Thursday, January 31, 2008

126. Music of the Great Tradition -- 26:Old Europe -- The Role of Women

Is the "Great Tradition" a musical tradition only? Or are the musical practices I've been discussing part of a larger cultural gestalt, roughly along the lines suggested by Lomax and Gimbutas, where polyphonic singing with open, relaxed voices, reflecting key aspects of what I have called Pygmy/Bushmen style, reflects what she called a "matristic" society, characterized by (in Lomax's words) male-female "complementarity"? For Lomax, this was indeed the culture of our earliest fully human ancestors, hunter-gatherers like the Pygmies and Bushmen, whose music does indeed seem the perfect embodiment of a highly integrated, egalitarian, gender-equal society. Could this ancient culture have survived along with the music, in various parts of the world, among people who managed to preserve their lifestyle and traditions by migrating to marginal or easily defensible refuge areas, such as forests, islands and mountains?

One thing seems certain. It isn't possible to consistently associate either P/B style music or the "matristic" lifestyle with hunting and gathering. Though many hunter-gatherers of today still sing polyphonically, others (the Australian aborigines, for example) do not. While we find both "Pygmy/ Bushmen" style and matristic, complementary societies, in many pockets where Old European traditions have survived, agriculture rather than hunting and gathering is the principal means of subistance. The same is true for pockets of P/B style music making in many parts of the world (e.g., the highlands of New Guinea, where horticulture has been practiced for thousands of years).

As for those elements of greatest importance to Gimbutas, the matristic, egalitarian aspects, this remains a very intriguing possiblity. We know that many indigenous and peasant societies in many parts of the world are still highly egalitarian, with great emphasis placed on either simple sharing of resources, or systems of barter and gift-exchange. Whether such practices can consistently be associated with polyphony, open-throated singing, etc. appears, at this time, to be an open question, certainly very much worth exploring.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

125. Music of the Great Tradition -- 25:Old Europe and the Role of Women

Is there some sort of universal cause and effect relation at work between the role of women in society and certain aspects of musical style? More specifically, is there a cause and effect relation, as Lomax claimed, between male-female complementarity and polyphonic vocalizing, relaxed voices, and "good" tonal blend? Or are the correlations he found due to historical processes at work in a specific time and place -- in this case neolithic Europe -- affecting both the treatment of women and many other aspects of culture, as Gimbutas' theories suggest?

Universalist claims of this sort can be tested by determing whether or not the correlations still hold in a completely different socio-historical context. Consider, for example, native North America. Here we have both hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists, simple tribal cultures and advanced civilizations. We also have patrilineal societies, where women are clearly subordinate, and matrilineal societies, where women have considerable influence and freedom. Yet throughout the length and breadth of this vast area, we find only the barest trace of polyphonic vocalizing, mostly in very limited areas, such as pockets in the Northwest Coast and, in northern California, among the Hupa -- who are patrilineal. The music of just about every other native American tribe north of Mexico, whether matrilineal or patrilineal, aggressive and warlike, or relatively quiet and passive, is dominated by unison singing, with little to no trace of polyphony. Evidently, the correlation Lomax found between complementarity and polyphony cannot, therefore, be regarded as universal, as it doesn't seem to apply in North America.

As for the other musical characteristics Lomax associated with complementarity -- relaxed voices and "good" tonal blend -- the picture is not so clear. The Navaho and many Pueblo groups are matrilineal -- and have indeed been characterized as "Apollonian" (as opposed to "Dionysian") cultures. Their voices do in fact tend to be more relaxed than is typical for native Americans in the north -- and Pueblo singing is noted for its smooth vocal blend. The Apache, however, close relatives of the Navaho, and also matrilineal, tend to have a more strident, tense and harshly blended style of vocalizing. Since it's not clear whether or not the Apache pattern could be a response to relatively recent historical events, additional research would be necessary before a firm conclusion could be reached.

Returning to our consideration of Europe, we are probably safe in concluding that Old European polyphonic vocalizing, associated by Lomax with the role of women, was most likely the product of historically contingent, rather than universally necessary, forces -- as implied by both Gimbutas and Jordania. There would seem to be no hard and fast rule causing humans to sing in harmony wherever women are treated as equals.

