Sunday, December 30, 2007

117. Concept, Style and Structure . . .

My music-theory oriented paper on Pygmy and Bushmen music (in response to Furniss and Olivier) is finally available. Here's how I just announced it on the Ethnomusicology mailing list:

A preprint of my recently completed essay, "Concept, Style and Structure in the Music of the African Pygmies and Bushmen: A Study in Cross-Cultural Analysis," is now available, in pdf format, via the Eunomios website: Here's the abstract:
The highly distinctive contrapuntal vocalizing of the so-called "Pygmies" and "Bushmen" of Africa has been a topic of considerable interest to musicologists for some time. In comparative studies, many striking stylistic and structural similarities among almost all such groups have been observed. Surprisingly, however, recent research by ethnomusicologists Susanne Furniss and Emmanuelle Olivier has led them to a very different interpretation: though the two traditions may be "acoustically" very close, they must be regarded as, nevertheless, "radically opposite" due to a fundamental difference in "conception." This unexpected and challenging conclusion, based on the distinction they draw between the stylistic features of a musical tradition and the conception underlying it, encouraged me to undertake a thorough re-examination -- part ethnomusicology, part music theory, part hermeneutics -- of the musical structures underlying both traditions and the manners in which such structures may be understood and interpreted. In this paper I draw upon insights into the nature of Pygmy and Bushmen music afforded by the research of Furniss and Olivier to argue against their interpretation of its meaning. In the process, I hope to demonstrate how extraordinarily close, conceptually and otherwise, the two traditions really are.

While the above might, on the surface, appear to represent a typical academic dispute, of interest to only a few specialists, I can assure you, this one is different. For one thing, my intention is not only to challenge my "opponents," but also to call attention to their extraordinarily valuable and important research, from which I have learned a great deal; with which I am, for the most part, in enthusiastic agreement. Indeed, Furniss's detailed and painstaking analysis of a single Aka "song," (included in Michael Tenzer's recent collection, *Analytical Studies in World Music*) has, in my opinion, and in spite of certain points open to question, taken our understanding of African Pygmy music to a whole new level.

For another thing, the old question regarding the relationship between the Pygmies and the Bushmen, their music and their history, remains of central importance, not only to ethnomusicologists, but archaeologists, ethnologists, population geneticists, linguists, historians, etc. If I am right, and the research of Furniss and Olivier (not to mention Kisliuk and England, on whose work I also draw rather heavily) demonstrates, on the basis of detailed musical analysis (and contrary to their own interpretation), how remarkably close the two traditions actually are, such a conclusion, coupled with equally compelling stylistic evidence gleaned (by Alan Lomax and myself) from Cantometrics, and fortified by all the remarkable new genetic research on human "deep history", would represent possibly the first solid evidence of (non-material) cultural survival dating all the way back to the Upper Paleolithic.

Finally, if I am right, a whole set of assumptions now held by the great majority of ethnomusicologists would be seriously called into question, most notably, 1. music can be understood only in its immediate social context; 2. it is inappropriate, improper, unscientific, etc., to extrapolate backward from the present to the distant past.

I would welcome any comments, suggestions, criticisms, etc., that anyone on this list might have with respect to any aspect of my paper, the work of Furniss and Olivier, or any of the issues raised above. The Eunomios Forum is accessible from their home page, at Responses can also be posted on this list, or to me personally.

Needless to say, I also welcome responses posted as comments to this blog. But read the thing first, OK? :-)

Friday, December 28, 2007

116. Music of the Great Tradition -- 17:Gamelan

As should be clear from posts 107 through 115, there are many correspondences, on many different levels, between Pygmy/Bushmen style and the structure of gamelan music. There are also significant differences: gamelans are primarily instrumental; they are stratified into hierarchically ordered layers, with each layer playing a rigidly defined role; while variation is possible, it is restricted to certain instruments only -- most simply repeat a melodic or percussive pattern; the basic, or "nuclear," theme is almost always directly stated, rarely implied; each piece is organized more or less as a fixed composition, with predetermined sections and a clear beginning and ending; tempo is flexible; etc. All of the above represent significant differences from P/B style, which is usually vocal (though sometimes performed on pipes and/or whistles); unstratified; non-hierarchical, with everyone present participating equally; with continual variation in all or most parts; with the controlling theme often implied rather than directly stated; loosely organized, with no clear beginning or ending; and performed, almost invariably, in a single, inflexible, tempo.

What are we to make of this array of similarities and differences? Is there some scientific method that would enable us to objectively test the claim I am making, that the gamelan can be regarded as part of a"Great Tradition" rooted in Africa, disseminated along with the "Out of Africa" migration? Unlike the simpler patterns I've been tracing in earlier posts, many of which can be tested, more or less scientifically, through a combination of cantometrics, ethnography, archaeology, linguistics, genetics, etc., the more complex and subtle relationships I'm discussing now probably cannot. There are simply too many variables to precisely manage, too many intangibles to objectively assess.

On this, more complex, more qualitative, level of comparative thinking, we are, willy nilly, forced to move from the objective realm of "scientific" testing, to the more problematic, but also, perhaps, deeper and more challenging, realm of interpretation -- or, if you prefer a more technical term: hermeneutics. It is on this level, the level of subjective, but also critical, interpretation -- of all sorts of evidence, from a variety of different realms, moving back and forth between the whole of history, both musical and social, as we now only dimly perceive it, and its various parts (the so-called hermeneutic circle) -- that we must proceed in our dauntless quest for traces of the "Great Tradition" that might still survive in the music of today.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

115. Music of the Great Tradition -- 16:Gamelan

Returning to Indonesia, let's listen to an example of some very interesting and unusual vocal hocket, from the island of Flores, near Bali, recorded by Phillip Yampolsky. Listen carefully, as the hocketed voices are somewhat covered by a higher pitched solo voice. This type of singing is organized in a manner quite similar to the hocketed gong ensembles found on the same island, where each person plays a different instrument (also recorded by Yampolsky). Compare with the Ouldeme pipers from the previous post -- or the Mbuti Pygmies for that matter. (Very similar types of pipe and panpipe hocket can be found in Southeast Asia and Melanesia as well -- see posts 41 et seq., below).

Simple gong ensembles, similar to the those of Flores, are quite common in Southeast Asia and Indonesia. Here's a nice video of dancing gongs, from the Igorot, of the Philippines, compliments of YouTube. The Kulintang ensemble, of the Philippine Magindinao people, is a kind of rudimentary gamelan. This YouTube video shows four men hocketing with gongs in a manner quite similar to that of the Flores and Igorot examples, as a man in the center plays the Kulintang proper, a tuned gong set very similar to what would be found in a Javanese or Balinese gamelan.

In this case, the gongs could be understood as a kind of speeded up colotomic layer, analogous to that of the Indonesian gamelan tradition. This video also contains a very interesting demonstration of how these gongs are used to communicate, a practice linking them with the very important slit drum traditions found throughout this region and Oceania generally -- and also, of course, Africa. This type of gong is probably descended from the slit drum. The last part of the video returns to the Kulintang ensemble, allowing us see in some detail how the various parts interlock.

What we see and hear above is especially meaningful, since it gives us a sense of how the colotomic layer of the gamelan may well have originated in this much more rapid type of hocketed gong interlock, which can, in turn be related to both African hocket and kotekan. And indeed there are examples of Indonesian gamelan playing where the colotomic gongs clearly hocket in a manner very similar to that of gong ensembles such as the Kulintang, as is evident in this YouTube clip, from a Balinese Barong ritual, where the colotomic instruments can be heard playing more rapidly than usual, in a manner recalling the ensembles presented above.

114. Music of the Great Tradition -- 15:Gamelan

As we have seen, the more elaborate gamelans are organized in terms of layers, in a manner roughly analogous to the stratigraphic layers so important to both geologists and archaeologists. Close to the "surface," we find the rebab, a bowed string instrument strongly associated with Muslim culture. Digging a bit deeper, we find drums, played in a style strongly resembling that of Indian classical music, based in Hindu traditions. Deeper still, perhaps, is the Gambang, a xylophone, suggesting African influence, most likely via some ancient slave trade between Africa and India. The presence of bronze instruments, of a type similar to those found in China and Southeast Asia, suggests the presence of a "Chinese" stratum, either direct or indirect.

Since we cannot, like geologists, examine these layers directly, our musical "stratigraphy" must necessarily proceed by inference, based on whatever documentation we have regarding the history and provenance of certain instruments and practices. Historical documentation fails us, however, when we try to account for the two most interesting and mysterious gamelan "strata," that of the so-called "elaborating" and "colotomic" instruments. In my view, certain aspects of both practices might well belong to the deepest and therefore oldest stratum, forging what is arguably the strongest and most convincing link of all between the Gamelan and the "Great Tradition."

Let's focus our attention first on an especially interesting feature of the elaborating layer: hocketed interlock, known in Bali as kotekan and in Java as imbalan. An excellent description of kotekan is provided in Michael Tenzer's essay, Theory and Analysis of Melody in Balinese Gamelan, published in the Internet journal, Music Theory Online. (See especially paragraphs 2.2, 3.8 through 3.10, and 4.6 through 4.12.) Tenzer's Example 2, below, provides us with an excellent picture of how one type of kotekan interlock works:

Both kotekan parts are in the topmost staff, one part represented with stems upward, the other with stems downward. The lower staff contains the "nuclear melody," or basic theme. In Tenzer's Sound File 2 we hear the entire melody played through first without the kotekan part, and then repeated, this time with it. As this moves quite rapidly, it might not be that easy to follow, but it's a good example of how kotekan sounds in context. Some other examples of Kotekan, taken out of context, can be found on this web page, along with easily heard MIDI-based audio clips.

