types of African music generally.

The repetition becomes especially prominent in the concluding section, characterized by continuous interlocked hocketing in the two upper parts (reproduced here from the same source as above):

The following clip (from the CD set Music of the Gothic Era) begins just prior to the segment notated above): Amor Potest (conclusion).

In the light of everything we've been discussing thus far, especially Shai Burstyn's remarkably apt invocation of Giraldus Cambrensis (see below), it's difficult to see Amor Potest as other than either a transcription or adaptation of some sort of oral "folk" polyphony, more or less along the lines of the Sumer canon, only this time with the vernacular text completely replaced by a more acceptable one, in Latin. There is certainly very little trace of the learned (two syllables) in this work, with its many blatant voice leading "errors," obsessive repetition of brief motives, and continuous "run-on" phrasing, with no cadences whatsoever during the entire last section until the very end. The last two are especially interesting as they invoke not only the varied repetition and continuous vocalizing so characteristic of P/B, but also certain aspects of the practice of Leoninus and Perotinus, the two leading "learned" composers of 12th and 13th century Europe. Note also the tendency, found throughout this repertoire, to present hocketed segments without text, using only meaningless vocables, again remarkably close to Pygmy/Bushmen norms. So common was this practice in Medieval music that some scholars have simply assumed most hockets must have been intended for instruments alone.

Compare the ending of Amor Potest with the stimmtauch, hocket, repetition, "run-on" phrasing, nonsense vocables -- and yodeling -- to be heard in the conclusion of the Georgian work song already presented in an earlier post, as sung by the Rustavi Choir: Garuli Naduri. Compare also with an equally remarkable example from the opposite end of Europe, the coastal Algarve region of Portugal -- a traditional song sung by fishermen as they pull up their nets, characterized also by stimmtauch, hocket, repetition, vocables and continual, run-on phrasing: Leva-Leva. (From Smithsonian Folkways, Anthology of Portuguese Music, Vol. 1: Tras-Os-Montes and Vol. 2: Algarve.)

140. Music of the Great Tradition -- 40:Hocket

In his essay on African hocket, Nketia goes out of his way to make the sort of point that, for almost all the musicologists of his day, both "ethno" and "historical," amounted to a creed: thou shalt not equate musical traditions from different places (or times) simply because they happen to sound (or look) alike. Thus, Nketia feels compelled to write that he has "been guided merely by a resemblance between this procedure in African music and a practice in Medieval European music to which the term originally referred. It is not implied that there is any direct historical connection between them" (ibid., p. 51). He then continues (see last post), giving several reasons why African and Medieval hocket must be regarded as fundamentally separate and distinct, with little to no possible historical connection.

The basic injunction is sound. One must certainly avoid making too much of what might well be superficial similarities. But the methodology necessary for critically examining such similarities to determine whether they are, indeed, superficial -- or not -- has for a great many years been actively discouraged. I'm talking, of course, about comparative musicology (not to mention Cantometrics). Nketia was already going way out on a limb, even in 1962, in claiming that essentially the same procedure could be "commonly found in African musical practice" generally. To go on to even consider the possibility that African and Medieval European hocket could have common roots would have been entirely too much.

As far as Ethnomusicology is concerned, the situation has only worsened over the years, to the point that all but the most narrowly focused comparative research is rarely seen anymore. However, the situation with respect to the rest of the world has changed. Dramatically! Thanks largely to important breakthroughs in anthropological genetics, all sorts of possibilities for considering and reconsidering various similarities and patterns -- of social structure, archaeology, culture, language, etc. -- have arisen and are being enthusiastically explored. Only musicology is lagging behind, saddled with dogmas that have become hopelessly outdated and clearly irrelevant.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

