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 F├╝rniss, 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.