Nevertheless, as Gimbutas would surely point out, the Old European pattern does suggest that gender-balance, acephalous, egalitarian political systems, group integration, cooperation, and sharing, along with an overall lack of competiveness and aggression, do seem to go hand in hand, both with one another and also with musical practices expressing harmoniousness, social integration and simple pleasure. It does seem reasonable, therefore, to associate smoothly blended, relaxed voices, singing spontaneously together in harmony, with the sort of harmonious culture one might expect when both women and men are socially integrated on a free and equal basis, with minimal opportunities for sexual rivalry and tension to arise. In other words, while the correlations Lomax discovered do not necessarily point to cause and effect relationships, they strongly suggest that the various aspects of any culture can best be evaluated as parts of an integrated whole, with each tending to influence the other.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

124. Music of the Great Tradition -- 24:Old Europe & the Role of Women

When Alan Lomax collected folk music in Spain and Italy during the 1950's, he was struck by certain differences in singing style between north and south in both countries, that appeared related to the role of women. Specifically, where women played a more important and active role in the society and had a certain amount of sexual freedom, as in the north, voices tended to be more open, relaxed and "well blended," and there was a tendency to sing in groups, often polyphonically. Where women played a subordinate role, and their sexuality was strictly controlled, as in the south, voices tended to be constricted and tense, solo singing was more common, and group singing usually in harsh unison. Since Lomax was something of a Freudian -- and a disciple of Margaret Mead -- it's not difficult to see how he could have associated sexual tension with vocal tension, male-female harmony with musical harmony.

Since this was one of the principal "epiphanies" that led him to focus on the stylistic aspects of music, the testing of this hypothesis became one of the earliest goals of Cantometrics. Drawing upon the "Ethnographic Atlas," a database compiled by ethnologist George Murdock, containing, among other things, data pertaining to the role of women in a number of different societies, Lomax found correlations that did, indeed, appear to confirm his initial hypothesis. Of particular interest is a graph appearing on p. 167 of Folk Song Style and Culture, with "productive complementarity" as the horizontal axis, and mean percentage of polyphonic singing as the vertical. The graph progressively rises from left to right, indicating a growing tendency, worldwide, for polyphonic vocalizing as the participation of women in food producing activities, according to Murdock's ratings, increases (M and N indicate male domination for such tasks, D and E rough equality of males and females and F and G almost exclusively female participation):

Interestingly, there is hardly any difference between female polyphony (scored line) and polyphony generally (solid line), indicating that the differences between "men's songs" and "women's songs" (an issue that has received much attention over the last 25 years or so) may matter less than differences in the way women are treated in the society as a whole.

While many of the relationships Lomax found between song style and social structure remain, in my opinion, either problematic or difficult to assess, his correlations between male-female "complementarity" and aspects of song style such as polyphony, tonal blend and vocal tension have always seemed more convincing. While it's not clear whether such a correlation can be regarded as truly universal, it does seem to hold for large portions of both Africa and Europe.

Lomax's notion of complementarity seems quite close to Gimbutas' idea of the matristic -- a "balanced society" where women and men live and work together on a more or less equal basis. Lomax described this type of society as follows: "[W]here women take a leading recognized part in the central activity of a society, such as supplying the main source of food, they assume, at least in this respect, a complementary, or more or less equal, interactive relationship with men. . . People tend to sing in wide voices in societies where women are most secure in their productive and sexual roles and where, therefore, they are freest to relate fully to the males" (pp. 199-200).

While Lomax often writes as though he sees a cause and effect relationship between sexual and vocal tension, complementarity and polyphony, etc., he also associates polyphonic vocalizing and wide, relaxed voices with the same "Old Europe" that Gimbutas associated with the earlier, matristic societies that dominated all of Europe prior to the advent of the Indo-Europeans. Which raises a fascinating question: are we dealing with a rather Freudian situation, where tensions between men and women, sexual and otherwise, lead to the development of a particular musical style? -- or do the differences, both sexual and musical, reflect the contrast between two periods of human history, the early matristic, complementary, polyphonic culture of Africa and Old Europe vs. the later patriarchal, repressive, violent, monophonic culture of the Indo-Europeans?