For comparison, let's listen to an example of something that sounds quite similar, at least to me, as performed by a group of Ju'hoansi Bushmen, from the village of Dobe (from the CD, "Mongongo"). I've managed to produce a simplified, probably somewhat inaccurate, partial transcription, showing how two of the more prominent voices might be relating to one another, as they repeat the same pattern over and over again, with variations:
Since it's almost impossible to sort out all the details in this type of recording, my breakdown of the two parts might well be inaccurate, but it should give you an idea of how such parts can interlock with one another, to produce a hocketing effect quite similar to certain types of kotekan.

Here are two more audio clips from Africa exemplifying, for me at least, very similar types of hocketed interlock: Mbuti Pygmies, with "Luma" pipes and drums (from "On The Edge of the Ituri Forest," recorded by Hugh Tracey); an Ouldeme Pipe ensemble, from the Mandara Mountains of Cameroon. In both cases, each pipe plays only one note.

Friday, December 14, 2007

113. Intermezzo

I must interrupt my disquisition on the "Great Tradition" to update my loyal readers (you know who you are) with respect to some noteworthy events. First, an essay of mine, originating with some posts on this blog, has recently been published: "New Perspectives on the Kalahari Debate: A Tale of Two Genomes," in the online anthropological journal, Before Farming. Here's the abstract:
While the ‘Great Kalahari Debate’ hinged almost exclusively on the interpretation of sparse and confusing archaeological and historical data, abundant and convincing genetic evidence from the realm of biological anthropology has been largely ignored, while equally compelling cultural evidence drawn from the musical traditions of the populations in question has been overlooked entirely. In this paper, I attempt to demonstrate how genetic and musicological research can be combined to provide a compelling case for the ‘traditionalist’ position in this ongoing controversy. To this end, I draw upon an important but little known musical ‘genome’, the Cantometric database, compiled under the direction of the late Alan Lomax, at the Columbia University Bureau of Applied Social Research.

Unfortunately, you'll need a subscription to read the paper online. If you send a request via email, however, I'll be happy to respond with an attached offprint, in pdf format.

My second piece of news concerns a presentation given at the recent meetings of the American Anthropological Association, based on my collaboration with genetic anthropologists Drs. Sarah Tishkoff and Floyd Reed, of the University of Maryland, and Dr. Anna Lomax Wood, director of the Association for Cultural Equity (founded by her father, Alan Lomax), thanks to whom the Cantometric database has been updated and made available for current research. Floyd Reed put this together at the last minute, in the wake of many distractions, much travel, travail and illness, and after months of work back and forth between the two of us, trying to find the most effective ways of querying and interpreting the Cantometric data -- and comparing it with the extensive database of African DNA put together at the direction of his boss, Sarah Tishkoff, a major figure in anthropological genetics for some time (an important publication on African genetics and history, by the two of them, should be coming out soon). It was titled: "A Comparison of Genetic and Musical Affiliations in Subsaharan Africa." Here's the abstract:

Recent advances in anthropological genetics have prompted an interest in possible correlations between cultural and genetic inheritance. Thus far, however, research along such lines has typically been limited to the consideration of linguistic distances as a metric of cultural change. While linguists have, indeed, made great strides in categorizing the language families of the world and reconstructing their histories, another field, arguably of equal interest and importance, the comparative study of musical traditions, has received little if any attention from genetic anthropologists. We have consequently taken a novel approach, comparing two databases, one genetic and the other musical, in order to make inferences about African population history. The genetic database, compiled under the direction of Dr. Sarah Tishkoff, at the University of Maryland, represents 1,374 highly variable autosomal loci genotyped in a diverse world-wide sample of thousands of individuals, including 84 ethnolinguistic populations in Africa. The musical database, compiled under the direction of the late Alan Lomax, at the Bureau of Applied Social Research, Columbia University, represents over 5,500 sung performances, drawn from 857 culture groups worldwide, including 181 from subsaharan Africa, encoded along a range of 37 parameters. Limiting ourselves at this point to Africa, south of the Sahara, we apply a variety of statistical and analytic techniques to both
databases, to investigate the degree to which the study of musical traditions might shed light on aspects of genetic-cultural co-evolution.

Though I wasn't present, I understand that Floyd's presentation generated considerable interest. Which brings me to my third piece of news, a report on the presentation, recently published in the journal Nature. Earlier today, I was able to access the article in full, but now I see that only the first paragraph is freely available -- to read the rest you'll have to send a payment or subscribe. What a shame, especially since I didn't think to copy it myself when I had the chance.

My fourth news item is the announcement of my recently completed essay in response to the views of Susanne Furniss and Emmanuelle Olivier regarding Pygmy and Bushmen music and whether or not the two traditions are, in their words "radically opposite." Needless to say, my views are radically opposed to theirs -- and for good reason. Here's the abstract:

The highly distinctive contrapuntal vocalizing of the so-called “Pygmies” and “Bushmen” of Africa has been a topic of considerable interest to musicologists for some time. In comparative studies, many striking stylistic and structural similarities among almost all such groups have been observed. Surprisingly, however, recent research by ethnomusicologists Susanne Fürniss and Emmanuelle Olivier has led them to a very different interpretation: though the two traditions may be “acoustically” very close, they must be regarded as,
nevertheless, “radically opposite” due to a fundamental difference in conception. This unexpected and challenging conclusion, based on the distinction they draw between the stylistic features of a musical tradition and the“ideas” underlying it, encouraged me to undertake a thorough re-examination -- part ethnomusicology, part music theory, part hermeneutics -- of the musical structures underlying both traditions and the manners in which such structures may be understood and interpreted. In this paper I draw upon insights into the nature of Pygmy and Bushmen music afforded by the research of Fürniss and Olivier to argue against their interpretation of its meaning. In the process, I hope to demonstrate how extraordinarily close, conceptually and otherwise, the two traditions really are.

I'll be making this paper freely available somewhere on the Internet soon, so stay tuned.

112. Music of the Great Tradition -- 14:Gamelan

Now that I've listed several points of similarity between the Pygmy/Bushmen and gamelan traditions, it's time to focus on one very important difference. The more elaborate gamelans, especially those associated historically with court traditions, are organized hierarchically, according to a principle often referred to as "layering," where each instrument has a strictly defined and delimited role, with varying degrees of importance (and skill) associated with each. This is radically different from the P/B tradition, where all parts are, in principle, equal, both in importance and function.

For clarification I'd like to draw on a very interesting and informative website, created by Yee-Seer See (with the advice of his teacher, Professor Han Kuo-Huang): Indonesian Gamelan. The page entitled Function of Instruments provides us with a clear picture of five basic layers of a typical Javanese gamelan, with links to descriptions of the instruments appropriate to each:

A. instruments that play the basic, or "nuclear" theme. (This is usually presented in longer note values, with little rhythmic differentiation); B. instruments that typically elaborate on the theme (using shorter note values); C. instruments (or voices), such as the rebab (bowed lute), suling (endblown flute) or voice(s), characterized as playing a "counter-melody." This term is a bit misleading, since, as can be seen from the transcription provided in earlier posts, these instruments also follow the nuclear theme heterophonically/ polyphonically, though with more freedom and flexibility than the others; D. instruments whose role is limited to "punctuation," i.e., the so-called "colotomic" layer (see under 17. in the previous post); E. "rhythm" instruments, in the form of three types of membranophone (drums with skin head(s)).

It's not difficult to see how certain layers, and instruments, could be associated with certain cultures that influenced Indonesia during different historical periods. For example, the rebab is strongly associated with Muslim culture, and could thus be a relatively recent introduction; the drums supplying the "rhythmic" layer look very much like -- and are played very much like -- Indian drums, suggesting that they could be associated with a somewhat older stratum dominated by Hindu culture; one of the elaborating instruments, the Gambang, is a xylophone, suggesting African influence, possibly via ancient slave trade, as has been suggested by Roger Blench (the noted ethnomusicologist A. M. Jones produced a fascinating comparative study of African and Indonesian xylophones in an attempt to demonstrate that they were of Indonesian origin, making their way to Africa via the Indonesian colonisation of Madagascar, an interesting theory that has not survived closer scrutiny).

Especially relevant, in the present context, are traces within this hierarchy that suggest the surival of a much older historical level, a level that can be associated with the "great tradition." To understand this connection we will need to look more closely at two specific layers: "elaboration" and "punctuation."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

111. Music of the Great Tradition -- 13:Gamelan

More list items:

16. Polyrhythm can be defined as the simultaneous presentation of two or more independent rhythms in such a way as to produce a sense of tension between them. For a detailed explanation, see the excellent Wikipedia article. While rhythmic clashes of this sort are most commonly found in west and central Africa, and are, of course, characteristic of P/B, they can also be found in gamelan music, most dramatically in the relatively new Kebyar style. Whether the rapid, dynamic polyrhythms of Kebyar are completely new, or derived from certain aspects of older Balinese traditions is a very interesting question that I'm not knowledgeable enough to get into at this time. Polyrhythm is present in the older styles as well, as evidenced in the Javanese example I've presented, particularly in the Bonang panerus part -- see, for example the groupings, in the second and third measures, of eighth notes into threes and then twos, as well as the quarter note triplets in measures 1, 4 and 6.