139. Music of the Great Tradition -- 39:Hocket

No one got it. (Admittedly I didn't allow much time, sorry.) That last example is from Africa, transcribed by J. H. Kwabena Nketia, in an essay highlighting the extraordinarily widespread use of hocket in that continent: "The Hocket-Technique in African Music" (Journal of the International Folk Music Council, Vol. 14. (1962), p. 47).
An illustration of the hocket-technique as used in Ghana in the music of flute ensembles is provided by an extract from a recording of the Builsa who live in the Upper Region of Ghana. In this particular ensemble, three short notched flutes are used, all of them with two or three finger holes. They are graded in pitch, so that one can speak of treble, alto and tenor flutes (ibid., p. 46).
As is evident from both this example and several of the medieval examples in the previous post, it's not always easy to distinguish hocketing from the interlocking of parts, and often the distinction simply breaks down. In some cases, hocket manifests itself in an extreme form, where each voice or instrument contributes only one note at a time, as in the first example from the previous post or, to invoke a more commonly known practice of today, a bell choir. In other cases, the interaction can be more complex. Often there is a tendency to break up not simply the melody, but the musical texture as a whole, in an interplay of tightly coordinated interweaving parts, to produce a characteristic overall effect often described as a resultant.
In any music in which the principle here discussed is applied in whole or in part, the resultant -- a complex of pitch- or tone-contrasts in a defined sequence, operating within the framework of an equally defined pattern of rhythm -- is of particular importance. Each player must have both a general awareness of the resultant, as well as the knack of coming in at the right moment. . .
Analysis of music employing the hocket-technique-whether in its simple or
more elaborate forms-must emphasize the resultant (or groups of resultants) by showing the interdependence of the separate instruments or the links, both horizontal and vertical, which bind them into an integrated whole (ibid., p. 51).
Nketia goes on to add the following very interesting comments, reflecting both an awareness of the striking resemblance to European medieval traditions and a skepticism regarding its meaning that was typical for his time -- and remains typical today. Since he raises an issue fundamental to the whole question underlying my very different notion of a "great tradition," it's important to quote him at length:
In conclusion, the concern of this paper has been to demonstrate the "interlocking" principle, so commonly found in African musical practice, and based on the use of hockets. In adopting the term hocket for describing the examples discussed here, I have been guided merely by a resemblance between this procedure in African music and a practice in Medieval European music to which the term originally referred. It is not implied that there is any direct historical connection between them. Moreover, a difference both in attitude to the hocket and in its application is discernible between the two hocket-traditions. 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).

Monday, March 24, 2008

138. Music of the Great Tradition -- 38:Medieval Hocket

I left off last time with a cliffhanger, which I will now proceed to complete: "The whole question of hocket, its origins and the reason for its existence would seem to be a complete and total mystery, unless . . ." unless hocket represented an attempt to incorporate certain traditional "Old European" musical practices of the peasantry into the mainstream liturgical repertory. This isn't very different from the explanation offered by Burstyn with regard to the Sumer canon, which also, as he argues, is likely to have roots in polyphonic traditions already popular in the back streets and countryside. This would explain the continual complaints on the part of so many church leaders, as though hocketing represented the encroachment of an alien and uncouth "popular" element into the sanctum of serious church worship.

Now might be a good time to consider some specific examples of what I've been talking about (the images will be expanded if you click on them). First, from the "Orb" website, on the Medieval Hocket, by Mary Wolinski, an excerpt from the Conductus, Dic Christi Veritas:

In this simple type of note-by-note hocket (center of the page), it's easy to see how the melody, b-d-d-e-d-c-e-e-c-c-d, is divided between the two alternating upper voices.

Here are some examples of more complex types of hocket, from Earnest H. Sanders' "The Medieval Hocket in Practice and Theory," (The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 2., Apr., 1974, p. 247.):

As illustrated above, hocket is not limited to a simple note-by-note interchange of parts, but can in many cases involve the closely co-ordinated polyphonic interlocking of brief motives between two (or more) parts.

