Wednesday, April 30, 2008

153. Mysteries of D/D -- Nuristan

(I've decided to drop the "Music of the Great Tradition" heading for the time being, as the drone traditions I'm now discussing do not appear to fit into that scheme.)

In the last post I discussed one of the great mysteries of comparative musicology, the uncanny resemblance between two Drone/Dissonance traditions located in two very different parts of the world -- the Balkans and Indonesia/Melanesia -- with nothing resembling either to be found anywhere in between. This is not quite the case, however, as Jordania has written of a very interesting D/D-based tradition still surviving in, of all places, Afghanistan, among the Kalash people, living in a remote, mountainous region overlapping the border with Pakistan, currently known as Nuristan. Here is an example of their very dissonant drone polyphony, as transcribed by Jordania (p. 153):

Here's another example, this time in the form of a dissonant round, quite close in structure and style to the Lithuanian Sutartines we examined in posts 128 and 136:

( The round structure becomes clear when you follow the part beginning on the fourth measure of the upper staff, with downward pointing stems, which is identical to the solo part at the beginning.) How remarkable to find such music smack in the middle of Central Asia, a zone where polyphonic vocalizing of any kind is all but unheard of. And how convenient it would be if this style could be posited as a sort of "missing link" between the Balkans and Indonesia.

The reality, however, may turn out to be even more remarkable. According to their legends, the Kalash are descended from Greek soldiers from the armies of Alexander the Great, who either deserted or were left behind in the wake of his military ventures into this region, ca. 326 BCE. While such claims are always regarded with great skepticism, according to a recent genetic study, "Investigation of the Greek ancestry of northern Pakistani ethnic groups using Y chromosomal DNA variation" (see, they might very well be true: "Based upon haplogroup frequencies, 65-88% Greek admixture was estimated for the Kalash, consistent with a Greek origin for a significant proportion of Kalash Y chomosomes." This is exactly the sort of study I suggested could be carried out with respect to the D/D singers in the Balkans and Flores. And in this case it appears to have revealed a truly astonishing connection over a period of over 2,000 years! (Actually the results of the Pakistani study were mixed, with some evidence pointing to a Greek connection and other evidence not so clear. Thus the astonishing musical connection could well resolve the issue in favor of the Kalash claim.) If these results are verified, then this would be hard evidence for exactly the sort of musical survival Yampolsky declared to be "not plausible" ("in the absence of a method of notation or an elaborate pedagogical system . . . for transmitting the tradition, no music could stand still -- with no new ideas or gradual changes, no influences from outside -- for even a few centuries, let alone millennia"). On the other hand, we would still be left scratching our heads over the far more implausible connection between the Balkans and the island of Flores, as an ancient Greek connection dating from 326 BCE would be far too recent and too limited to account for Indonesia as well.

What's most important about this fascinating tale, both cautionary and inspiring, is the great potential of the musical evidence, combined with the genetic evidence, to make a difference in our understanding of some of the strangest mysteries of "deep history."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

152. Music of the Great Tradition -- 52. Mysteries of D/D

The uncanny resemblance between the "drone dissonance" style duets of (mountainous) East Flores and the mountains of southwest Bulgaria and other enclaves in various regions of the Balkans have puzzled many musicologists for some time. The noted scholar Jaap Kunst was among the first to point to these striking similarities, in a 1954 study of the music of this Indonesian island, suggesting that they might have been due to a migration from the Balkans to Southern China that supposedly took place around 800 BC. According to Philip Yampolsky, who recorded and edited the Music of Indonesia series from which I took the Flores clip,

For decades, ethnomusicologists have laughted at Kunst's theory, but that may be because they've had so few opportunities to hear recordings from East Flores. In fact Kunst did not exaggerate: the resemblance is extraordinary [p. 8]. . .

[Nevertheless,] his theory requires us to accept that Balkan music came to Flores (but nowhere in between) and remained the same, both in substance and in some detail, in both places, with no subsequent contact between the cultures, for the next 2000 or 2500 years. But this is simply not plausible: in the absence of a method of notation or an elaborate pedagogical system . . . for transmitting the tradition, no music could stand still -- with no new ideas or gradual changes, no influences from outside -- for even a few centuries, let alone millennia [p. 9].

