Thursday, August 20, 2009

189. An Overwhelming Question -- Part 8

In the extensive notes accompanying his two-CD set, Musical Anthology of the Aka Pygmies, Simha Arom has more to say regarding the cultural relevance of pygmy music -- and is less tentative in drawing conclusions:
The social activity of a Pygmy encampment has no apparent hierarchy. Each person appears to enjoy total liberty; however, life is rigorously organized according to implicit plans, imperceptible to the uninitiated observer. As we shall see, Pygmy music, in the image of all their social activities, presents very similar characteristics, that is to say, relative autonomy of each participant within implied but strict structures [my emphases].
Having made the point (thanks to Kisliuk and Arom) that the musical tradition under consideration here (what I have been calling "Pygmy/Bushmen style" or P/B) can be understood as the "image" (to use Arom's term) of a particular type of culture -- or perhaps more accurately, cultural style -- I must call attention to yet another aspect of this very unusual musical-cultural association, even more telling with respect to the argument I've been so patiently developing over the last several posts. Not only does the music mirror some of the most basic elements of the culture, but a musical practice of this degree of complexity and precision requires a degree of highly synchronized interpersonal coordination and musical skill that only a certain type of culture can provide. Comparable results can be achieved in the Western classical tradition only through a significant period of preparation on the part of especially trained ensembles. Yet, according to Arom, his recordings
bear witness not only to the extraordinary variety of the musical patrimony common to all the Aka, but, also -- and this is particularly notable -- to the perfect knowledge of this patrimony by each of the members of the community.
Arom continues, describing in some detail the many aspects of musical invention, coordination and interaction that all members of the Pygmy community must master. The "highly elaborated vocal polyphony" is a "collective affair," in which the voice of the initiating leader "dissolves into the mass; and, unless there are precisely defined ritual reasons, all members of the community -- men, women and children -- take an equal part. . ."

Pygmy polyphonies can be understood formally "as ostinati with variations: cyclic music founded on a principle close to that of our passacaglia . . . [E]ach piece of music is based on the repetition of periods of constant duration, indefinitely repeated, but outfitted with multiple variations" in a manner that "calls to mind certain principles of composition of medieval art music, more precisely those of Ars Nova, of the 14th to 15th centuries. . ." and, like so much of the music of that period, is based on "a melodic line comparable to the medieval cantus firmus. . ."

"In this profusion in which the most complete liberty seems to reign there is thus a rigorous organization. . ." As Arom points out, "this technique is the fruit of long apprenticeship. As soon as they are able to walk, the children take part in the life of the community and thus in one of its principal manifestations, music."

(to be continued . . . )


kraig grady said...

I have problems with associating this music to the Ars Nova very far. Already the western scale had acting consonances and dissonances. The nature of of the scales being used by the P/B avoid scales configurations that have such defined roles. Instead we find different intervals chosen for there mutual equal level of con/dis. making a freedom of voice movement not possible with western scales.

DocG said...

You have a point, Kraig. I've characterized this style as a kind of "unification of musical space," to use Schoenberg's phrase, in that we apparently find the same intervals used both melodically and harmonically. And if that's the case, then there might not be much skill involved in producing "counterpoint" when adding yet another part to the mix.

However, there are some other things to be considered: first of all, secundal dissonances are acceptable in medieval counterpoint as well; secondly, according to Simha Arom's student, Susanne Furniss, Aka polyphony is based on certain harmonic combinations that occur at certain points in the cycle for each song (see her article in Tenzer's Analysis book) -- if that is actually the case, then Aka singers do have to pay attention to what notes they are singing at any given time; finally, most pygmy and bushmen singing tends to be harmonically consistent and also remarkably resonant, which suggests that the singers are in fact paying attention to the notes -- if that weren't the case and they were just singing whatever, we'd just be hearing a hash of clusters. While some songs are in fact based on cluster harmonies, most are not.

DocG said...

Also, I disagree that pygmy and bushmen scales are chosen with "a mutually equal level of consonance and dissonance," though I can't rule out the use of equidistant scales at times. Secundal dissonances and sevenths, both minor and major are definitely present in this music and sometimes the dissonance can be quite sharp, though usually it's a passing effect and easily overlooked.

DocG said...

One more point, Kraig. All sources for both pygmy and bushmen music agree that all or most songs are based on a controlling melody, either expressed or implied. This is what Arom compares to a "cantus firmus," though maybe "ground bass" or simply "ground" would be more appropriate.

So, regardless of the scales or the harmonic concept, this music isn't just tossed together as a sort of "free improv," it definitely has rules, though, like the rules of language, the singers are probably not consciously aware of them.