17. If you take another look at the Aka example (see post 108), you'll see four "percussion" parts at the top of the score, two clapping parts and two drum parts. If you take another look at the Javanese gamelan example (also in post 108), you'll see parts for four instruments at the botttom of the score, the Ketuk, Kenong, Kempul and Gong. These and some other instruments are sometimes referred to as the "colotomic," or "punctuating" instruments of the gamelan. Instead of playing melodic material, they play single notes that divide the basic rhythmic cycle into segments. While the percussion parts of a typical Pygmy or Bushmen song are much more dynamic than the colotomic parts of a typical gamelan, they have an essentially similar function, that of clearly segmenting the basic "time cycle" with percussive or monotonic sounds. Whether or not the colotomic layer of gamelan music can be regarded as derived from the percussion layer of P/B style would be a very difficult matter to consider, but it remains a very interesting possibility that cannot be dismissed. There are, additionally, certain features of the colotomic parts that suggest a derivation from certain hocketed gong and/or slit-drum ensembles found in Bali and other parts of Indonesia and Melanesia, which may, in turn, be derived from other aspects of P/B style, as discussed in my "Echoes" essay.

18. As I've already pointed out, the encoding of multipart performances in monophonic melodies is a highly distinctive and unusual aspect of both Pygmy and Bushmen musical traditions. Nicholas England was probably the first to describe the manner in which a Bushmen shaman will learn a healing song in a dream, which he will then teach to his wife in the form of a single melodic part repeated over and over again. The wife then passes this on to the other women, who use the melody as the basis for elaborately interwoven, polyphonic/ hetrophonic performances. Michelle Kisliuk has described Aka pygmy songs as similarly based on the polyphonic/ heterophonic elaboration of a single "theme." (Susanne Furniss has demonstrated how the Aka can, vice versa, also derive a single melody from a multiple set of "constituent" parts.)

As I understand it, something similar can be said of gamelan pieces, for which only the "nuclear theme" was traditionally passed down, in a simplified, letter notation. Most of what happens in the other parts could be inferred from the theme alone by musicians thoroughly trained in the tradition.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

110. Music of the Great Tradition -- 12: Gamelan

The list, continued:

9. Tonal displacement -- notes from the nuclear theme are routinely displaced at the octave in gamelan music, to accommodate the range of each instrument.

[10. Temporal displacement does not appear to be a significant feature of gamelan music.]

11. Repetition -- certain types of gamelan performance can be highly repetitious, especially when associated with ritual.

12. Variation in gamelan music tends to be more "vertical" than "horizontal" with variants of the nuclear theme appearing simultaneously with its presentation. Improvisation is strictly limited to only a few instruments.

13. Melodic disjunction is not unusual in gamelan music, though found probably less often than in P/B.

14. "Unification of musical space," through use of the same intervals both vertically and horizontally, is a distinctive aspect of both the P/B and gamelan traditions. The gender panerus and gambang kayu parts of the gamelan score I've presented are excellent examples of this. Note the harmonic clashes that arise from the interaction of these parts at several points, e.g., where the notes d and e flat are played simultaneously in the second measure, or e flat and f in the third. Several other clashes of this type can be found throughout the excerpt.

15. Continuous flow. Another very striking similarity between these two traditions is their strong tendency to "fill in the spaces" with continually interlocking parts. The only difference in this respect is that the end of a gamelan cycle is usually marked with a stroke of the largest gong, while P/B cycles remain unarticulated throughout.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

109. Music of the Great Tradition -- 11: Gamelan

Is the gamelan music of Java and Bali part of the "Great Tradition" I've identified, originating in musical practices ancestral to those of the pygmies and bushmen of today? Or are the similarities I've found simply a coincidence, due to independent invention? This is a huge question, too complex for me to fully tackle here. All I can say for now is that there are many striking points of similarity that are, for me at least, very interesting to contemplate. I'm hoping that sooner or later some of the real experts in gamelan music who might be browsing here (you know who you are!) might be willing to share their expertise by chiming in with comments, corrections, suggestions and criticisms.

I'll list some of the more striking points of similarity below, followed by some important differences that must also be considered. For convenience, I'll follow the order of my original listing when I compared Pygmy and Bushmen music, beginning with post 103.

In both P/B and gamelan music we find:

1. Interlocking parts, closely related to . . .

2. Hocket. "Imbal or imbalan is a technique used in Javanese gamelan. It refers to a rapid alternation of a melodic line between instruments, in a way similar to hocket in medieval music or kotekan in Balinese gamelan" (from Wikipedia: ). Imbal and kotekan are especially relevant features of gamelan music that I'll be discussing in more detail presently.

[3. Yodel is not a significant aspect of Indonesian music.]

4. Cyclic structure. In the Pygmy example presented in the previous posts, the beat is subdivided into three, giving a "measure" of four beats. In this case the complete cycle consists of 12 such beats, divided by Kisliuk into three "measures." More typically, the underlying theme of Pygmy songs (and in many cases Bushmen songs as well) often, though not always, consists of four "measures" of four beats each, giving a "cycle" of 16 beats altogether. This emphasis on the numbers four and sixteen, as the basis for the underlying musical cycle is very common in Africa generally. In the court traditions of Indonesia and other parts of Asia, such "foursquare" divisions of the basic musical cycle are practically the rule in almost every case.

5. Basic melody. As stressed in my previous post, both the Pygmy example and the gamelan piece are based on a recurring theme. Typically with Pygmy and Bushmen music, the length of the theme coincides with that of the basic cycle, but in gamelan music the theme can encompass several cycles.

6, 7 and 8. As illustrated in the previous post, polyphony and heterophony are conflated in both the P/B and Indonesian traditions.

That's all for now. I'll continue with this list in the next post.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

108. Music of the Great Tradition -- 10: Gamelan

Let's look more closely at the two examples from the previous post, beginning with the BaAka pygmy song, as outlined by Michelle Kisliuk:

As Kisliuk explains, the polyphonic songs of the Aka are cyclic, based on a recurring fundamental melody, or "theme," which may or may not be actually sung during any given cycle. In the above instance, the theme is presented on the uppermost five-line staff, just below the percussion parts. Voices A through D, just below, are labeled "Counter melodies," implying independent polyphonic parts, which they are. Except that they also are not. Because, as I've already argued (see post 102), polyphony and heterophony tend to be conflated in the musical practices of both the Pygmies and Bushmen. I've added vertical lines above all notes in voices A through C that are either in unison or octaves with the theme and, as seems evident from the many matches, all three can be regarded as both heterophonic variants of the theme and counterpoints against it. The only fully independent part is D. (With each repetition of the cycle the parts will be varied, so what we see here represents a typical instance, one of many possible combinations.)

We can now compare the Pygmy example to the Javanese Gamelan score (to which I've added some arrows, for reasons that will become clear momentarily):
Gamelan music is also cyclic, and also based on a recurring melody, usually referred to as the "nuclear theme," played by instruments called "sarons." In this case, the nuclear theme is presented in the Saron barung and Saron demung parts, five staves from the bottom, doubled by the Slentem part, just below. Gamelan music has often been described as essentially heterophonic, as should be evident from the arrows I've placed above those notes either in unison or octaves with the nuclear theme. However, there are many instances of true polyphony as well, as should be clear from careful examination of the faster moving Gender, Gambang and Bonang parts. Clearly, we find a conflation of heterophony and polyphony in both examples.

There are certain other very interesting points of similarity between the African and Indonesian traditions -- and also some important differences. I'll have more to say on both in my next post.

Monday, November 26, 2007

107. Music of the Great Tradition -- 9: Gamelan

In earlier posts I traced an "African signature" along some Out of Africa pathways, illustrating the connections with various audio clips. The "Great Tradition" I have in mind now involves connections that are not so obvious, and in some cases seemingly rather distant.

One tradition that has intrigued me for years in this respect is that of the Indonesian Gamelan, a largely percussion ensemble, most commonly composed of metallophones of various kinds, including gongs, with drums, and also in many cases xylophones, flutes, a string instrument (rebab), and voices. Strongly associated with the pre-Islamic Hindu courts of Java, the gamelan appears to be a hybrid, incorporating musical instruments and practices of various historical periods, and symbolizing various social levels, within a multi-layered ensemble in which each performer has a strictly defined and limited role.

What has for some time most interested me about the various types of gamelan, in both Java and Bali, is the way in which certain aspects of gamelan performance appear, very strangely, to echo certain aspects of Pygmy/Bushmen style. And the more I've been learning about the way Pygmy and Bushmen music is organized, thanks to my readings in the work of Michelle Kisliuk, Nicholas England, Susanne Furniss and Emmanuelle Olivier, the more intrigued I've become.

Here is a somewhat simplified outine of the basic structure of a BaAka Pygmy song, "Mama Angeli," from Kisliuk's book Seize the Dance, p. 83 (I've added some lines above certain notes for reasons I'll explain presently).