Compare the above with the following:

In this case, I've removed the pipe parts from Olga Velitchkina's transcription of two Russian panpipers singing as they play, from the village of Plekhovo, as presented in an earlier post (#127). Focusing exclusively on the vocal parts, we can more easily see how they exemplify both types of hocket presented above, the note-by-note type and the motivic interlock type.

Let's consider as well the following example of interlocking hocket, this time in three parts:

I wonder if there are any musicologists out there who'd be able to figure out where this one is from? Anyone out there who'd care to venture a guess before I reveal my source?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

137. Music of the Great Tradition -- 37:Medieval Hocket

One of the most mysterious and controversial elements of Medieval European "professional polyphony," both then and now, was the practice known as "hocket." Even the term itself is controversial. Some believe it to be derived from the French word for "hiccup," others from the Arabic iqā'āt or al-quat', meaning "cutting," and others from the Latin occare, meaning to harrow or break off. Regardless of its derivation, the term was widely used from the 13th Century on to designate a type of musical composition or performance characterized by the breaking up of a melodic phrase into two or more short interlocking or interweaving segments, to produce the disjointed and disconcerting "hiccup" effect that most likely gave it its name.

In the staid, sober context of Medieval liturgical music, the odd, syncopated, "jazzy" effects of hocket would seem to have been out of place, to say the least. And there were, indeed, a great many complaints, throughout the period, from clerics who descried it as "flippant, uncouth" and even "depraved." Nevertheless, the practice was popular and the works of a great many of the most notable 13th and 14th century composers were replete with hockets and hocket-ridden passages.

In the words of William Dalglish, the hocket
was not, as some modern writers have intimated, a technique of purely subordinate import. Indeed, in certain music of the late ars antiqua, its use bespeaks a degree of ingenuity and sophistication rivaled only by the isorhythmic motet in its most advanced development. To misunderstand the hocket is to overlook much of significance concerning the craft of composition and the art of improvisation in the music of medieval Europe ["The Hocket in Medieval Polyphony," The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 3. (Jul., 1969), p. 344].
While the hocket has often been treated in the context of "learned" (two syllables) composition, as an exploration of certain rhythmic possibilities opened by new developments in notation, its origin, according to Dalglish, was not due to the efforts of trained composers, but more likely stemmed from an older tradition of "improvisation":
[M]y intention is to demonstrate something of the probable importance of improvisation in the musical life of the Middle Ages by establishing that hockets were first extemporized by singers and only later written down by composers ["The Origin of Hocket," Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 31, no. 1, spring 1978].

Dalglish doesn't make clear exactly what he means by "improvisation," nor does he make much of an effort to explain who the "singers" were or why they might be interested in improvising hocketed passages. The whole question of hocket, its origins and the reason for its existence would seem to be a complete and total mystery, unless . . .

Monday, March 17, 2008

136. Music of the Great Tradition -- 36:Grounded Rounds

As Shai Burstyn's essay (see previous post) raises issues of special relevance to the traditions I've been exploring, I'll be rooting around in his text just a bit more. Though his background is traditional historical musicology, not ethnomusicology, he demonstrates an awareness of the "ethnic" context that I find especially heartening:
Examples of Malakkan music making, among others, show that canonic singing, harmonically reducible to a stationary triad, is prevalent in non-European cultures. Some medieval European examples exhibit related traits. Rounds may be found in contemporary European folk polyphony, such as the East Lithuanian sutartine. It is therefore arbitrary to argue the unique historical position of Sumer on the ground of the fortuitous hard fact that it is the only such composition we possess. Since Gerald specifically defines Welsh and Northumbrian polyphonic singing as indigenous, attempts to elucidate his meaning must assume an oral tradition and should also consider the possibility of improvisation [p. 140].
Since Burstyn mentions the Sutartine, let's take this opportunity to compare some examples with the Sumer canon. While the Lithuanian rounds aren't exactly improvised, they are certainly excellent examples of an oral polyphonic tradition as rooted in peasant life as the music so colorfully described by Burstyn's Gerald. The sutartine Išjos brolutėlis is considerably simpler -- and also more dissonant -- than the Sumer canon, but the basic idea seems quite similar. I'll refer you to the website created by Skirmantė Valiulytė, where it has a page of its own, complete with both notation and audio clip. Here's another example, from the same website: Ko tu kad berželi. The notation is a bit tricky to decipher, since it's the melody on the second staff that takes the lead.