Yampolsky's reaction is especially interesting in that the bulk of his skepticism is not directed at the "nowhere in between" aspect, which for me is the crux of the problem -- but for him merely a parenthetical issue. For him, the real question is how a particular tradition could survive in an oral tradition virtually unchanged for "millennia." As I see it, there are a great many examples of musical traditions remaining virtually unchanged, not only for millennia, but tens of thousands of years. Anyone following this Blog with any degree of care should have no problem with that idea, which for me has been established beyond doubt.

For me, therefore, the really difficult, if not impossible, issue, is: by what means two such highly distinctive traditions, so incredibly close in so many respects, could have either 1. been conceived independently or 2. managed to transmit themselves over such vast distances without any trace of any similar survivals anywhere in between.

To be thorough it's necessary to add that the Flores D/D tradition is echoed, with varying degrees of similarity, by other musical practices elsewhere in the general vicinity -- specifically certain islands in Melanesia, such as coastal Manus (the "enrilank" chant), Fiji, and others as well, though at the moment I can't recall exactly where. There are also certain other similarities one could point to, involving other types of polyphonic and unison group performance styles between Eastern Europe -- particularly Russia -- and certain groups in Indonesia, Melanesia, Polynesia, etc. We find in both areas a very interesting practice, where different elements of a choral performance will interleave their breathing to produce a continuous stream of sound. And we also find, in many instances, melodic and harmonic passages that could be heard almost interchangeably in either part of the world.

I don't see much possibility of an ancient migration from anywhere in Europe to anywhere in Oceania, though there are some theories I've heard of that I might want to explore. It's conceivable, I suppose, that at some point during the "Out of Africa" migration, circa 90,000 to 60,000 years ago, a population bottleneck of some sort could have led to the development of this D/D style, perhaps somewhere in India, followed by a split between at least two elements of this population, one eventually finding its way to the Balkans, the other to Indonesia and Oceania. But, again, it's very difficult to understand how no other traces of the same style could have been left anywhere in between.

So, we have a true conundrum on our hands. The good news is that, thanks to advances in the genetic research, it's now possible, at least in principle, to test any theory we might want to come up with. And the very specifity of this D/D style, its presence in only very limited populations in certain very specific parts of the world, would make it relatively easy to do. One would have to arrange for teams of DNA collectors to make their way to various places in both the Balkans and Indonesia and/or Melanesia to collect samples -- but only from people known to represent precisely the musical traditions we are concerned with, preferably the singers themselves. It would then be a relatively simple matter to compare various haplotypes and haplogroups from the Balkans groups with others from the Flores groups (or elsewhere from similar traditions in that part of the world). One would then compare these genetic comparisons with comparisons drawn from various groups in the world selected randomly, as a control. If the D/D singers have significantly more haplotypes or haplogroups in common than the control groups, it might be possible to take seriously the notion of a historical connection of some sort. If not, then I suppose it would be necessary to accept that such a remarkable similarity could be due to simple coincidence -- independent invention. What interests me most about this situation is the as yet untapped power of music for pointing to certain potentially significant historical connections.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

151. Music of the Great Tradition -- 51:Mysteries of D/D

The remarkable style of drone polyphony associated today primarily with Bulgaria (or more accurately Southwestern Bulgaria) is paralled by roughly similar traditions to be found, as noted by Jordania, in many more or less remote enclaves of Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Greece. This can be considered a true style area, rather than simply a region of drone polyphony, as it involves several highly idiosyncratic features in addition to drone. Most prominent is the stress on extreme dissonances, based on major and minor seconds, and sometimes even smaller intervals, characteristically emphasized and often sustained, generating acoustic "beats" that can produce a powerfully resonant bodily vibration, in which the singers clearly take pleasure. Since this style so prominently displays both drone and dissonance, Jordania has labeled it the "Drone/Dissonance" style, or "D/D."