And here, for comparison sake, is the score of an excerpt from a Javanese Gamelan piece, from Music Cultures of the Pacific, the Near East and Asia, by William Malm, pp. 28 & 29 of the 1967 edition):

For those of you who enjoy puzzles (and can read music), I'll let you contemplate these two scores for a while to see if you can spot any interesting points of similarity. (To get a better look, click on the images and then click again, to enlarge them to full size.) In my next post, I'll share my own thoughts on the matter.

Monday, November 19, 2007

106. Music of the Great Tradition -- 8

I have only one more item to add to the list -- for now. I'll sneak it in here:

19. Most songs in both traditions are sung to meaningless vocables. Meaningful texts are used, but play a strictly limited role.

The list is remarkable for many reasons. First, because it represents so many striking points of similarity between the musical traditions of peoples living at such great distances from one another, and in all likelihood, as I've argued, separated for tens of thousands of years. Second, because so many of the shared traits are so distinctive: e.g., interlocking "counterpoint"; hocket; yodel; the remarkable ways in which polyphony and heterophony are conflated in both traditions; melodies functioning as unsung mental referents; temporal displacements ("canonic" imitation); the "unification of musical space" through the equivalence of horizontal and vertical intervals, etc. Third -- and this will be my focus for the rest of this series of posts -- certain items in the list read like a menu from which all sorts of other peoples, in completely different parts of the world, have drawn in the development of their own musical styles.

In order to understand the (possible) significance of this last point, we need to back up just a bit to consider the significance of all the evidence suggesting such a great age for "Pygmy/Bushmen" style. As I've argued in my essay, "Echoes of Our Forgotten Ancestors," we have good reason to believe that P/B was the dominant musical style not only of the earliest "modern" humans in Africa, but also the small band of migrants that first ventured "Out of Africa" to become the ancestors of all non-Africans alive today. If this is the case, then P/B must be regarded as the ancestor of all the music we hear in the world of today. And the question we must answer is: what happened during all these many tens of thousands of years that resulted in such a great variety of musical styles today?

I'm not sure I can provide a completely satisfactory answer, but I can say this: when something changes it never changes completely, there are always some aspects that change and others that remain the same. Which means that in many cases we might be able to find some traces of the original, ancestral form, in something that now appears to be "completely different."

For example, since P/B style conflates polyphony and heterophony, and if it is prototypical for all types of music that developed subsequently (as one might expect if one accepts the Out of Africa theory of human evolution), then perhaps certain musical traditions that are now predominantly either polyphonic or heterophonic represent aspects of the original tradition that have survived. Similarly, all the many musical styles of today based on cyclically repeating structures might also have inherited this basic principle from the original source.

We find a great many examples throughout the world of "strophic" structures based on a melody that repeats with different text in each verse. Could this practice be a survival of P/B, based on the importance of item 5 on my list? And what about all the nonsense refrains so important in European and British folk songs? Could they have derived from the nonsense vocables so prevalent in P/B style (see item 19 on my list)?

Now please, before someone has an absolute fit: I'm not saying that this is what actually happened. All I'm saying is that the combination of what I've been arguing with regard to P/B style in itself -- i.e., the possibility of it being of great antiquity -- plus the completely new way of thinking about history mandated by the Out of Africa theory, forces us to consider certain possibilities very seriously that we previously might have felt we could dismiss out of hand. In future posts I'll be considering some of these one at a time and in some detail.

I won't be posting on this blog for a while as I'll be visiting with family over the Thanksgiving holiday, starting EARLY tomorrow morning. Have a happy holiday, everyone -- I'll see you back here soon.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

105. Music of the Great Tradition -- 7: The List Completed

16. Polyrhythmically related vocal parts.

17. Polyrhythmic percussive accompaniment, usually but not always, limited to handclapping.

18. The encoding of multipart performances in monophonic melodies and vice-versa, i.e., the encoding of monophonic melodies in multipart performances.

That's all I can think of for now, though I might have more items to add later.

It's important to understand that ALL the many aspects listed pertain to both Pygmy AND Bushmen traditions, making an especially compelling case, as I see it, for common origin. I have recently completed an extensive comparative study based on the research of Susanne Fürniss, Emmanuelle Olivier, Michelle Kisliuk and especially Nicholas England, whose painstaking book-length study of Ju'hoansi Bushmen music is remarkably detailed, thorough and convincing, and am more convinced than ever that the two musical styles are intimately connected and must therefore, in the words of Gilbert Rouget, "stem from a common root."

What most interests me at this point is the way in which so many of the individual characteristics I've listed here would seem to pertain to the music of other traditions, both in and out of Africa. And the question most on my mind is whether or not Pygmy/Bushmen style was 1. the musical tradition carried out of Africa by the original migrant group; and 2. whether certain aspects of this tradition are at the root of so many other musical traditions that developed in the wake of the great "Out of Africa" migration. In other words, was there really a "great tradition" and if so, where are the signs of its influence in the world of today?

Monday, November 12, 2007

104. Music of the Great Tradition -- 6:The List continued

9. Tonal displacement -- pitches in a repeated motive or phrase can be displaced, most usually at the octave, but also at other intervals, such as the fourth and fifth.

10. Temporal displacement -- notes, motives or phrases can be displaced in time, to produce an echo or canonic effect.

11. Repetition -- motives and phrases are frequently repeated, either with or without . . .

12. Variation -- motives and phrases are frequently varied from one rhythmic cycle to the next.

13. Disjunction -- melodic lines tend to be disjunct, often with wide leaps of a seventh, octave or more, an effect usually associated with yodel.

14. "Unification of musical space" -- melodic lines and harmonies are tonally unified in that both employ essentially the same intervals. This is a rather distinctive aspect of Pygmy/Bushmen style, though not unheard of in certain other indigenous traditions. In most types of polyphony, tribal, ethnic, folk and classical alike, melodies tend to be stepwise, i.e., based on intervals of a second, while harmonies are most often in thirds, fourths and/or fifths. (Interestingly, "the unification of musical space" is a phrase coined by Arnold Schoenberg to describe the new approach he was taking when he introduced his "Method of Composing with Twelve Tones," where horizontal and vertical realizations of the tone row are regarded as structurally equivalent.)

15. Continuous Flow -- though the underlying cyclic structure is based on what could be called a melody or phrase, the polyphonic foreground lacks any clear melodic sense of direction, nor are phrases articulated by cadences, as in most other types of music, either tribal, folk or otherwise. Instead there is usually a continuous flow of unarticulated, interwoven motives, to produce the musical equivalent of a "run on sentence." This is another way of saying that, while this music is highly organized, it is without "syntax" in the usual sense of that term.

103. Music of the Great Tradition -- 5: The List

Last time I promised a list of certain points of similarity between the musical traditions of the African Pygmies and Bushmen that seemed particularly significant -- and could lay the groundwork for our exploration of the great tradition that, as I see it, developed from essentially the same type of practice, as observed by the common ancestors of both groups. Here it is:

1. Interlocking or interweaving parts, producing a "contrapuntal" effect.

2. Use of hocket (the interlocking of relatively short motives to produce a single line or texture, with or without a certain amount of overlap).

3. Yodel.

4. Cyclic structure -- most vocalizing in both traditions is based on an underlying, regularly repeating, rhythmic cycle of anywhere from 4 to 16 "beats."

5. Basic melody -- most songs are based on a repeated melody or phrase that serves as a mental referent, even when it isn't being sung.

6. Polyphony -- singing together in harmonically related parts.

7. Heterophony -- the elaboration of a single melody in different versions in two or more parts.

8. The conflation of polyphony and heterophony is an important and highly distinctive feature of both tradtions.

That's all I have time for now. I'll be adding to the list in my next post.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

102. Music of the Great Tradition -- 4

I've been doing a lot of research and writing on "Pygmy/Bushmen" style these days, trying to make sense of all the various pieces of evidence and all the theories from a variety of sources. As I've mentioned in earlier posts, two leading researchers in this arena, Susanne Furniss and Emmanuelle Olivier, both students of Simha Arom, have declared that the two traditions, while "acoustically" very close, are in fact "radically opposed" in terms of basic "concept." If this were actually the case, then my "great tradition" would be stopped in its tracks before it could get started. I would simply be on the wrong track. That is of course still possible. But hear me out.

After careful review of their research, both in itself and in comparison with other, equally authoritative sources, such as Nicholas England and Michelle Kisliuk, I remain even more convinced than ever that the two traditions are in fact extraordinarily close, not only "conceptually" but also in just about every other respect one could name. This conclusion is supported in a variety of ways, from careful inspection of the musical transcriptions they offer, to comparison with certain very different examples provided by England and Kisliuk, along with the very different interpretations they have offered.

For example, while Furniss and Olivier have insisted that Bushmen music is based on a strictly linear "mental referent" as opposed to Pygmy music, which is, for them, fundamentally polyphonic in concept, Nicholas England's intensive study of essentially the same tradition led him to a diametrically opposed conclusion: "Bushman music . . . is polyphonic at its very basis." Similarly, my review of Kisliuk's research reveals the Pygmy music she studied to be fully as "linear" as it is "polyphonic."