If the Sumer canon, with all its many ramifications for the history of early "Western" polyphony, can be related so convincingly to "Old European" traditions in Wales and Lithuania, can we take things a step farther by going all the way back to the (alleged) roots of the (alleged) "Great Tradition" in Africa? In other words, can anything similar be found among the Pygmies and Bushmen? Do they too sing canonically, in something resembling a round? My answer is simple: yes, of course they do. Here's one example of a Pygmy "round," sung by three Mbuti women, as recorded in the Ituri Forest by Hugh Tracey: Amabele-o-i-ye. (From the CD, On the Edge of the Ituri Forest, SWP 009/HT 03). (Be patient, as it takes a little while for the round "proper" to begin, on the words Amabele-o-i-ye.) The Bushmen can also sing canonically, as in the following example, as transcribed by Nicholas England [“Bushman Counterpoint,” Journal of the International Folk Music Council 19, 1967].
The Bushmen example is particularly interesting, as the second part responds at the interval of a fourth below, in a form that music theorists would call a "tonal" answer, something encountered far more often in "learned" (two syllables) music than anywhere in the oral tradition. Note also the presence, on line three, of a pes, i.e., an independent part "grounding" the canon much as the pes does in the Sumer example.

I'll leave you for now with Burstyn's remarkably perceptive concluding remarks:
In spite of accumulating research concerning the relations between non-learned oral and learned written musical traditions in the middle ages, major reference works and recent histories of Western music still betray, by and large, a strong bias towards reliance solely upon the written sources. As is becoming increasingly clear, this stance is bound to leave unanswered many crucial questions relating to the influence of medieval oral musical traditions on the written heritage, and to afford only partial, possibly distorted, understanding of the documented music.

Handschin recognized that Sumer, "not being in the line of 'normal' evolution as reflected by musical theory, cannot exclusively be subjected to criteria taken from this quarter."' F urthermore, he made the correct assessment that "try as we may to insert the Summer Canon into the historical process, some degree of isolation will remain in any case... because.. .our historical knowledge is beset with gaps, and this most of all in the domain from which the Summer Canon comes, i.e., that of nonlearned [two syllables] music." Recognizing the paramount importance of non-learned traditions for a better historical understanding of medieval music may, through closer attention to the methods and findings of ethnomusicology, lead in time to answers to vexing questions concerning the origins of chordal formulations and the detailed ways in which chordal perception came to be expressed in harmonically-pregnant melodic formulas.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

135. Music of the Great Tradition -- 35:Spring has come!

"Sumer" was apparently the word for "spring" in the Wessex dialect of Middle English. And "is" meant something closer to the German "ist" than the English "is." So "sumer is icumen in" actually means something like "Spring is come." I.e., "Spring has come." And since spring actually has come. Or soon will -- when it gets just a bit warmer . . . (sigh) -- I decided to make that my heading for today.

This well-known and often debated 13th Century "rota" is one focus of a fascinating essay on medieval British polyphony by musicologist Shai Burstyn: "Gerald of Wales and the Sumer Canon" (The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 2, No. 2. Spring, 1983). Gerald of Wales, or Giraldus Cambrensis, was a medieval (c. 1146-c. 1223) archdeacon, famous for his writings on Welsh history and culture. According to Burstyn, "Gerald's musical comments and Sumer are, I believe, related and may illuminate one another. I shall endeavor to interpret Sumer, and the musical tradition I take it to represent, in terms of Gerald's frequently quoted description of Welsh Polyphonic singing:"

[N.B. (added on March 28): to my chagrin I've recently discovered that Shai Burstyn is male, not female. This just goes to show how much I have to learn not only about names -- and making assumptions based on them -- but also about the current state of music history and the historians who inhabit it, a field that I must admit I have not kept up with for several years. I'll now proceed to correct my mistake in this and the other posts where it appears. Sorry.]