123. Music of the Great Tradition -- 23:Old Europe & the Role of Women

Marija Gimbutas' last, and best known, book is entitled The Civilization of the Goddess:The World of Old Europe. In the Preface, Gimbutas writes:

This book examines the way of life, religion, and social structure of the peoples who inhabited Europe from the 7th to the 3rd millennia BC, which I have termed Old Europe, referring to Neolithic Europe before the Indo-Europeans. During this period, our ancestors developed settled agricultural communities, experienced a large growth in population, and developed a rich and sophisticated artistic expression and a complex symbolic system formulated around the worship of the Goddess in her various aspects (vii).
In an interview with David Jay Brown & Rebecca McCLen Novick, Gimbutas speaks of her childhood in Lithuania, a country which, at the time, was, as she says, "still fifty percent pagan." She goes on to explain as follows:
Yes, well Lithuania was Christianized only in the fourteenth century and even then it didn't mean much because it was done by missionaries who didn't understand the language, and the countryside remained pagan for at least two or three centuries. And then came the Jesuits who started to convert people in the sixteenth century. In some areas, up to the nineteenth and twentieth century, there were still beliefs alive in Goddesses and all kinds of beings. So in my childhood I was exposed to many things which were almost prehistoric, I would say. And when I studied archaeology, it was easier for me to grasp what these sculptures mean than for an archaeologist born in New York, who doesn't know anything about the countryside life in Europe.
She goes on to describe the essence of her hypothesis:

[P]roto-Indo-European people came from South Russia to Europe, introduced the Indo-European culture and then European culture was hybridized. It was the old culture mixed with the new elements - the Steppe, pastoral, patriarchal elements. So already at that time, thirty years ago, I sensed that, in Europe there was something else before the Indo-Europeans. . .
The Indo-European social structure is patriarchal, patrilineal and the psyche is warrior. Every God is also a warrior. The three main Indo-European Gods are the God of the Shining Sky, the God of the Underworld and the Thunder God. The female goddesses are just brides, wives or maidens without any power, without any creativity. They're just there, they're beauties, they're Venuses, like the dawn or sun maiden.

So the system from what existed in the matristic culture before the Indo-Europeans in Europe is totally different. I call it matristic, not matriarchal, because matriarchal always arouses ideas of dominance and is compared with the patriarchy. But it was a balanced society, it was not that women were really so powerful that they usurped everything that was masculine. Men were in their rightful position, they were doing their own work, they had their duties and they also had their own power. This is reflected in their symbols where you find not only goddesses but also, Gods. . .

Rebecca: Why did the patriarchal culture choose to dominate?

Marija: This is in the culture itself. They had weapons and they had horses. The horse appeared only with the invaders who began coming from South Russia, and in old Europe there were no weapons - no daggers, no swords. There were just weapons for hunting. Habitations were very different. The invaders were semi-nomadic people and in Europe they were agriculturalists, living in one area for a very long time, mostly in the most beautiful places.

When these warriors arrived, they [i.e., the pre Indo-European farmers -VG] established themselves high in the hills, sometimes in places which had very difficult access. So, in each aspect of culture I see an opposition, and therefore I am of the opinion that this local, old European culture could not develop into a patriarchal, warrior culture because this would be too sudden. We have archaeological evidence that this was a clash. And then of course, who starts to dominate? The ones who have horses, who have weapons, who have small families and who are more mobile. . .

David: Is there any evidence that the takeover was violent and how much did the people try to defend themselves?

Marija: It was violent, but how much they defended themselves is difficult to tell. But they were losers. There was evidence of immigration and escape from these violent happenings and a lot of confusion, a lot of shifts of population. People started to flee to places like islands and forests and hilly areas.

Whether there was literally a "cult of the Goddess" or "language of the Goddess," as Gimbutas claimed, is less important, as I see it, than her insight into the essentially "matristic," egalitarian and pacifist nature of Old European culture, prior to the transformation of Europe by the Indo-Europeans. The Old Europe she describes seems quite close in many ways to the culture of the Pygmies and Bushmen of Africa, as commonly described in both the ethnographic literature and books desiged for the general public, such as Colin Turnbull's The Forest People and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' The Harmless People. And, as I must not fail to point out, both of these peoples, like the Old Europeans, have been preserving age old traditions for thousands of years in marginal areas, surrounded by more highly "developed," and often violent, populations.