Nevertheless, Furniss and Olivier are not completely mistaken. As can rather easily be demonstrated, once all the many academic and theoretical cobwebs are removed, the two traditions can be regarded as both polyphonic and heterophonic -- which means that neither can be regarded as either exclusively linear or multi-part at base. And here I must briefly pause to define my terms for those of you who are not music theoreticians. "Polyphonic" music is usually understood as conceived in multiple parts, which when performed together, produce harmonies. By "heterophony" is meant a musical structure where all parts perform a somewhat different version of the same melodic line, with occasional, but not essential, moments when some type of harmonic interval could be present. Certain Pygmy and Bushmen musical practices conflate both possibilities, and in a truly remarkable manner, characteristic not only of their own cultures, but certain others as well, as found in various parts of the world that partake of what I am calling "the great tradition."

Over the years I have noted several very interesting points of similarity between the two styles and, thanks to the work I've been studying lately, by Furniss, Olivier, England and Kisliuk, I have recently become aware of certain others. In my next post, I plan to list as many of these as seem relevant, to provide us with a baseline we can use as a reference as we follow the great tradition down the corridors of history, from then to now.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

101. Music of the Great Tradition -- 3

The narrative I'm about to relate is admittedly speculative. However, it is rooted in a premise that, as far as I'm concerned, is rock solid. If you can accept the premise, which will sound fantastic to some, and totally unacceptable to others, but is in fact supported by an impressive body of evidence as well as considerable expert opinion, then all the even more astonishing things that follow will make much more sense than one might otherwise think.

The essentials of my premise have already been discussed at some length on this blog, but I'll go over them briefly now. In Central Africa we have various groups of so-called Pygmies, for example the Mbuti, in the Ituri Forest of the Republic of Congo and the Aka, living in another tropical forest far to the west, in the Central African Republic. In southern Africa, we have various groups of so-called Bushmen, for example the Ju'hoansi, now living in and around the border between Namibia and Botswana.

According to widely accepted (though nevertheless controversial) genetic evidence, all three groups represent some of the most ancient lineages that have yet been identified anywhere in the world. The genetic evidence strongly suggests that the ancestors of both the Pygmies and the Bushmen were once part of a founder band that lived anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. Estimates vary, but the two groups are thought by some to have diverged at least 76,000 to over 100,000 years ago. Others have posited a somewhat more recent divergence time, but nevertheless at least tens of thousands of years BP (before the present time).

Despite the fact that the Bushmen and Pygmies are believed to have had no contact with one another for all that time, their very distinctive and intricate musical traditions are remarkably close in a great many ways, as many musicologists have noted. I've already posted several links to their music, but for the benefit of those who may be new to all this, here once again is an example of Aka Pygmy vocalizing: Divining Song. For comparison here is an example from the Ju'hoansi Bushmen: The Eland. Here is another Ju'hoansi example, from the village of Dobe. Compare with this, from the Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Forest: Elephant Hunting Song.

In several previous posts (especially posts 5-7 and 79-80), I've gone over many of the arguments and evidence that have led me to conclude with a high degree of confidence that the two traditions must stem from a common cultural root, dating from some time prior to their mutual divergence, tens of thousands of years ago. None of this will be new to the regulars reading here.

But for the great majority of ethnomusicologists and anthropologists such a conclusion is nothing less than heresy. (For an extended discussion of the ideological basis for such skepticism, see my posts on the Great Kalahari Debate.) Musical styles and traditions aren't supposed to last anywhere near that long. The general assumption has been that various factors, such as outside influence, creativity, information loss or stylistic "drift" over many generations, would inevitably lead to significant changes over such a long period of time. This is known to be the case with language.

Nevertheless, the musical evidence for the paleolithic origin of what I've called "Pygmy/Bushmen style," coupled with the genetic evidence, is truly overwhelming. Which might tell us something very important about musical traditions -- and culture history -- in general. Because, if the musical practice of the Pygmies and Bushmen of Africa has endured essentially unchanged for tens of thousands of years, then there could be many other musical traditions in other parts of the world that also go back much farther than had previously been supposed. And if we go back far enough, then many of the varied stylistic roots might well converge, to stem from the same root as that of Pygmy/Bushmen style. It is this tradition, going so far back, possibly all the way to the "beginning," that I like to call: "The Great Tradition." I think I can hear it. But I'll let you judge for yourself.

100. Music of the Great Tradition -- 2

If my last post was a bit over-exuberant, it's because I am truly excited about the possibilities opened up by all the revolutionary new research in population genetics and the implications it has for our understanding of human culture and history. Also, because I am so eager to jump start the new era of social science, cultural studies, historiography, anthropology, musicology, etc. I see emerging just over the horizon. (So far things have been much too quiet in all these realms.)

I promise to tone down the hyperbole from now on, however, because I do not want to be perceived as "unprofessional." Actually, while I do have professional credentials, I am not an unqualified admirer of the "professional" attitude, which is why I sometimes seem to be going overboard. I can assure you that any signs I might give that I could actually be some sort of nut case are strictly a hallucination on YOUR part. :-) I am only a harmless composer/poet/artist/musicologist cum philosopher. Artaud was the nut case, not me.

More on the Great Tradition next time, I promise.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

99. Music of the Great Tradition

No not THAT tradition.

If you're into classical music you've heard all about the "Great Tradition," starting I suppose with Bach and working its way up through Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Wagner, all the way to Mahler, Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and beyond. That's the European "high culture" Great Tradition and I have to admit, it's a pretty good one. But it can't compare with the Great Tradition I have in mind, the GREAT Great Tradition, starting at the year 000,001 in Africa, then heading east with the great migration out of Africa, circa 80,000 BC, all the way to SE Asia and Melanesia, then veering west to the Caucasus and paleolithic Europe, while at the same time continuing north along the east Asiatic coast to China, Japan, Siberia, and the Americas.

Many nineteenth and twentieth century folkorists had some inkling of an idea of what I'm talking about, conjuring up "old" traditions, mostly in Europe. But their idea of "old" was way too conservative, usually going back no farther than the Middle Ages or possibly "ancient" Greece and Rome. You call THAT "ancient"? Give me a break!

Meanwhile, a whole raft of academics with nothing better to do, decided to go the skeptic route, pooh-poohing all these nutty ideas about "old" traditions. After all, how did we know they were really old, maybe they were new, who could say? Isn't it true that the most natural thing in the world is change? And isn't the most "wonderful" thing about the human spirit its "creativity." (As though they knew anything about creativity - give me a BREAK.) But they were caught with egg on their face when the geneticists hit the fan -- and began working their way systematically through history with some really nifty tools the old academics never dreamed were possible. Many of these old farts still have no idea what hit them and how so many of their most cherished ideas are headed for the toilet. Don't disturb them, they are peacefully asleep in their dogmatic slumber.

As is now becoming apparent, at least to me (but what do I know?), the Great Tradition survived in a great many places, even Europe, for far longer than anyone could have imagined. Amazingly enough, we find traces of the Great Tradition all over Europe even well into the Twentieth Century. But only a very few really knew what to make of them, what they might mean or what they were saying. One of the most interesting, and least known, things about the Great Tradition was the influence it had on that other Great Tradition, the "high art" one and how it has left it's mark on so much of the music we currently regard as "classic" or even modern.

I'll be exploring this tradition in coming posts, so if you're ready for the ride, say tuned.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

98. Did the Pygmies Ever Have a Language of Their Own?

Sorry for the sudden change of pace, but a thought occurred to me the other day that won't let me alone. I've been thinking a lot about African pygmy music, as anyone who's been following this blog knows. But now I'm thinking about their language. Their music is certainly special, but their language is also special -- that is, their lack of language, the odd fact that every African pygmy group I know of speaks a language related to that of neighboring Bantu, Sudanic, or Nilotic tribes. It's been assumed that they lost their original language through some process of assimilation with the farming groups they've developed symbiotic relationships with. But this hypothesis runs into a big problem no one seems to have noticed. It is in violation of one of the great principles of science, Occam's Razor, which demands that any scientific model provide the simplest solution that accounts for all the evidence. (This should not be confused with the principle of "parsimony," by the way. Parsimony is one of many possible ways of organizing data, but even the most parsimonious solution, in order to be regarded as valid, must conform nevertheless to Occam's Razor -- i.e, it must still be the simplest solution possible that accounts for all the evidence.)

To assume that each and every pygmy group in various parts of Africa went through the same linguistic "evolution," relinquishing an original language to replace it with that of their neighbors, goes counter to both Occam and common sense, because we would have to assume that in each and every individual and unrelated case more or less the same process occurred.

It's true of course that certain groups in various parts of the world have lost their language when they were conquered and assimilated by more powerful groups. But the pygmies were neither conquered nor assimilated. Though often regarded as vassals, they have apparently always been able to retreat into the forest, where they can practice their own rituals, hunting methods, music, dance, etc. So why not their own original speech?

I find it intriguing that other hunter-gatherer groups didn't lose their original languages in the same way. The Bushmen have their own language, possibly the oldest, as do the Hadza and Sandawe, yet all these groups have also developed symbiotic relations with neighboring farmers and pastoralists.

If the pygmies never had a language of their own, what could that mean? what light might that shed on the question of the origins of both "modern" humans and language?

Most of the evidence appears to point to both pygmies and bushmen as representative, genetically, of our oldest fully human ancestors. Chen et al., in a well known paper, estimated the age of separation of the Biaka pygmies from the founding group to be anwhere from 76,000 to over 100,000 years ago (on the basis of their mtDNA). Let us suppose, then, that the group of "modern" humans destined to be the ancestors of everyone now alive on this planet, spoke some language, say, 120,000 years ago. We would be almost forced to assume that, when the Pygmies diverged from this group, they would have spoken some derivative of that language. But if they did, then we must also assume, following the path of the mighty Occam, that at least some of these pygmy groups would have retained some form of that language -- as did the Bushmen, Hadza, etc.