He quotes his comments at some length, in both the original Latin and an English translation. Here are some highlights from the latter:
As to their musical euphony, they [the Welsh] do not sing uniformly as is done elsewhere, but diversely with many rhythms and tunes, so that in a crowd of singers such as is the custom among these people, you will hear as many different songs and differentiations of the voices as you see heads, and hear the organic melody coming together in one consonance with the smooth sweetness of B flat. . .

[Both the Welsh and the northern British] have acquired this peculiarity [i.e., singing in parts] not by art but by long usage which has made it, as it were, natural. Moreover, it prevails in both countries and is now so deeply rooted there that nothing musical is performed simply but only diversely among the former people [i.e., the Welsh] and in two parts among the latter [i.e., the north British]. And what is more remarkable, children scarcely beyond infancy, when their wails have barely turned into songs observe the same musical performance [pp. 135-136].
Gerald's comments on the musical habits of the Welsh closely resemble Jordania's descriptions of Georgian singing:
I remember, during my fieldworks in Georgia (mostly during recording sessions at a traditional “supra” feast) I would often realise that all present were contributing to the choral singing (sometimes including myself). So, although this may sound bizarre to some readers, in the societies with a tradition of polyphonic singing there often are no listeners at all, as all the members of the event are actively involved in the music making . . . (p. 10).
(Could it be a coincidence that Wales, like Georgia, and so many of the other places in "Old Europe" where polyphonic traditions survive, is a mountainous "refuge" area?)

Gerald's description of the Welsh singing "diversely with many rhythms and tunes, . . . [with] as many different songs and differentiations of the voices as you see heads . . . ," which, for Burstyn, "seems to describe singing in which the active parts are heard as independent from, though presumably coordinated with, one another" could easily be a description of African Pygmy or Bushmen group vocalizing, where everyone present typically joins in with his or her own independent part.

Burstyn considers and rightly rejects various interpretations that associate Gerald's comments with heterophony, singing in parallel parts, etc.:
More plausible is the idea that what Gerald describes is the singing of
a rondellus, rota, or at any rate some polyphonic technique based on voice
exchange. Assuming this voice-exchange texture to rest on a pes will bring
us still closer to Gerald's description. As Sumer is in fact a four-part rota
over a two-part rondellus pes, this interpretation clearly draws the work
into the sphere of the type of polyphonic singing possibly described by Gerald [p. 138].
Burstyn also considers the possibility that the Sumer canon could be a "learned" (two syllables) composition. "Even if it were possible to prove that Sumer is a composed piece (in the conventional meaning of this term) it would still not necessarily follow that it differed stylistically from contemporary music of oral tradition [p. 139]." Which brings us to the matter of the "corrected" and original versions, as mentioned in my previous post. To judge from the corrected version, which is the one usually reproduced, one might conclude that this is indeed the work of a trained composer, as the upper parts, at least, seem free of the sort of "errors" that can so easily creep into "folk" polyphony. The original version, however, contains exactly this sort of thing -- note for example the parallel unisons between the upper two parts in measure 5. Similarly "awkward" unisons can be found between the 1st and 5th parts in measure 3, even in the "corrected" version. It's useful to note, by the way, that Sumer, while usually described as a four part canon over a two part ground, can, according to Burstyn, "be sung by as many as twelve singers" [p. 149]. In other words, it can be performed as a true round, or perpetual canon, with no real ending, very much in the tradition of well known rounds such as "Three Blind Mice" -- and also in the tradition of Pygmy/Bushmen polyphony, also performed as a continuous flow of interlocking parts, with no end in sight. When performed in 12 parts, by the way, Sumer would indeed contain many "awkward" parallels and duplications, at the unison and octave, of the sort that could be expected in a true "folk" performance, but would be forbidden in an "art" work.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

