Sunday, May 27, 2007

15. An Old Problem

Before dealing with the "bottleneck" that breaks the continuity of my phylogenetic tree, I need to back up a bit, to consider an old problem, a longstanding dilemma the bottleneck is intended to address. During the heyday of Vergleichende Musikwissenschaft (aka Comparative Musicology), many gifted scholars struggled vainly to place the various types of "primitive" music of which they were aware into a coherent evolutionary picture. Part of the problem was their methodology, focused almost exclusively on Western theoretical concepts: scale formations, melody types, phrase structure and tuning systems, none of which proved particularly useful for broad-based comparative research. Even more of a problem, however, was the puzzling variety of different musical types and styles with which they were confronted. It seemed logical to assume that the earliest music would be the simplest, with scales of only 2 or 3 tones and simple, repetitive structures. And indeed there were some tribal peoples whose music seemed to fill the bill. But there were other "primitive" groups whose scales contained 7 or even more notes, with musical structures that weren't at all easy to characterize. Especially puzzling was the fact that there was no one kind of music making that typified all extant hunter-gatherer groups. Some did seem limited to only a small number of notes, sung solo or in unison, but others favored far more elaborate styles, with wide ranging melodies, polyphony and even counterpoint. Still others appeared to be somewhere between these two extremes. Given such a wide array of different "primitive" types, it wasn't difficult to conclude that music might not have had a single origin after all, that it must have been independently invented in different places at different times, a notion still widely held today.

Alan Lomax conceived Cantometrics as a style-oriented methodology better suited to the complexities of world music than the analysis of scales and tuning systems, an approach he rejected as both ethnocentric and ineffective. Back in the early Sixties, as Lomax's collaborator-assistant, I had the extraordinary opportunity to participate in putting his hypothesis to the test, a process that involved the encoding and analysis of a wide array of musical practices from a great many different corners of the world. Thanks to a dramatic expansion in field recording activity, due to improved lightweight equipment, an accelerating interest in non-western music, and Lomax's tireless efforts in building his archive, our sample far exceeded anything that had been addressed before. And, as far as I was concerned, the results did, rather dramatically, bear Lomax out. The cantometric approach provided a far more comprehensive, coherent and convincing overview of world music than anything preceding it.

In December 1966, at the New Orleans meetings of the Society for Ethnomusicology, in a paper titled "Patterns of World Song Style," I presented the results of a study of my own, representing a first attempt to produce what would now be called a "phylogenetic tree" of musical evolution. I still have some copies of the hand-drawn, xeroxed graphic I distributed. (The reader is urged to right click on the link and select the "Open in a new window" option.)

Thanks to the extensive sampling provided by the cantometric database, which I queried systematically, plus a certain degree of subjective inference based on careful listening, I was able to put together an admittedly hypothetical but nevertheless coherent picture. Studying it today, I see that it strongly resembles the new phylogenetic tree I've been discussing in several very interesting respects. The differences interest me even more, however, because my old effort could easily be construed as a model based, not on the Out of Africa theory, but the more traditional multiregional theory that has been its chief rival for many years, in a raging controversy that has still to be convincingly resolved.

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