While Jordania mentions several traditions in Georgia and elsewhere that tend to also feature secundal dissonances, in most cases this is an evanescent effect, not unlike similar effects in P/B polyphony, where seconds are often freely combined with thirds, fourths and fifths. This type of polyphony could, in many cases (especially where drone is absent) be explained as an offshoot of P/B. Not so with the "Bulgarian" "D/D" style, where the dissonances are emphasized and dwelt upon in a manner totally unlike anything to be heard in Africa. Other characteristics of this very distinctive style include extreme glottalization (possibly related to yodel), tremulo, free rhythm, extreme volume, and a characteristic upward glissando "glide" prominent especially at phrase endings. While drone effects can often be combined with parallel motion (usually in seconds!), the sustaining or iteration of a single note against at least one other moving part is usually a prominent feature of this style.

So what is the problem? Couldn't such a style, so clearly localized largely in one region of Europe (the Balkans) have developed as an offshoot of certain other types of polyphony in one particular corner of southeastern Europe and spread from there? Yes, I suppose it could have. The problem is that essentially the same style of singing, complete with all the features mentioned above, can be found in a totally different part of the world.

To illustrate, let's compare this example, Zamurknia Pestotin, from Bulgaria (from Vocal Traditions of Bulgaria, Smithsonian Folkways), with this, Berasi Kremet, from, of all places, Flores (from Music of Indonesia, Vol. 8, Smithsonian Folkways), a small island near Bali, halfway round the world, in Indonesia.

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.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

149. Music of the Great Tradition -- 49:A European Stratigraphy

The relatively "quick and dirty" overview I've been presenting in the last several posts is far from a complete picture, as will be clear to anyone who's done much research on European oral traditions. But it does, I hope, give us some idea of how the musical evidence can be used as an aid in exploring -- and even reconstructing, however speculatively -- at least some part of the complex cultural/historical "stratigraphy" of this remarkably complex and contentious continent. Let's give it a try, limiting ourselves for now to those styles we've already been discussing:

"Old European":
1. Oldest stratum, possibly dating from the earliest "Out of Africa" migration(s) of the Upper Paleolithic, and pervading the continent throughout the Paleolithic and much of the Neolithic: "contrapuntal" polyphony bearing the "African signature" associated with P/B style -- hocket/interlock, stimmtauch, canon, yodel, etc., as exemplified today in vocal polyphony as found in remote, highly "traditional" areas, such as Plekhovo, the Appenzell, Aukštaitija , the Algarve, etc.; certain types of Medieval notated polyphony; and certain types of hocketed instrumental ensemble, e.g., pipes, panpipes, trumpets, horns, bell chimes, etc.

2. Next oldest stratum, possibly a direct development from the above: "heterophonic" vocal polyphony, as a conflation of heterophony and polyphonic counterpoint; possibly with a very wide original distribution throughout Europe -- most commonly found today in the Ukraine and Russia, but also widely distributed throughout certain remote pockets of traditional culture in various parts of southern Europe.

3. Next oldest: harmonizing in parallel intervals (usually either fifths and fourths or thirds and sixths), a practice that may have developed largely in the west; as found today in Iceland, certain types of Medieval polyphony (fifths and fourths) and certain traditional regions of Britain, western and southern Europe (especially Basque country, Spain and Italy), but found also in some Russian and other East European traditions (thirds and sixths). Found also commonly in Africa, where it also appears to be an outgrowth from P/B.

4. Next oldest: various types of so-called "descant" harmonization, possibly a development from the above, but with a certain amount of oblique and/or contrary motion, found roughly in the same areas as above. Also commonly found in Africa.

5. ???????????????? Drone polyphony, possibly a survival from an ancient migration to Europe from Asia at some unknown time; proliferating very commonly today largely in relatively remote enclaves of Eastern and to a lesser extent Southern Europe. Commonly found also in other parts of the world, including Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Melanesia, Polynesia, etc. This is the only type of vocal polyphony in Europe that does not appear to have roots of any kind in Africa.

Post Indo-european:

6. Next oldest: "Modern European" style, most clearly exemplified by the solo or unison simple strophic ballad and lyric song, with pentatonic or diatonic intervals, medium length phrases, relatively "strict" rhythms, regular meters, little to no embellishment, wide to moderately tense voices, etc., possibly stemming from an early Indo-european migration from Central Asia (where the strophic song is still of great importance); as found widely throughout Europe, most characteristically in the west but frequently in southern and eastern Europe as well.