Let us now go back to 120,000 ya, and make the opposite assumption, that the founding group had not yet developed language. So when the Pgymies diverged from the main group they too would have been without language. Continuing with the same line of thought, we can speculate that language may have been invented after the period when the Pygmies broke off, sometime between 76,000 and 100,000 ya (assuming Chen et al are on the right track). So by the time the other groups, ancestral to the Bushmen, Hadza, etc., diverged, they would have been in possession of language, while the pygmies were not. And at this point we can allow many thousands, indeed tens of thousand of years to pass.

Another clue pointing in the same direction: we have a very rich tradition of symbolic rock art in Africa, dating back at least 40,000 years, which most archaeologists have associated with Bushmen history (though such art is not being produced today). No such art has been, to my knowledge, ever attributed to the ancient pygmies. There is thus, apparently, no real evidence that they were in possession of language during the paleolithic period.

Continuing to speculate, in an equally rigorous Occamian fashion: in order for the above to make sense, the pygmies could not have had language at all until after the Bantu expansion, of 2,000 to 4,000 years ago. If they had developed or borrowed any language prior to that time, that would be the language that at least some of them would now be speaking. It would seem then, that in order for the present pattern to have manifested itself, the first language spoken by any pygmy people must have been a language borrowed from the neighbors with whom they currently interact. Each time a pygmy group encountered Bantu, Sudanic, or Nilotic speaking people, they would have learned what language is from them.

If the above can be taken seriously, it could give us a clue as to when language originated -- i.e., some time between the divergence of the pygmies and the divergence of the Bushmen.

Am I going to hate myself in the morning? We'll just have to wait and see.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

97. Is Money the Problem?

In the last installment I briefly described three very different examples of what can happen when dedicated people work together to support vulnerable traditions that are important to them. I could list many more examples, but unfortunately there is not nearly enough of this sort of thing going on and too many important traditions are either dying out or being hopelessly watered down and even degraded. Sure, you can get the media people to accept tribal music from just about anywhere if you slap a rhythm section over it, add a didgeridoo riff and a sitar solo and call it "world beat" or whatever. Or concoct some sort of phony "Celtic" music by slapping a rhythm section over hoked up versions of Gaelic folk songs. That's not what I'm talking about.

It's hard for me to believe people just don't care or that they have really managed to convince themselves that all is hopeless. It is very sadly true that many can no longer tell the difference between the authentic and the phony. And it's no help when solemn, self-righteous voices from the academy continually remind us that "authenticity" itself can be dismissed as some sort of "essentialization," or social construct (it can't). The United Nations has a Commission on Human Rights and has also issued a (imo seriously flawed) Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But what about indigenous traditions, what is happening to them?

Sure, there are all sorts of festivals going on in various places and traditional artists can even apply for grants to do their thing. But too many of these festivals and too many of the artists getting grants are forced to water down what they do in order to reach the large audiences required to justify the pitifully small amounts they are able to get -- when lucky.

I'm told all the time that the "young people" are no longer interested in their traditions, that they are regarded as "old hat" and irrelevant. But how about putting some of the older people on television on a regular basis, giving them an opportunity to discuss their traditions and perform their own dances and music in an authentic and respectful setting, produced by media professionals working with a professional budget, to put something together in such a way that it has a real impact. And how about paying the traditional performers for what they do, not just some token payment but something substantial, an amount that reflects their true value to their community and also the world as a whole?

Why do I have the feeling the young people might change their minds in such an environment and suddenly begin to develop more of an interest in their own traditions? Just as young people in western society become motivated to study classical music when they have opportunities to see it performed on television and are impressed by the enormous prestige of certain classical musicians, not to mention their enormous incomes.

Is it unrealistic to expect that comparable efforts and sums of money could be devoted to the support of authentic indigenous (and also ethnic and "folk") traditions? Most people would probably agree that such an idea is totally UNrealistic. But most people nowadays have very little idea of what is going on in the world of the arts generally and the vast sums of money that are being literally thrown at the most prestigious arts institutions and art world stars -- not only artists but curators, museum directors, collectors, administrators, etc.

I recently came across this article in the NY Times, The Patron Gets a Divorce, centered around the Dia Foundation, a story that gives you some idea of the truly obscene amounts of money now being lavished to purchase prestige and panache in the art world of today, dominated by the super-wealthy and the super-manipulative -- those who are now calling the shots and defining what is considered "art" and what is not -- and how much it is worth.

Leonard Riggio is the rich person who made Dia:Beacon possible. A demanding, emotional, self-made man — a Brooklyn cabbie’s son who built Barnes & Noble into the dominant bookseller in America — Riggio was the chairman of
the Dia board during the years Dia:Beacon was being built. He believed in it with every fiber of his being. When Dia needed a piece of art to round out its permanent collection, he bought it. When cost overruns occurred, he covered them. When design decisions arose that entailed additional expenses, Riggio
wrote the check. Of the $50 million it cost to create Dia:Beacon, Riggio gave at least $35 million. The second-biggest donor, the Lannan Foundation, gave $10 million. Ann Tenenbaum, the vice chairman of the board, and her husband Thomas
H. Lee, the Wall Street financier, contributed $2.5 million.

At the time Dia/Beacon was being built with obscene amounts of money taken from profits earned by Barnes and Noble, starting pay at their bookstores was $7 an hour. A friend who had been working there for a few years and had more responsibilities than the beginners was earning more: $8 an hour! Here are some more edifying quotes:

For years, the Guggenheim’s biggest individual patron was Peter B. Lewis, the chairman of the Cleveland-based Progressive Corporation, who donated $77 million to the museum over 11 years. . .

“I think Michael is a person who, among other things, likes to build museums,” he said. “He likes to build, build, build.” This is a notion with which Govan himself takes umbrage — even though part of the reason he took the job in Los Angeles was to take charge of an ambitious three-phase building project; the first phase alone will cost $156 million. . .

On his way out the door, Govan had taken $1.8 million from Dia’s general fund and used it to make a grant to help underwrite an enormous Western land project called “City,” by Michael Heizer, to which both he and Dia had long been committed. (Govan sits on the Heizer Foundation’s board.) ...

For his part, although Riggio walked away from Dia, he remains committed to the art. He now spends some of his money backing Donald Judd’s foundation in Marfa, Tex. ...

I find those last two bits particularly revealing. We now live in a world where superstar artists not only command huge sums but have foundations of their own, complete with boards of directors.

So -- the answer is:
Yes, Virginia, there IS a whole lot of money out there, more than enough to get all sorts of meaningful things accomplished. Once we can find a way to divert all that spending from all the meaningless things greedy, vacuous and vulgar people, manipulated by conniving, shallow, self-imporant people, are being conned into supporting.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

96. The Lesson for Today -- Carried Over from Last Week

I see that it's almost a week since my last post. Sorry, but I've been really busy for some time now, with various responsibilities and projects and also people, all of which -- and whom -- are important to me. I was planning on launching a discussion of certain noteworthy and commendable examples of how certain indigenous traditions were successfully protected and promoted, but it seems I don't have the time to do full justice to the full scope of what's at stake here. So I'll have to rest content with some brief mentions.

1. British folk traditions have had a long history of support on many levels and from many notable individuals, from Maud Karpeles, to Ralph Vaughn Williams, Percy Grainger, etc., etc., to Alan Lomax, Peter Kennedy, etc., etc. and most recently Rod Stradling and Fred McCormick, editors of the remarkable online journal, Musical Traditions. All sorts of traditions from all over the world are represented here, but it is the British traditions that get most of the action and rightly so, since both editors are highly committed advocates, determined to see that these extraordinarily powerful and meaningful traditions remain viable, even on the Internet. Have I explained that well? Probably not, so I hope they'll forgive me. My point is that no tradition can survive in the absence of attention and support -- but also that any tradition has a far better chance of survival when even just a small group of dedicated advocates, such as Stradling and McCormick, take the time and make the effort to get the message across regarding what is truly important to them and why it is also important to the rest of us. As indeed it is.

2. I'm thinking of the enormous impact that a single outsider, Colin McPhee, had on the music of Bali. When McPhee arrived on that amazing island during the 30's, its extraordinarily rich musical traditions were in danger of dying out. Thanks to McPhee and also some other dedicated individuals, such as Walter Spies, these traditions were revived -- to the point that today the remarkable gamelan music of both Bali and Java has spread -- in its most authentic forms -- all over the world, enriching the lives of music lovers, and students, everywhere. All it took was the interest and dedication of a few sensitive souls to re-ignite the powerful flame of traditional Indonesian gamelan music, dance, and art.