134. Music of the Great Tradition -- 34:Monks and Missionaries

Some of the earliest notated examples of medieval "professional polyphony" (to use Jordania's term), in a style known as organum, stem from monasteries located in the same sort of elevated, hilly or mountainous regions where so many remnants of "Old European" culture have survived: St. Gall, in one of the highest cities of Switzerland, located between Lake Constance and the same Appenzell region where the oldest types of polyphonic Alpine yodeling have been recorded (see post 129); St. Martial, near Limoges, in the "Massif Central" mountain range of Auvergne; Las Huelgas, in Northern Spain, located on a high plateau with an elevation of almost 3,000 ft.; Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia, northwest Spain, a province described as "hilly", and filled with "wild countryside and mountains." This could certainly be a coincidence. However, Catholic missionaries have a long history of incorporating "pagan" customs to encourage conversion, and there are a great many well known instances where local musical practices have become associated with Christian worship.

A good example of this sort of practice would seem to be the famous 13th century English rota (or "round"), Sumer is icumen in, usually considered as either of "folk" origin, or inspired by "folk" performance practices common in England at the time. As you can see, the manuscript bears both a secular text, in the Old English vernacular, at the top, and, underneath, a completely different liturgical Latin text, as though familiar "popular" music were being used to make it easier for the congregation to relate to Catholic liturgy. Such practices are common in many Christian churches today.

This is the earliest example we have of a notated round or canon and, interestingly, it is presented in a manner that has become standard for such musical structures from then on. Only the basic elements are notated, in this case the principal melody, on the first six staves, and the melody of a second canonic pes, or "ground" on the bottom-most staff. The red cross on the first line indicates where the second voice is to enter, singing the exact same melody from the beginning as the first voice sings the next section. And so on, as other voices enter at the same time interval. In other words, what you are seeing is not a full score, but only the melodic material and the rule (or "canon") that tells the singers what to do. To make the resulting counterpoint clear, I've concocted the following score, representing the first 6 measures (assuming 12/8 time):

Here's a clip from an excellent performance, on the CD "Medieval Songs and Dances," by the group "St. George's Canzona." Note that the bottom two staves contain the "pes," a second canon of two bars that "grounds" the four part canon above it.The excerpt begins with two statements of this pes, before the upper voices enter. By the way, my score is based on the original version, complete with "rule violations" subsequently corrected by someone who overwrote the original. While the "corrected" version is better known, the original interests me more, as will be made clearer in the next post, where I'll have much more to say about this remarkable work.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

133. Music of the Great Tradition -- 33:Monks and Missionaries

At this point it's probably a good idea for me to explain once more what I mean by the "Great Tradition." In my "Echoes" essay, and many of my earlier posts to this blog, I was mainly concerned with tracking a distinctive "African signature" roughly along the path of the hypothetical "Out of Africa" migration. This represented an attempt to explore the possibility that certain important traces of early African musical culture (what I've called P/B, or Pygmy/Bushmen, style) survived into the Twentieth Century, among certain indigenous and "folk" societies in various parts of the world. What concerns me most in this regard is the question of whether such traditions could represent survivals from the Paleolithic era.

When speaking of the "Great Tradition," however, I am attempting to move on, beyond that point, to a consideration of a more speculative, and even radical, possibility: the notion that certain mainstream musical traditions of today could be rooted in the same Paleolithic practices -- and that the connections between "then" and "now" can actually be traced. By mainstream I mean the "classical" and also the "popular" music of "The West," both traditional and modern (including but not limited to jazz, gospel, country, rock and even rap). (Certain non-Western "mainstream" practices are also relevant here -- I have already examined the complex and sophisticated multi-layered Indonesian gamelan tradition in posts 107-116.)