7. Next oldest: "Elaborate" style, also referred to at times by Lomax as "Bardic" or "semi-Bardic" -- solo singing in both strophic and non-strophic forms (litany, complex strophe, through-composed, etc.), with an emphasis on chromatic intervals and in some cases microtones, longer phrases, relatively free rhythms (rubato), complex meters, moderate to extreme embellishment, tense voices, etc., possibly stemming from a later Indo-european migration, but with elements suggesting other influences from various parts of Asia at various times, including relatively recent Islamic influences as well; as found today almost exclusively in Eastern Europe, southern Spain and southern Italy.

8. ???????????????? Drone polyphony, as an amalgam of pre- and post- Indo-european traditions, combining polyphony with more or less elaborate solo melody, as described in 7, above, and with a somewhat similar European distribution.

My European "stratigraphy" is, of course, hypothetical, speculative and incomplete, omitting certain traditions that are also of great importance, such as, for example, the epic, the lament, various types of vocal and/or instrumental dance music, and important instrumental traditions, associated with, among others, the flute, the fiddle, and perhaps most important, the bagpipe.

What concerns me most in the present context, however, is the fact that it's possible to place every type of polyphonic singing into the sequence, however speculatively, with some degree of confidence -- with the exception of drone, which appears to have at least two possible explanations, neither of which is fully satisfactory, as I will attempt to explain in the following post.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

148. Music of the Great Tradition -- 48:Drone

Before continuing with our discussion of drone and the "drone problem," let's take a closer look at some patterns of distribution for traditional vocal music in Europe generally. As I've argued, the most widely (though also sparsely) distributed vocal practice would seem to be the "contrapuntal" style I've been associating with P/B hocket/interlock, the style at the heart of my "Great Tradition" hypothesis. Its wide dispersal plus strong associations, in so many instances, with Africa, suggest that it could represent the oldest and deepest "stratum" of musical culture in Europe.

Drone represents another aspect of "Old European" polyphonic survival, with a very different distribution -- and little if any stylistic affinity with Africa. As we've already learned, traditional drone polyphony is centered for the most part in mountainous enclaves of Eastern and Southern Europe, but found relatively rarely in Western Europe, Britain and Scandinavia.

Another type of traditional "Old European" vocal polyphony, based largely on parallel thirds and sixths, has an almost complementary distribution, centered in enclaves of Britain and Western Europe, north, central, and south. While the influence of classical and popular "professional polyphony" is always a possibility, there does seem to be a preference for the "softer" intervals of the third and sixth in the European oral tradition, distributed in a cline decreasing from west to east.

Jordania points to yet another "Old European" style, "heterophonic polyphony," so-named because polyphonic passages tend to be interspersed with passages of unison and/or octaves, to produce a kind of "enhanced" melodic line. Caution is advised in the use of this terminology, however. While strictly speaking "heterophony" refers to a type of group performance in which all parts present a variant of essentially the same melodic line, the term has traditionally been used to describe performances where the same line is variously ornamented or embellished in different parts, often with varying degrees of rubato (rhythmic freedom), and little to no intentional polyphony. The examples offered by Jordania are not of this type. What he refers to as "heterophonic polyphony" is exemplified by rhythmically synchronized performances, with little or no rubato, in which various intervals, of the second, third, fourth or fifth, are interwoven with unisons and octaves to produce what he has described as a "thickening" of a single melody. A great many Russian and Ukranian "folk songs" employ this style, where each phrase often begins and almost always ends with a unison or octave.

While most of the examples offered by Jordania are from Eastern Europe, very similar practices can also be found in other parts of Europe and, indeed, many other parts of the world. Since, as I've already demonstrated (see post 102), polyphony and heterophony tend to be conflated in both Pygmy and Bushmen music, "heterophonic polyphony" might well be an offshoot of P/B style, possibly a development from an early version of the Old European "contrapuntal" style to which I've been referring so often. (See posts 108-111 for a description of a somewhat different type of "heterophonic polyphony," as exemplified in the structure of Javanese and Balinese gamelan music.)