When we combine Gimbutas' ideas with certain basic hyphotheses associated with the "Out of Africa" model; plus the musical evidence, as described in Jordania's writings, my "Echoes" essay, and, of course, Lomax's ideas and research, going all the way back to the Fifties; then it's possible to associate her vision of Old Europe with traditions stretching all the way back to the Paleolithic and the earliest migrations of "modern" humans into Europe from Africa, ca 40,000 to 50,000 years ago.

To help us understand how "African" Old Europe may have been, I'm appending two sets of images to this post, the first representing rock art from southeastern Spain, as presented by Gimbutas in her Civilization of the Goddess book (p. 187), the second a selection of four unrelated rock art images from Southern Africa, usually associated with the Bushmen culture of anywhere from several hundreds to several thousands of years ago:

Saturday, January 26, 2008

122. Music of the Great Tradition -- 22:Europe

The term "Old Europe" was apparently introduced into the archaological literature during the 1950's by an important but also somewhat controversial figure, Marija Gimbutas. She is credited with developing the so-called Kurgan Hypothesis which identifies the "Kurgan" people with the origins of the Indo-European language family and its related culture. According to this model, Indo-European language and culture developed in the "Dnieper/Volga" region in the "earlier half of the 4th Millennium BC" and spread from there in many directions, both to the east and west, facilitated by the Kurgan mastery of horsemanship. The Wikipedia article on the Kurgan Hyphothesis includes the following "Map of Indo European migrations from ca. 4000 to 1000 BC according to the Kurgan model":

From this map we can get an idea of what Jordania is talking about when he associates the Indo-European migration into (or, if you prefer, "invasion of") Europe with the disappearance of the most traditional forms of vocal polyphony throughout most of the continent during the last few thousand years. Note the yellow area in the map, between the Caspian and Black Seas, representing an area, roughly where Georgia is located, that was left unconquered by the agressive and warlike Indo-Europeans.

Friday, January 18, 2008

121. Music of the Great Tradition -- 21:Europe

According to Jordania, "unlike many countries in Europe, where the tradition of polyphonic singing is represented only in some of the regions, the whole of Georgia is one big group of closely related polyphonic traditions" (p. 75). Perhaps for this reason, the traditional vocal polyphony of the Republic of Georgia is probably the most intricate, varied, and highly developed of any large area outside of Africa. To judge from Jordania's descriptions, the parallels with Africa (and Pygmy-Bushmen style) would seem to be most prominent in West Georgia, where the most complex forms can be found, including "contrapuntal polyphony," yodel and improvisation.

As far as the traditional music of Europe generally is concerned, however, the picture is rather patchy, with mostly rather small islands of polyphonic vocalizing surrounded by a sea of monophonic and unison singing, dominated by solo genres such as the epic, lyric song, ballad, religious chants and intonations, etc. (I am, of course, omitting the European "classical" and "popular" traditions, what Jordania aptly calls "professional polyphony," with which I'll be dealing presently.) Alan Lomax called these mostly isolated pockets of untutored group harmonisation "Old European" style, as opposed to the "Modern European" style of the solo songs and ballads.

To better understand why Lomax would characterize this style as "Old European," we need to back up a bit to consider the meaning and history of (traditional) vocal polyphony worldwide. For this purpose, I'd like to quote some authoritative, and convincing, comments from Jordania's book:

A study of local polyphonic traditions suggests that the prevailing tendency of the historical dynamics is the disappearance of the vocal polyphonic traditions. Actually,this is not a prevailing, but the only tendency. Historically documented cases of the disappearance of polyphonic traditions come from Europe, Asia, America, and Oceania. On the contrary, the documented cases of the appearance of vocal polyphonic traditions (as the natural evolution of polyphonic singing from monophony) are conspicuously absent. This means that the universally accepted idea of the natural evolutionary transformation of monophonic singing into polyphonic singing is a fiction, totally unsupported by the evidence. . . [209]

According to my model, the earlier we go in human and hominid prehistory, the more polyphony will be found, and ultimately, the origins of polyphony must be somewhere in the very process of the evolution of our human ancestors in Africa, before their dispersal throughout different continents of our planet . . . [293].

