Monday, March 31, 2008

142. Music of the Great Tradition -- 42:Hocket

Follow the evidence! And there certainly is evidence, as we have seen. The most important pieces of evidence, from a medieval historian's viewpoint, are undoubtedly the various types of round, canon, stimmtauch and hocket, as found (or reported) in various oral traditions in various parts of Europe, and certain similarly organized examples of early notated polyphony, as found in manuscripts from monastaries and churches in Western Europe and Britain (see previous posts). From the broader standpoint of the comparative musicologist, the strong resemblances between certain examples from both traditions and certain basic features of African music, especially the Pygmy/Bushmen tradition I've been focusing on, are of special interest and potentially far greater importance.

But what are we to make of such similarities? Isn't it possible to simply sift through the repertoires of various traditions that interest us, looking for similarities that could prove our point and overlooking differences that could undermine it? This sort of strategy, often ridiculed as "cherry picking," has been used to "prove" all sorts of dubious theories. To meaningfully "follow the evidence," therefore, we must first of all not fall in love with any particular theory simply because it appeals to us or seems "logical" and "reasonable." And second of all we must make every attempt to critically evaluate the evidence we are considering, to be sure we are not simply cherrypicking the "best" bits and tossing all else aside.

While clearly the notion of a "Great Tradition," as I've been describing it here, appeals to me, it may surprise you to learn that I am not in love with it -- and am perfectly willing to admit I could be wrong. What's most important about such a theory, as I see it, is not whether it is "true" in some literal, absolute sense, but the extent to which it can be profitably explored -- and whether or not it can be tested. And one of things I like about the ways in which comparative musicology can be conducted in the 21st Century is that certain things that in the past were only a matter of conjecture can in fact, for the first time -- to some degree at least -- be put to some sort of meaningful test. For one thing, there are many more recordings, field studies and regional overviews available than ever before and, thanks to the Internet, much of this is now easily accessible. For another thing, we have, in the form of the Cantometrics methodology, a tool that enables us to take both similarities and differences into account, and on a wide range of possibilities, from the local to the regional to the global. Finally, thanks to dramatic advances in the understanding of our DNA, we can check certain musical hypotheses against the findings of anthropological genetics.

From our standpoint at present, the most important regional overview can be found in the recently published book from which I've so often been quoting, by Joseph Jordania. And one of the most insightful quotes from Jordania's book may well be the following:

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].

Thus, what is most significant about the comparisons I've been drawing between certain examples from contemporary "folk" traditions and other examples from historical sources, is that, in almost every case, the "folk" examples are drawn from oral traditions associated with exactly the sort of "isolated regions" pointed to by Jordania. The musical traditions we have been examining, therefore, have not simply been "cherry picked" from wherever I've been able to find some sort of music that "sounds right," but represent very specific practices to be found in very specific regions of the continent, regions that can, indeed, be associated with what Gimbutas referred to as "Old Europe." When we find this sort of pattern, with a clearly identifiable, highly distinctive, practice found widely dispersed throughout some of the most marginalized, isolated regions of an immense territory, it seems likely that the practice in question must at one time have been far more widespread, and what we now find are variants, surviving in what can only be called "refuge areas."

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