Let's turn now to some of the most widespread non-polyphonic traditions of Europe, the "monophonic/unison" traditions of both solo and group singing that, in Jordania's view (and I tend to agree), most likely represent a later development, possibly stemming from the Indo-European migration(s) hypothesized by Gimbutas. Here too, we have a very interesting east-west divide. Simple strophic structures, such as the ballad and lyric song, characterized by relatively stable rhythms, medium length phrases, pentatonic or diatonic scales, little to no embellishment and moderately tense to moderately relaxed voices, are distributed according to a markedly descending cline, from the northwest and central regions to the south and east. This is the style that Alan Lomax called, significantly: "Modern European" (as opposed to the "Old European" polyphonic styles we've been discussing). More complex structures, including complex strophes, litanies and through-composed forms, often characterized by either rubato rhythms or irregular meters (such as so-called aksak or "limping" meters), medium to long phrases, narrow intervals, moderate to extreme embellishment and moderately tense to constricted voices, are distributed over more or less the same territory as drone polyphony, in a descending cline from Eastern to Southern Europe, with very few instances to be heard elsewhere on that continent.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

147. Music of the Great Tradition -- 47:Drone

Some of the most important types of vocal drone polyphony are described by Joseph Jordania on pages 26 and 27 of his book. The basic principle common to all is the persistent presence, in one or more parts, of a single tone, either sustained or continually repeated, while one or more other voices sing melodically against it. While the drone is often the lowest tone, it can also be the highest -- or somewhere in the middle. While the same drone note often persists throughout an entire song, pitch changes are common in some styles. He points, additionally, to a very interesting aspect of drone performance practice that's often overlooked: in most cases the drone part is sung in unison by a group, while the moving parts are usually sung by soloists (p. 211).

As Jordania's survey makes clear, drone polyphony is unquestionably of great importance worldwide, and might well be the most frequently occurring type of traditional vocal polyphony in "Old Europe," found far more commonly today than the "contrapuntal" polyphony on which I've been focusing here. Certain especially revealing differences between the two types of musical practice are highlighted in Jordania's comparison between the contrasting vocal styles of East and West Georgia:

• East Georgia is considered to be the “kingdom” of the pedal drone . . West Georgia is mostly known as the “kingdom” of contrapuntal polyphony; . . .
• The metre is always precise in West Georgian songs, while in at least some East Georgian songs (particularly – the same “long” table songs from Kartli and Kakheti) the polyphony develops without a precise metre, in so-called “rubato” (free metre);
• A major part of the metered polyphonic songs in Georgia is based on the simple duple (2/4, 4/4) and triple metres (¾,
6/8). East Georgia uses all these metres, whereas West Georgia uses predominantly (and in some regions almost exclusively) only duple metres;
• East Georgian polyphonic songs are famous for their richly ornamented melismatic melodies. There are no ornamented melismatic melodies in West Georgian polyphonic songs at all (apart from the region of Racha, which has an obvious influence from the East Georgian singing style); . . .
• The yodel is present only in West Georgia; (217-218).

Remarkably, the combination of rhythmic precision (lack of rubato), duple meter, and unornamented melody, noted above as characteristic of West Georgia, also characterizes the hocket/interlock, stimmtauch and canonic examples we've been discussing, and is, moreover, typical for much of Africa as well, especially P/B style, where yodeling is also common. Jordania specifically associates West Georgia with the older, more traditional culture of "Old Europe," prior to the Indo-European migrations hypothesized by Gimbutas:
these migrations and major cultural and population changes during the 3rd-2nd millennia involved only the territory of East Georgia, while the territory of western Georgia, situated on the other side of the Likhi mountains (the dividing mountain range between the eastern and western Georgia) remained virtually unaffected (p. 219).
For Jordania, East Georgian drone polyphony, and by implication much of European drone polyphony in general, can therefore be explained as a hybrid of the original contrapuntal style now found only in West Georgia, and a
West and Central Asian monophonic style, with richly ornamented melodic lines, specific scales, free rhythm and non-metric time. As Tsitsishvili puts it, ". . . the [East Georgian] “long” songs represent a total transculturation of style which differs from both parent cultures, though belongs in the polyphonic music culture of Georgia" . . .