I remember very well that every time ethnomusicologists start discussing the distribution of polyphonic traditions throughout Europe and try to discuss the possible reasons for the emergence of choral singing, one of the most popular ideas among ethnomusicologists is the crucial importance of the “mountain factor”. “Look”, someone would say, “most of the European mountain ranges are populated by the carriers of the polyphonic tradition. There is something in this. Somehow mountains help to create polyphony”. . . But there is another very important peculiarity of the distribution of polyphonic traditions in Europe as well: besides the mountain regions, there are also very important non-mountain regions with traditions of vocal polyphony. . .

Most importantly, there is one very important common feature that unites most of the European polyphonic traditions. Mountains, large forests, islands- these are all geophically isolated regions. . . This fact suggests that mountains do not help to create polyphony . . . but as geographically isolated regions, they help polyphony and other elements of the culture to survive [212-213].

For Jordania, the most likely explanation for the European situation is the migration of Indo-European speaking peoples into the continent during the Neolithic, a development that forced the older populations, with their more archaic polyphonic traditions, into marginal areas, such as certain mountain, forest and island refuges.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

120. Music of the Great Tradition -- 20:Georgia

As Jordania stresses in his book (see especially pp. 75-76), group vocalizing in just about every region of Georgia is so thoroughly polyphonic that unison singing is literally unheard of. Most Georgians are capable, it seems, of spontaneously hearing and singing separate parts. This in itself is of great significance, since it has generally been assumed, by those schooled in West European traditions, that some special training and skill is necessary just to be able to sing in harmony at all, much less naturally and spontaneously, without even thinking about it.

Jordania ascribes such abilities to the existence of an ancient tradition of polyphonic singing that goes back to our earliest human ancestors in Africa. This tradition would have survived in various "marginal" areas of the world, such as islands and mountains, where it has been protected from the encroachment of more recent traditions based mostly on monophonic singing.

Jordania's position is quite close to my own in many ways, though for him the tradition goes back much farther into the past, in fact millions of years. He sees it as spreading to the rest of the world with the first wave of migration out of Africa of so-called Homo Erectus peoples, whom he regards, along with proponents of the "multiregional" model, as already full fledged "Homo Sapiens." I, on the other hand, tend to be more comfortable with the model that sees "modern" humans (Homo Sapiens) leaving Africa for the first time roughly 70,000 to 90,000 years ago, the so-called "recent Out of Africa" model. The jury is still out on which of the two models best fits all the evidence -- though as I see it, the bulk of the genetic evidence points to the more recent exodus. In any case, we both agree on the importance of Georgia as a refuge area where some very old and powerful polyphonic vocal styles have survived for a very long time indeed.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, several examples of Georgian music can be heard on the website entitled The Traditional Polyphony of Georgia, where a regional map is displayed. If you click on region no. 15, Guria, you'll hear an example of vocalizing that, for me, resembles P/B style in many ways, especially when we consider the elaborately yodeled highest part. Some traces of interlock can also be heard. A type of hocket, along with yodel, can be heard in the concluding section of this Georgian Work Song, as performed by the Rustavi Choir (track 14, from the CD Georgian Voices).

Sunday, January 13, 2008

119. Music of the Great Tradition -- 19:Georgia

Shortly after I completed the last post, ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl, with whom I've been corresponding, sent me a pdf copy of a fascinating book by a leading authority on Georgian music, Joseph Jordania. This was a remarkable and very welcome coincidence, not only because I am currently discussing Georgian music, but also because what Jordania has to say about the meaning and origins of European polyphonic vocal music generally is so relevant to the discussion of this same tradition that I've been planning to get into here. In fact, there are a great many ideas and arguments in Jordania's book, entitled WHO ASKED THE FIRST QUESTION? The Origins of Human Choral Singing, Intelligence, Language and Speech, which I find remarkably astute and also quite sympathetic. Jordania's knowledge of vocal polyphonic traditions generally, as found all over the world, is both extensive and impressive. And many aspects of his interpretation of their meaning and origin are very close in many ways to my own.