3. I'm thinking also of a truly Earth-shattering development in the realm of visual arts, where, again, the attention of a few outsiders, intelligent enough and sensitive enough to see the importance of what was dying out before their eyes, has made a world of difference. I'm speaking of the astonishing development, over the last 40 or 50 years, of a truly remarkable and unique "school" of Australian Aboriginal artists, like no artistic school that has ever come before, bar NONE. You might think of me simply as a musician and/or musicologist, but that's not true, I'm a visual artist as well and I've published a fair amount of critical and theoretical work in that area over the last several years. I do think I know what I'm talking about when it comes to visual art. And I must confess that the work of these Australian aboriginal artists has impressed me as NO other art of our time has. The great book to consult on this development is Aboriginal Art, by Wally Caruana. The best internet connection I've found is Nangara, with a dizzying array of truly great art by a remarkably large number of enormously gifted artists on display. Too often one reads of the pressures on artists from all sorts of backgrounds to conform to the accepted styles of either the western past or the "postmodern" present. Here we find artists of great talent and originality, drawing on the indigenous traditions of their forbears with an authenticity evident in every stroke and symbol, yet at the same time powerfully imaginative and original. It CAN be done, ladies and gentlemen, just spend some time at the Nangara website and you'll be convinced.

As a parting shot, I'll leave you with this fantastic description of Balinese dance by the great poet and visionary of the dramatic arts, Antonin Artaud -- if this be "orientalism," he certainly makes the most of it:

"What is in fact curious about all these gestures, these angular and abruptly abandoned attitudes, these syncopated modulations formed at the back of the throat, these musical phrases that break off short, these flights of elytra, these rustlings of branches, these sounds of hollow drums, these robot squeakings, these dances of animated manikins, is this: that through the labyrinth of their gestures, attitudes, and sudden cries, through the gyrations and turns which leave no portion of the stage space unutilized, the sense of a new physical language, based upon signs and no longer upon words, is liberated. These actors with their geometric robes seem to be animated hieroglyphs. It is not just the shape of their robes which, displacing the axis of the human figure, create beside the dress of these warriors in a state of trance and perpetual war a kind of second, symbolic dress and thus inspire an intellectual idea, or which merely connect, by all the intersections of their lines, with all the intersections of perspective in space. No, these spiritual signs have a precise meaning which strikes us only intuitively but with enough violence to make useless any translation into logical discursive langu'age. And for the lovers of realism at all costs, who might find exhausting these perpetual allusions to secret attitudes inaecessible to thought, there remains the eminently realistic play of the double who is terrified by the apparitions from beyond. In this double‑trembling, yelping childishly, these heels striking the ground in cadences that follow the very automatism of the liberated unconscious, this momentary concealment behind his own reality‑there is a description of fear valid in every latitude, an indication that in the human as well as the superhuman the Orientals are more than a match for us in matters of reality."

Thursday, October 4, 2007

95. The Lesson For Today -- Continued

I think the most important recommendation I could offer with regard to the whole issue of cultural "equity" (assuming anyone with any degree of influence in such matters is listening) would be that the problems of endangered traditions be afforded at least as much importance as that of endangered animal species. In other words, the issue of cultural ecology should be added to that of environmental ecology as a prime concern of all peoples and all nations, as part of our growing awareness that certain vital aspects of life on this planet, both physical and spiritual (and I do NOT include religion in this formula, thank you), represent urgent concerns that must be addressed if coming generations are to have any sort of meaningful future at all.

Note that we cannot in all good conscience argue similarly on behalf of, say, "endangered peoples." Not because there are no people in the world who are endangered or that there should be no efforts to assist and support them -- on the contrary, this is a hugely important problem that must continually be addressed with the greatest urgency -- but because we find endangered peoples all over the globe, in every country, of every ethnic background, in the countryside, the cities, in factories, farms, mines, slums, ghettos, on the streets, in homeless shelters, etc. The problem of endangered peoples is a vast, worldwide social problem that includes, but cannot be limited to, the effort to support indigenous peoples.

If we want to support indigenous peoples as such, we must emphasize what it is that makes them special and important to humanity as a whole -- i.e., their culture, their traditions. Their "indigeneity" per se, in terms of whatever claims they may have to the prior or inherent ownership of certain lands, properties, etc., however important from a moral and legal standpoint, is not enough to set them apart from any other groups or individuals who might have been unjustly dispossessed and/or displaced in the past, indigenous or not.

I've looked through the recently adopted United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with mixed feelings. I won't comment on any of this in detail for now, but the sense I get is that there are far too many pronouncements and far too little discussion of all the many problems and pitfalls entailed in almost every article. For one thing, nowhere in the declaration is there any attempt to even define what is meant by "indigenous peoples." Nor is there any attempt to address the extremely complex questions and contradictions that will inevitably arise from many statements -- as in Article 3, for example, where it is declared that "Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination."

Peter Jones is going over the declaration very seriously and in some detail and he certainly has his work cut out for him. I think the essential problem is that the declaration attempts far too much, including a laundry list of often redundant and in many cases unreasonable demands obviously inserted by a wide range of different constituencies, in an attempt to please as many representatives of as many interested parties as possible, with little thought to the potentially divisive and even violent consequences -- in the highly unlikely event that everything in the document will be taken seriously by all the nations that signed it. Realistically, the declaration is likely to have no effect at all, because too many of the issues it addresses, where not hopelessly intractable on their face, are so complex as to be resolvable only in courts of law -- or, God forbid, armed conflicts.

What I'm trying to do here is emphasize the importance of the cultural side of this issue, because, as I see it, the battle for cultural equity on behalf of indigenous traditions is a battle that can be won, an eminently achievable goal. And, moreoever, a battle that can be "fought" peacefully without the need for either weapons or recriminations, which everyone can win and no one would necessarily lose. Whereas the more fundamental, life and death, moral and legal, battles that most concern Peter, as reflected in the well meaning but IMO naive UN declaration, are so complex and so fraught with the potential for violent confrontation, that they may never be fully or even partially resolved by anything more than a series of piecemeal compromises, appropriate to each local situation.

As I see it, efforts like Peter's blog afford a much better opportunity for addressing such issues, since each instance of exploitation, persecution or aggrandizement can be discussed and evaluated on its own merit, within its own parameters and context. In some cases, it might be appropriate to argue for self-determination, in others a simple compromise might offer a better solution. Of course, the UN declaration will be read by many more influential people than Peter's (or my) blog. But if Peter and I persist, we might ultimately reach more people in the long run and maybe change some minds.

Is it naive to assume that anything can be done to effectively and definitively stem the tide of global cultural "pollution"? Isn't it inevitable that native cultures will either vanish, be watered down, or simply assimilated into the mainstream "white"-out? In my next post, I want to discuss some exemplary instances where efforts to protect, promote and develop indigenous traditions have met with real success.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

94. The Lesson for Today

The United Nations has recently adopted an important declaration regarding indigenous rights, which Peter Jones is now discussing on his blog. I've gone through this declaration with some care, but before commenting I want to read more of what Peter has to say.

To continue with my "lesson" list from the previous post, I'll summarize the two already presented and then add some more:

1. We need to recognize that indigenous traditions are important for the human race in general, as they are part of a heritage in which we all share. (It should go without saying, by the way, that "our" share in this heritage does not give any single group, nation or business the right to appropriate for its own gain the cultural or intellectual property of any other group.)

2. The protection of indigenous culture need not be an all or nothing proposition. While certain types of change may be inevitable and/or irreversible others are not.

3. Anthropologists and ethnomusicologists tend to cringe at the very thought of "natives" being "trotted out" to perform traditional rituals, dances, etc. for "tourists." Yet we have no problem with all the many tourists flocking into places like New York City or London to partake of characteristically "western" rituals, such as the performance of a play, an opera or a symphony, in which our own "native" artists are "trotted out" for the benefit of anyone with the price of admission. This is yet another example of the double standard I've been discussing. Wherever such performances can enhance the status of indigenous culture, not to mention provide income for indigenous people, they should, as I see it, be encouraged, not disparaged. Anthropologists, ethnomusicologsts and folklorists can make themselves useful by lending their expertise and influence to ensure that such performances are presented in as authentic, meaningful and serious a manner as possible.

4. The worldwide popularity of so many aspects of American culture cannot be dissociated from its role as a global media hub. Yet the importance of the media is rarely considered by those who lament the passing of traditional culture and values. Young people all over the world are profoundly influenced by what's presented to them on radio, television and film (the Internet is a more complex matter that I'll be discussing shortly). If all they see and hear is either western or western influenced, then it's not difficult to understand why they are currently questioning or even belittling their own traditions. The message is all too clear (if mostly subliminal): "This is the voice of the power structure -- if you want to be hip, cool and with it, this is what you must learn to love, this is what you must want to have." Things have gotten so bad in this respect that even when non-western cultures are being depicted, it is usually to patently western style music, usually either rock or classical, with a dollop of occasional bongo drumming to add a bit of "authenticity."

Alan Lomax lobbied hard for an opening of all media to local culture on a regular basis, in the belief that the programming of traditional arts, rituals, crafts, skills and ideas could go a long way toward breaking the global stranglehold of western tastes and values. As a collector, author, broadcaster, record producer, and film documenter, he was well aware of the potential of the various media to alter perspectives and change minds. His own use of the media to spread awareness and appreciation of American traditions had met with enormous success, as is now well understood and appreciated by serious students of folk music, protest music, blues, gospel, country, bluegrass, etc., even rock.

