Saturday, October 17, 2009

225. The Baseline Scenarios

(With apologies to Simon Johnson and James Kwak.)

My great teacher, friend, father-figure, and role model, Alan Lomax, was once heard to declare: "the Pygmies are the baseline." And I was once asked, at a conference in his honor, to explain what that meant. I didn't recall Lomax ever using precisely that expression, but I immediately knew exactly what it meant. Only it wasn't easy to explain.

In an early report on our Cantometric results, after discussing the Mbuti Pygmies and their music at some length, Lomax writes as follows:
I have dwelt upon this extreme, rare and somehow utopian situation because it runs counter to most of the music we know and thus illuminates the rest of human musical activity in an extraordinary way. It points to the close bonds between forms of social and musical integration (Alan Lomax, "Song Structure and Social Structure." Ethnology, (1)4, 1962, p. 261 -- as reproduced in Alan Lomax: Selected Writings).
Equally important for Lomax was the close affinity between the music of the Mbuti and the !Kung Bushmen, first examined by Gilbert Rouget in the mid-50's, noted by Lomax a few years later, and confirmed by Cantometric analysis:
Perhaps no two peoples, so far separated in space (3,000 miles), living in such different environments (desert and jungle), and belonging to different racial and linguistic groups, share so many stylistic traits . . . as far as Cantometric analysis is concerned, the styles are, indeed, identical. Their hocketing, polyphonic, polyrhythmic, maximally blended style seems to mirror this system of closely integrated [social] relationships (ibid).
In my view, Lomax's early recognition of the importance of this musical style, it's social significance, and the significance of its highly unusual distribution, between two populations so similar in so many respects and yet so distant from one another, was a brilliant insight -- one of several remarkable breakthroughs on his part, initiating a radical departure for both ethnomusicology and anthropology that should have had lasting repercussions.

Lomax recognized very early on that these Pygmy and Bushmen foragers could indeed be seen as a baseline, in the sense that so much evidence, even at that time, pointed to both their culture and their music as possible survivals from the deepest levels of human history. But there was also another sense in which Lomax saw African foragers as a baseline, and this had to do with a related, but nevertheless far more complex and controversial idea, developed in collaboration with anthropologist Conrad Arensberg, that both their music and their cultures could be understood as the baseline of an evolutionary development grounded in subsistence type. Starting with what they called "Extractors" (hunter-gatherers), progressing to "Incipient Producers" (horticulture?), thence to "Animal Husbandry," leading to "Plow Agriculture," and finally reaching its culmination in "Irrigation," human history was conceived as an evolutionary progression from the simple to the complex, closely correlated with musical style at every stage (see Folk Song Style and Culture, 1968, pp. 117-169).

When Lomax first explained this theory to me, I must say, very frankly, that my heart sank. I didn't get it then and I never got it. I tried to explain that there was no one musical style for all foragers, that there were in fact huge differences between Pygmy/Bushmen style and, say, the music of the Australian Aborigines, Eskimos, Amerindian foragers, Siberian hunters, etc. I was also puzzled as to how they came up with such an unoriginal scheme, so close to the sort of evolutionary progression that had once been so popular -- and long since thoroughly disproven, in about a thousand different ways, and definitively rejected by literally every single anthropologist in the world.

Lomax's response was complex and mystifying and I wasn't able to follow it, I must admit. Maybe he had something, I don't know, but his argument was way over my head. I won't get into all the ins and outs of this theory here, you'll be relieved to learn. For more information, and a very thorough statistical analysis demonstrating why it doesn't work, I'll refer you to a remarkable and little known paper by Edwin Erickson, who collaborated very closely on the project with Lomax, as anthropologist and statistician: Tradition and Evolution in Song Style: A Reanalysis of Cantometric Data (in Cross-Cultural Research, 1976).

The almost complete rejection of the Lomax/Arensberg evolutionary scheme by so many colleagues was a terrible blow to Lomax -- and his insistence on aggressively promoting his theory at every opportunity he could find, year after year, in the face of almost total rejection, produced a situation that could only be called tragic. Partly as a result of certain misunderstandings regarding the nature of the coding system itself, but mostly because of Lomax's fierce attachment to the dubious evolutionary scheme he produced from it (more accurately, against it), Cantometrics was all but completely rejected, and worse, leaving a legacy of bitterness and incomprehension on both sides, that lasted for many years -- and still lingers, very unfortunately, and also, imo, unnecessarily.

I'm bringing all this history up now because I want to make it clear that Lomax was indeed the pioneer in the area that I am now exploring. What I'm doing now would not be possible if he hadn't conceived, and developed, his remarkable project, and hired me, as an inexperienced but eager 20 something, to work as collaborator and assistant -- but also, and very much so: student. My admiration for him is enormous, not only as a great collector, scholar and writer, but also as one of the most brilliant and original minds I have ever encountered. Not to mention my admiration for his fearless political stance and the responsibilities he took upon himself as an activist promoter of so many good and important causes. However, even the greatest minds can get sidetracked and spend years on futile endeavors. Isaac Newton, for example, spent far too much time and effort on pointless alchemical research. And, tragically, Lomax spent far too much time, and spiritual energy, on a deeply flawed theory that he could not let go of.

With that sad lesson in mind, I turn, not without some trepidation, to my own pet theory (actually I prefer to see it as more of an exploration), which I will continue to develop in coming posts, under the heading you see above. Following Lomax's inspired lead, I too see the Pygmies and Bushmen as a baseline -- not in the evolutionary sense he so stubbornly promoted, but, more simply and straightforwardly, in the historical sense he pioneered -- and then more or less forgot.

(to be continued . . . )

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