Thus, for me the Great Tradition could represent something truly unique, and also, indeed, "Great," if in fact it would be possible to accept that certain aspects of the value system and cultural practice of our oldest fully human ancestors may have continued down through the eons as part of a tradition that has persisted, and even in a sense flourished, to the present day.

Over the course of a great many posts (all the way back to number 99), I have gradually been putting various pieces of this idea together -- and now, finally, I am ready to consider what has too often been regarded as an unbridgeable chasm -- the gulf between the so-called "folk" or "ethnic" traditions of the world and the allegedly self-contained, self-engendered "art" music of "The West." I can do no better at this point than quote once again from Joseph Jordania's remarkable study of the European polyphonic traditions:

The time when music historians believed that polyphony was invented by the medieval monks and actually were trying to explain the presence of vocal polyphony in traditional music of people from different parts of the world as a result of the influence of European missionaries has long since gone.
Siegfried Nadel and particularly Marius Schneider were among the first musicologists who reversed our understanding of the origins of European polyphony and wrote that the historical process of the influence between professional and traditional polyphonies must be reversed; it is not the medieval European professional polyphony that influenced the emergence of polyphony in traditional cultures via missionaries, but, on the contrary, it was traditional polyphony that had a crucial influence on the emergence of medieval European professional polyphony [p. 207].

Already in 1940, no less an authority than the noted musicologist Manfred Bukofzer pointed to a great many "popular" practices that could well be related to some of the earliest manifestations of polyphony in the Medieval monastery and church. He points, for example, to the traditional Tvisongvar of Iceland. "These duets are still sung, and they differ very little externally from primitive organum in fifths. . . The Tvisongvar are performed very slowly, as the Musica Enchiriadis tells us organum was sung" ("Popular Polyphony in the Middle Ages," The Musical Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 1, 1940, p. 32).

Bukofzer refers in the same essay to the remarkable "popular" canon, "Sumer is icumen in," notated in a document dating from about 1240, "which consists of a two voice ostinato or pes with a four-voice canon above it; the whole thus being in six parts. That is, for the period, an unheard of number of voices . . . It might seem remarkable that such a complicated form as canon should be connected with popular music. We know, however, that successive entrances of the same melody in different voices occur in primitive non-European polyphony" (p. 34). Indeed they do!

Bukofzer cites other forms of "popular polyphony" such as the Gymel, the Ductia, the Chanson de Geste, the polyphonic Rondeau, the practice of fauxborden, and, of special interest from our perspective: the "hocket" (I'll have a lot more to say on this connection in future posts). "From the hocket combined with the canon, which we have already encountered as a popular type, there developed the so-called chace (or Italian caccia), a kind of program music, the texts of which describe hunting scenes and other scenes in daily life" (p. 41).

He continues, considering one of the most common elements of "Old European" polyphony, as elucidated by Jordania: the drone. "We do not know the manner and place of origin of the drone, which exists in the Orient as well as the Occident. . . . The vocal drones of the yodels in the Canton of Appenzell (Switzerland) are examples of great antiquity. That yodels of some sort were sung in the early Middle Ages is attested by a 4th century chronicle, which describes how a missionary was killed and how the ringing of many cowbells and the sound of the Alpine horn and yodels accompanied the ceremony of execution" (p. 48).

Despite all the many examples offered by Bukofzer, he remains skeptical regarding the touchy matter of popular influence on "artistic" forms. For example, he views the chace, "in spite of this popular background . . . [as] musically a very stylized and purely artistic form. It might well be cited as evidence that something may at first appear to us to be popular, but in reality not be so at all" (p. 41). He concludes his essay by asserting "that this popular polyphony was not such as might have sprung up at any time and any place among the folk, but was something that, influenced by the art music which it reciprocally affected, could have flourished only in the Europe of the Middle Ages" (p. 49). As has already been demonstrated in so many of my previous posts, and especially the very detailed and meticulously researched reports in Jordania's book, Bukofzer was almost certainly wrong.

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.