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.


Anonymous said...

My theory roast, as a layman with absolutely no ethnomusicological knowledge, would be to look at the social implications of polyphony.

Basically, I'm thinking that it supports or is supported by long term stable community roles and bonds. Also possibly long term communities with low rates of other change, though I think that is more sketchy.

As an implication of this, it might be disfavored in more fluid societies, i.e. areas in which travel is easy and subsistence resources are neither hard to extract nor require more "specialized" skills (by which I mean only those skills which are more divergent with the average skillsets of humans, either those within a particular region or the world at large).By contrast polyphony might be more favored in "marginal" areas.

Anonymous said...

To put it another way, I'm thinking that regions which have been characterized by recent waves of cultural homogenization, in which multiple feuds have given up local identities for more global identities may be the ones which have moved away from polyphony.

Anonymous said...

Likewise, I'm sure you've already read this:

but it might be an eye opener to you...

Anonymous said...

Or better:

DocG said...

"Basically, I'm thinking that it supports or is supported by long term stable community roles and bonds."

For my thoughts on the socio-cultural meaning of Pygmy and Bushmen polyphony, as manifested in what I call P/B style, see Post 188 ( et seq. I argue that the style and structure of this music reflects "core values" basic to the society as a whole.

Once such a tradition becomes established, however, then it can take on a life of its own, so that, after many thousands of years and many changes in the social fabric (among certain groups, but not necessarily all), a musical style might not any longer reflect current social or cultural values, but persist simply as a manifestation of "tradition" or, much the same thing, the maintenance of deep ancestral connections.

Thanks for the links. What Scott says about "hill peoples" makes a great deal of sense to me. Such societies have held out against tremendous pressure for many thousands of years. And have certainly mastered the art of military defense, though most of them are pacifists at heart and certainly not agressors. In Afghanistan, the Taliban, which represent very wealthy and powerful elites, are attempting to intimidate and manipulate these people. If left to their own devices they would probably fail in the long run, as so many have failed in the past.

But we in the US lack the patience to allow such processes to work themselves through. Unfortunately for us, we also lack the resources, money and resolve to achieve our goals, regardless of how admirable they may seem. All we have left, it seems, is our paranoia -- a formula for yet another Vietnam style disaster.