Sunday, June 3, 2007

21. "Music" in the Year Zero

So, what sort of music was there before music got started back in 000,001? Or, if that question is a bit too oxymoronic for you, what could have happened in the years leading up to (and including) 000,000 that led to the development of music in the following "year"? In terms of my Phylogenetic Tree, the same question could be posed as follows: what was style family X, what did it lack that "real" music has and what did it have that "real" music needed in order to come into existence?

And here I am really truly going out on a limb, and in this case the pun is intended, by considering the vocal practices of our closest relatives, the apes. What you are about to read in this particular post is admittedly extremely speculative and could very well be completely off-base. My knowledge of apes and their vocalizations is relatively new and seriously incomplete. And I have up till now had the opportunity to study only a very small sample of relevant recordings.

And by the way, my interest in ape vocalizations is not based on any a priori assumptions about evolution as some sort of inevitable progress from the apelike to the human, because in this research I am trying very hard to get past the common tendency to operate on the basis of such assumptions so I can concentrate my attention as clearly as possible on what counts most: the evidence. What the evidence tells me is what you see in the Phylogenetic Tree, rooted in style family A1, what I've called "Shouted Hocket," a highly idiosyncratic type of vocalization featuring the precisely synchronized, interchange or interlocking of shouting, "hooting" or yodeling voices, rapidly echoed back and forth, between at least two but often many more participants.

This style family is of great interest for several reasons, as explained in my essay and also some of the earlier posts in this blog. For one thing, it is highly distinctive, which makes it difficult to confuse with other styles; for another, it is distributed throughout the world in a manner that appears to connect it with the "Out of Africa" migration, as argued in my previous post; of all the variants of P/B it would appear to be the most widely distributed; and it is also the simplest, which suggests it could be prototypical for P/B generally.

What makes "shouted hocket" especially interesting is its striking similarity with a type of rather common primate vocalization known as "duetting" or "chorusing." In a recently published book, The Origins of Music, Björn Merker specifically relates such practices to the early development of human music in a passage that deserves quotation at length:

Synchronous calling of the kind postulated here, that is, true cooperative synchronous calling rather than synchrony as a default condition of competitive signaling, requires a motivational mechanism for mutual entrainment. We assume that such a mechanism was selected for in the course of hominid divergence from our common ancestor with the chimpanzee, and was retained to the present day in the form of our propensity to join in and entrain to a repetitive beat. This propensity is apparently lacking in the common chimpanzee, which seems unable to keep time even with training ..., but may be present in bonobos. Such an ancestral adaptation for entrainment to a repetitive beat would supply, in other words, an ancient biological foundation for the musical pulse no human culture has failed to feature among its musical means of expression ... Indeed, if the present argument should turn out to have any merit, this adaptation for entrainment supplies an irreducible biological root of human music.

Genuine synchronous chorusing may exist, at least incipiently, among bonobos. A report by de Waal ... on captive bonobos describes a call variant apparently lacking a homolog in the vocal repertoire of common chimpanzees, namely, a loud and explosive sound called staccato hooting. According to de Waal “during choruses, staccato hooting of different individuals is almost perfectly synchronized so that one individual acts as the ‘echo’ of another, or emits calls at the same moments as another. The calls are given in a steady rhythm of about two per second.” We note that both alternation and synchrony often occur in the same species of chorusing animals, and can result from a single timing mechanism ..."
(from Björn Merker," Synchronous Chorusing and Human Origins," in Wallin, N. L., B. Merker & S. Brown (eds), The Origins of Music. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000, p. 318-319).

(By the way, Merker's interest is primarily in unison synchronization rather than alternation, as in his view it is the former that must have played the greater role in the early development of music. After a brief email exchange in which I explained my views, he was unwilling to accept my position regarding the greater significance of alternation in such chorusing as a possible precursor of hocket, which for him lacks the significance it has for me.)

While I haven't been able to find any good recorded examples of Bonobo chorusing, I did find, on YouTube, a very intriguing video featuring what appears to be duetting between two Siamang Gibbons

Here's another example, also Siamangs

In the next installment I'll provide some examples of Shouted Hocket so we can compare the two types of vocalization, animal and human.

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