Moving through Europe, Indo-Europeans were in constant contact with the autochthonous carriers of the ancient European polyphony, so the possibility of mixture of these two different types of music (polyphonic and monophonic) must have been extremely high in many regions of Europe (pp. 219, 220).
While I can't do full justice here to Jordania's complex and nuanced treatment of the history and meaning of drone, admittedly not always in agreement with my own thinking, the notion of drone polyphony as a hybrid between two very different vocal styles, one polyphonic through and through, the other essentially monophonic/ unison; one representing a pre-existing autochthonous culture, the other the culture of a more recent, more aggressive and assertive "invader," does appear to make a good deal of sense. It's important to note, as well, that drone, while far more common than contrapuntal polyphony, is not as widely distributed. While the latter has been found (or referenced) sparsely scattered through many different parts of Europe overall, the former is found most frequently in Eastern Europe (including the Baltic states), less frequently in pockets of Southern Europe, but rarely in the rest of the continent, including Britain. (The many remarkable points of similarity between these drone traditions and drone as it appears in early Medieval polyphony cannot of course be ignored, but is a somewhat different issue, to be discussed in future posts.)

While all indications are that drone polyphony arose in Europe, therefore, as a mixture of an autochthonous contrapuntal practice with a newer monophonic/ unison style with roots in Asia, this explanation would appear to be inconsistent with the overall world picture, since drone polyphony of various types, sometimes strikingly similar to that of Eastern and Southern Europe, can be found, as Jordania himself points out, in many other parts of the world. This is a part of the problem I've already referred to, a very puzzling problem I'll be addressing in future posts.

To be continued

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.)

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.

Friday, April 4, 2008

144. Music of the Great Tradition -- 44:Europe

Of all the various types of traditional vocal polyphony to be found or reported in Europe, only so-called "contrapuntal" polyphony seems more or less evenly distributed throughout the continent as a whole. It is also the most thinly distributed, so its presence can all too easily be overlooked. This most complex of all polyphonic types has been found or reported, to my knowledge, in the following areas:

1. West Georgia generally; 2. certain isolated villages of European Russia, near the Ukrainian border, notably in Briansk, Kaluga and Kursk -- also isolated areas of the Komi Republic, Serbia, Rumania, and Lithuania ("hooted" vocalizing associated with panpipe playing, as reported by Olga Velitchkina and Ruta Zarskiene); 3. the Appenzell region of the Swiss Alps; 4. the "Tralalero" tradition of Liguria, in Northern Italy; 5. the "highland" region of Eastern Lithuania (associated with the sutartine tradition); 6. the Algarve region of Portugal; 7. medieval Wales (as inferred from the writings of Geraldus Cambrensis); 8. certain forms associated with medieval liturgical music, such as the rotus, rondellus, chace and caccia -- and practices such as the round, canon, stimmtauch and hocket/interlock, thought by some medievalists, with good reason, to have originated in oral traditions.

While it could certainly be argued that each of the above represents a unique, independently developed musical practice, such an interpretation seems unlikely, for several reasons. As with traditional polyphonic vocalizing generally, the contrapuntal type appears in almost all cases to be found in remote, isolated pockets, well off the beaten path, associated with other traditions generally thought to be ancient or archaic, often centered in the sort of mountainous or heavily forested areas where we would expect to find the survivals of any region's oldest traditions. In addition, many of these contrapuntal practices are linked by other highly distinctive musical features, such as: the presence, either common or sporadic, of "resultant" effects, produced by hocket/interlock, stimmtauch or both; and the presence, either common or sporadic, of either yodel or falsetto singing (falsetto was singled out by certain church leaders as one of the "excesses" of medieval hocket; falsetto is an important feature of the Tralalero tradition; the vocalizing of the Russian panpipers documented by Velitchkina is "hooted" in a manner very close to yodel; yodel is a common feature of polyphonic vocalizing in the Appenzel and West Georgia; yodel was associated with certain types of "popular" medieval polyphony by Bukofzer).