(In addition to the thorough treatment of the vocal traditions, on which Jordania appears to be quite authoritative, the book contains many speculations regarding the relationship of music generally to the origins of, as his title states, "intelligence, language and speech," that I see as problematic, though always interesting and thought provoking. Where he and I differ most is that his theories of musical -- and linguistic -- evolution are grounded in the "multiregional" model of human history, whereas mine follow the more recently developed "Out of Africa," or "replacement" model. Our differences complement one another in a very interesting and, possibly very useful, way. I hope to get into some of these more basic issues in future posts.)

As Jordania is so authoritative on the subject of Georgian and European polyphony, and since his ideas are so close to my own on this subject, I've decided to quote from his book wherever appropriate. Here are some of his thoughts on the special role of Georgia in European history:
Georgia (in Georgian "Sakartvelo") shows an array of important signs of unbroken cultural ancestry. Autochthonous residents of the Transcaucasia, Georgians still speak the Georgian language, which survives from the epoch of the pre-Indo-European languages. The only possible relationship of Georgian language outside the Caucasus
seriously discussed by linguists is that with the Basque language, the only survivor of the pre-Indo-European languages in Western Europe. Geographically Georgia is part of the region known as "Transcaucasia", situated on the southern slopes of the Great Caucasian mountain range, stretching from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea (more correctly – the Caspian lake, the world’s biggest lake). Being surrounded by the highest mountains of Europe (reaching at several points more than 5.000 meters), the Caucasian mountain gorges represent the ideal "hiding spot" from outer influences for isolated populations. [p. 74]

There follows, in pages 74 through 104, a fascinating description of extraordinary interest and value, including many excellent transcriptions, of many different types of Georgian vocal polyphony, from various regions, both secular and religious. I can't hope to summarize this here, but will be discussing certain points of particular interest in future posts.

Jordania's extraordinary book can be downloaded from the website The Traditional Music of Georgia. The link appears close to the top of the page.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

118. Music of the Great Tradition -- 18:Georgia On My Mind

No, not that Georgia. The one in the Caucasus Mountains, the one that used to be part of the USSR. According to a very interesting Wikipedia article, "the Caucasus Mountains are commonly reckoned as a dividing line between Asia and Europe, and territories in Caucasia are variably considered to be in one or both continents." A convenient map shows how this region is tucked neatly between the Black and Caspian Seas. A commonly accepted version of the "Out of Africa" model, as expressed, for example, in Stephen Oppenheimer's remarkable book, The Real Eve, has the first wave of European Homo Sapiens entering that continent from western India via the Caucasus. These Europeans would not have been Europeans as we now picture them, however -- because there were no Europeans at that time -- these Europeans would have been Africans!

In my essay, "Echoes of Our Forgotten Ancestors," I write about them as follows:

If the Trans-Caucasus were indeed a major staging ground for early humans into Europe, there is reason to believe their musical practices might be alive and well in the region to this day. What is now the Republic of Georgia is justly famous for a tradition of elaborate (and enormously impressive) polyphonic vocalizing stretching back historically as long as records exist. While interlocked vocalizing is usually intermittent, not pervasive, it is nevertheless an important and striking feature of many up-tempo performances, as is some truly spectacular yodeling. In terms of vocal style (open, relaxed voices) and choral blend (highly integrated), Georgian singing also matches P/B style quite closely, the only important differences being accent (forceful in Georgia, usually relaxed among the Pygmies and Bushmen) and the use of phrased, as opposed to continuous, melodic structure (for examples, see Supra: Georgian Banquet and Georgian Voices: The Rustavi Choir). Is this a style that must necessarily have evolved from monophony to polyphony, simplicity to complexity, according to traditional notions of evolutionary "development"? Or was the complexity there from the beginning, a legacy from our African ancestors and their HV, Inos, and Ruslan descendants? [HV, Inos and Ruslan are Y chromosome "haplotypes" associated, by Oppenheimer, with this region.]
Is the remarkable vocal polyphony found in so many regions of Georgia a part of The Great Tradition? And could this remarkable song style tell us anything about the extension of that tradition into Europe? For the moment, I'll leave you to explore some of these traditions on the following web page, entitled The Traditional Polyphony of Georgia. Click anywhere on the map and you'll hear examples of vocal polyphony from that region.