The lesson he learned was the lesson we should all take to heart: when people feel that their traditions are taken seriously by knowledgeable outsiders, they -- and their children -- will take these traditions more seriously as well; when they see and/or hear themselves and their compatriots on the local television, radio, etc., and find themselves turning into local celebrities as a result, the resulting prestige can change everything. On the other hand, when authoritative anthropologists and ethnomusicologists throw up their hands to exclaim that all is hopeless, that "change" is inevitable; when more attention is paid, as is now increasingly common among ethnomusicologists, to the often pathetic efforts of their children to use popular genres such as rock or country music as a catapult to instant fame and fortune; then any hope for the survival of once vital traditions based on centuries of accumulated creativity, imagination, knowledge and wisdom can be forever lost.

5. Not only local but also national media can also make a huge difference, either positive or negative. For a great many years now, public and/or "educational" television has been presenting a long series of always fascinating, but all too often predictable, "nature" programs. The underlying message in almost every case is how "man" is destroying the balance of nature, polluting the wilderness, butchering the wildlife and generally desecrating the planet. While this is indeed a message that we in the developed world should certainly take to heart, the "villains" being portrayed in these documentaries are all too often the local indigenous peoples, whose desperate efforts at survival are typically characterized as "poaching." We hardly ever actually see any of the locals in these shows, but the "insidious" effects of their actions are a constantly recurring theme.

What we hardly ever see on television are programs documenting the lives of the "poachers" who are causing all this grief. And I'm wondering why that is. If PBS and other networks devoted to educational programming would spend more of an effort on the documentation of traditional cultures round the world, so that indigenous people can more often be portrayed in a positive light, in terms of their many impressive acheivements, that could make an enormous difference, for them, their children and our own.

6. With respect to the above situation, one has to wonder why it is that so many animal species are given special status as "endangered," with concomitant efforts at protection, while so many indigenous peoples are literally being tossed to the wolves (of globalization), with hardly a whisper of concern. An especially disturbing example of what can happen when government authorities are convinced by well meaning but naive organizations to passively and unthinkingly follow the wisdom of the day, is the story of what happened to the pygmies of Uganda, kicked out of their own ancestral territories as part of an effort to protect a relatively small group of endangered gorillas.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

93. The Double Standard -- continued

Please don't misunderstand. I am not advocating for the maintenance of the status quo in our own society. On the contrary, I firmly believe we in the "west" ought to pay more attention to what our children have to say regarding their education -- and show more respect for their tastes in music, dance, literature, etc. I wouldn't want to toss math, science, Shakespeare, etc. into the dustbin just because the great majority of our children have no interest in them, but I do believe our educational system could be improved if we were willing to listen more carefully to what our children have to say, and take their opinions and feelings more seriously -- at least as seriously as so many of our anthropologists and ethnomusicologists are taking the opinions of indigenous young people with respect to their education and their future.

The point I'm trying to make here is not that one way of dealing with children is necessarily better or more "equitable" than any other, but that there is a double standard at work in our attitude toward our own traditions vs. those of the "Third World." Indigenous traditions are being allowed to fall by the wayside because indigenous young people are perceived as having "lost interest" in them; yet the traditions of the "west" are being preserved, protected, and in fact lavishly promoted regardless of the indifference or even active opposition of the great majority of our own young people -- and in fact our population as a whole.

In the present context, perhaps the most useful tradition to focus on would be western "classical" music. If you were to conduct a poll, you'd probably find that 90% or more of our school children regard it as boring, pointless and irrelevant, a vestigial remnant of the past that has no meaning whatsoever for them. Yet enormous resources are poured into the perpetuation of this tradition in literally every "First World" country. As of February 2006, according to the Wall Street Journal, conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim was paid almost $2,000,000 by the Chicago Symphony alone (not counting income from guest and solo appearances); Lorin Maazel was paid $1,900,000 by the New York Philharmonic; James Levine was paid roughly the same amount by the Metropolitan Opera Company. According to Playbill, the Philadelphia Orchestra recently reached an agreement with the union whereby "the minimum annual salary for a Philadelphia Orchestra musician . . . is now $119,600." Base salaries for musicians in the nine major US orchestras are at least $94,000 with most well above $100,000.

Again, please do not misunderstand. I am not advocating for the reduction of anyone's salary, especially when so many of our musicians, classical and otherwise, are severely underpaid. Classical music plays an important role in my life, so I am certainly not suggesting that we ought not support it. But it's important to see the double standard at work here. This tradition, like so many others in our society, is supported so strongly because it is valued, and justly so, as a vital part of our culture. Despite the fact that so many in our society have no interest in it, those who do value it, value it so highly that they are willing to expend considerable resources in maintaining it.

Should we be bothered by the fact that, this tradition was originally associated with a "cultural context" involving the rule of kings and queens -- and the snobbish and indeed elitist attitudes and tastes of a privileged aristocracy, aped by an often ruthless and vulgar middle class? As social scientists we certainly do need to take all of that into consideration. Art can never be completely separated from politics. But no tradition of any real vitality and meaning need be bound forever to the cultural context in which it first arose -- and the importance of classical music in the context of modern democracy is a perfect example of that.

What is the lesson here? 1. We need, first of all, to understand and appreciate the value of indigenous traditions, not only to the indigenous people themselves, but to us -- because these traditions pertain to us as well (see my earlier posts). 2. We need to realize that it is not necessary to completely embrace the culture that gave rise to any particular tradition in order to support it -- any more than we embrace the aristocratic culture that gave rise to classical music. Thus it is unreasonable to insist that such traditions must continue to go hand in hand with certain related practices that we might now find abhorrent, such as human (or animal) sacrifice, the circumcision of females (or males), etc. This notion, that all aspects of culture must be regarded as parts of an indissoluble whole, is one of the most destructive (and demonstrably wrong-headed) dogmas of modern anthropology.

To be continued.

92. The Double Standard

In his essay "The Astonished Ethno-Muse" (see post 83), David McAllester registered his sudden awakening to the fact that the younger generation of Navahos had opted for country music and rock in favor of the age-old traditions McAllester himself had gone to such trouble to document and understand. A subsequent visit to Australia demonstrated that more or less the same disconcerting development had occurred among aboriginal youth on that continent. In the years since McAllester's path breaking essay, the refrain has become all too common among academics in all branches of cultural studies: young people today no longer have any interest in the traditions of their forbears, but are, in ever increasing numbers, identifying with the "outcasts" and "rebels" of British-American Pop music.

Consequently, again following McAllester's lead, there has been a call for the "acceptance of change" as a natural and pervasive aspect of all cultures, followed by a veritable avalanche of serious studies devoted to the effects of various genres of popular culture throughout the Third World -- along with a concomitant neglect of older, established traditions whose claims to "age-old" provenance are increasingly being challenged by the same sort of (erroneous) arguments that fueled the "revisionist" position in the Kalahari debate (see post 64 et seq.).

On the intellectual front, there has been a parallel movement, fostered by the supposedly liberatory, anti-hegemonic discourse of "post-modern" thinkers, disturbed by the elitism of "high-culture" modernists (most notably T. W. Adorno, who notoriously placed kitsch and jazz in the same dubious category of degraded art, and campaigned strenuously on behalf of the arch-modernist elitism of his mentor, Arnold Schoenberg). The "new" call (now not so new) has been for a breakdown of the supposedly artificial barrier between "serious" and "popular" culture.

It would be amusing, if it were not at the same time so disturbing, to note the profound double standard at work in all of the above discourses. The alleged preferences of indigenous children and other young people of the "undeveloped" Third World, with respect to their education and orientation toward the past, are being taken very seriously by the academics of a First World which offers its own children exactly no say whatsoever with respect to an educational system steeped in the traditions and values of modern "Western" society.

Are the children of the United States bored with such "outdated" and increasingly "irrelevant" topics as math, science, history, government, Shakespeare, Melville, Poe, Steinbeck, etc.? That certainly would seem to be the case. If their interests are turning, thanks to the profound changes currently taking place in the world around us, to aliens from outer space, computer games, footwear (yes, footwear -- see the previous post), cell phones, iPods, email, chat rooms, Hip-Hop, etc., then, in the spirit of the "new age," the same academics should be lobbying for the incorporation of subjects pertaining to these matters in the curricula of our schools and the phasing out of all the old, "traditional" stuff that no longer means much anymore.

After all, why do you need to learn math if you can do it better on a calculator or computer? Why do math at all in the age of automated checkout and income tax software? Why learn history if you can look up any facts you need over the Internet? Why study Shakespeare, the theater or the novel if it's all available now on cable, Direct TV, DVD, etc.? For that matter, why take the kids out to a fine restaurant when all they really want is whatever "special" is currently being offered by McDonalds, Burger King, Colonel Sanders, etc.? Don't the kids have the right idea? Isn't it elitist to insist on "good" food -- or "fine" wine? If there is no longer any real difference between "high" and "low" in the realm of music and art, then surely there is no real difference between "fine dining" and McDonalds either -- except for the price. So why not save yourself a few bucks, Professor?

As far as music is concerned, one could ask some very similar questions. Why bother anymore with "classical" music, with all its embarrassingly elitist and even undemocratic associations? Didn't classical music develop as part and parcel of the culture of the European aristocracy of centuries past? How could it possibly still be relevant for us today, in the world of American democracy?

The fact remains, however, that we of the "West," regardless of the opinions of our children (who count far more to our tastemakers as consumers than culture mavens), continue to value our own traditions -- educational, culinary, artistic, etc. -- however "outdated" and elitist they may appear to be -- and continue to promote them -- lavishly; while at the same time questioning the value and importance of the traditions of indigenous and other "undeveloped" peoples in the world around us.