There are also in many cases strong associations with certain types of instrumental hocket. The panpipers studied by Velitchkina and Zarskiene sing as they hocket together on their pipes. Lithuanian sutartines can be played by hocketing pipe or trumpet ensembles in addition to being sung. Similar ensembles of horns or trumpets have been reported for Russia. Alphorns in Switzerland and elsewhere could have played together in hocketing ensembles at one time (though at the moment this is only a conjecture). There is (or was) an important tradition of panpipe hocket in Georgia. Finally, we have an intriguing quotation from Adam de la Halle associating medieval hocketing with both folksong and panpipes:
Adam de la Halle uses the term in the highest voice of a polyphonic motet. He relates how four young fellows, when they hocket, make percussive sounds faster than the panpipes. They also dance together, beating on the floor while hocketing. ("Quant il hoquetent Plus tost clapetent Que frestel Li damoisel... Et quant il font le moulin Ensamble tout quatre Et au plastre batre En hoquetant" [Tischler, 3:74-6, 4:83-4; Adam de la Halle p. 202-5].) (See

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

143. Music of the Great Tradition -- Europe

It's important to understand that the pattern I've been discussing involves all forms of traditional vocal polyphony in Europe, not only those on which I've been focusing in the last several posts (the ones apparently displaying an "African signature"). As Jordania demonstrates, societies where polyphonic vocalizing of any type comes more or less "naturally," as part of a long established tradition, tend to be found in relatively isolated "refuge" areas, such as mountainous regions, islands, forests, etc. -- and this appears to be a continent-wide phenomenon, extending to the British Isles as well. Surrounding these isolated pockets of polyphony we find very different musical traditions, where solo singing and/or group vocalizing in unison and octaves are the rule. Both traditions appear to be "old" (I'm disregarding more recent "popular" forms for the moment), but the striking difference in their distribution -- the one continuous and "mainstream," the other discontinuous and marginal -- could be an important clue, not only to their relative age as distinct musical practices, but to our understanding of European pre-history generally.

The noted anthropologist Edward Sapir wrote as follows regarding such patterns:

For chronological purposes, cases of the interrupted distribution of a culture element are of particular importance. In a general way, a culture element whose area of distribution is a broken one must be considered as of older date, other things being equal, than a culture element diffused over an equivalent but continuous area. The reason for this is that in the former case we have to add to the lapse of time allowed for the diffusion of the element over its area of distribution the time taken to bring about the present isolation of the two areas, a time which may vary from a few years or a generation to a number of centuries. . . [T]he interrupted distribution of a culture element gives us a minimum relative date for the origin of the culture element itself. The element must have arisen prior to the event or series of events that resulted in the geographical isolation of the two areas ("Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture, a Study in Method." Geological Survey Memoir 90: No. 13, Anthropological Series. Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau (1916), p. 41).

Thus, it would appear that the tradition of polyphonic vocalization pointed to by Jordania is likely to have pervaded much of Europe at some time in the distant past, prior to the advent, during a later period, of the monophonic/unison tradition destined to marginalize it. As we've learned, Jordania, following Gimbutas, associates such polyphony with "Old European" culture, and "monophony" with the migration into Europe of a more agressive, and successful, "proto Indo-european" culture. But the situation isn't quite that simple, because there is more than one type of traditional polyphonic singing in Europe, and each, as Jordania notes, is distributed somewhat differently. In what follows, I'll be drawing on information gleaned from Jordania's book, but with a somewhat different interpretation.

I want for now to focus on three of the most important types of traditional polyphonic vocalization in Europe: 1. Drone polyphony (one voice holding or repeating the same tone as one or more others sing melodically along with it), usually emphasing intervals of the 4th and 5th -- and, in many cases, dissonances based on both major and minor seconds; 2. parallel polyphony, sometimes in 4ths and 5ths, but also, in certain areas, 3rds and 6ths; 3. "contrapuntal" polyphony, involving two or more rhymically and melodically independent voices.

All I have time for today. Stay tuned.