Sunday, April 13, 2008

147. Music of the Great Tradition -- 47:Drone

Some of the most important types of vocal drone polyphony are described by Joseph Jordania on pages 26 and 27 of his book. The basic principle common to all is the persistent presence, in one or more parts, of a single tone, either sustained or continually repeated, while one or more other voices sing melodically against it. While the drone is often the lowest tone, it can also be the highest -- or somewhere in the middle. While the same drone note often persists throughout an entire song, pitch changes are common in some styles. He points, additionally, to a very interesting aspect of drone performance practice that's often overlooked: in most cases the drone part is sung in unison by a group, while the moving parts are usually sung by soloists (p. 211).

As Jordania's survey makes clear, drone polyphony is unquestionably of great importance worldwide, and might well be the most frequently occurring type of traditional vocal polyphony in "Old Europe," found far more commonly today than the "contrapuntal" polyphony on which I've been focusing here. Certain especially revealing differences between the two types of musical practice are highlighted in Jordania's comparison between the contrasting vocal styles of East and West Georgia:

• East Georgia is considered to be the “kingdom” of the pedal drone . . West Georgia is mostly known as the “kingdom” of contrapuntal polyphony; . . .
• The metre is always precise in West Georgian songs, while in at least some East Georgian songs (particularly – the same “long” table songs from Kartli and Kakheti) the polyphony develops without a precise metre, in so-called “rubato” (free metre);
• A major part of the metered polyphonic songs in Georgia is based on the simple duple (2/4, 4/4) and triple metres (¾,
6/8). East Georgia uses all these metres, whereas West Georgia uses predominantly (and in some regions almost exclusively) only duple metres;
• East Georgian polyphonic songs are famous for their richly ornamented melismatic melodies. There are no ornamented melismatic melodies in West Georgian polyphonic songs at all (apart from the region of Racha, which has an obvious influence from the East Georgian singing style); . . .
• The yodel is present only in West Georgia; (217-218).

Remarkably, the combination of rhythmic precision (lack of rubato), duple meter, and unornamented melody, noted above as characteristic of West Georgia, also characterizes the hocket/interlock, stimmtauch and canonic examples we've been discussing, and is, moreover, typical for much of Africa as well, especially P/B style, where yodeling is also common. Jordania specifically associates West Georgia with the older, more traditional culture of "Old Europe," prior to the Indo-European migrations hypothesized by Gimbutas:
these migrations and major cultural and population changes during the 3rd-2nd millennia involved only the territory of East Georgia, while the territory of western Georgia, situated on the other side of the Likhi mountains (the dividing mountain range between the eastern and western Georgia) remained virtually unaffected (p. 219).
For Jordania, East Georgian drone polyphony, and by implication much of European drone polyphony in general, can therefore be explained as a hybrid of the original contrapuntal style now found only in West Georgia, and a
West and Central Asian monophonic style, with richly ornamented melodic lines, specific scales, free rhythm and non-metric time. As Tsitsishvili puts it, ". . . the [East Georgian] “long” songs represent a total transculturation of style which differs from both parent cultures, though belongs in the polyphonic music culture of Georgia" . . .

Moving through Europe, Indo-Europeans were in constant contact with the autochthonous carriers of the ancient European polyphony, so the possibility of mixture of these two different types of music (polyphonic and monophonic) must have been extremely high in many regions of Europe (pp. 219, 220).
While I can't do full justice here to Jordania's complex and nuanced treatment of the history and meaning of drone, admittedly not always in agreement with my own thinking, the notion of drone polyphony as a hybrid between two very different vocal styles, one polyphonic through and through, the other essentially monophonic/ unison; one representing a pre-existing autochthonous culture, the other the culture of a more recent, more aggressive and assertive "invader," does appear to make a good deal of sense. It's important to note, as well, that drone, while far more common than contrapuntal polyphony, is not as widely distributed. While the latter has been found (or referenced) sparsely scattered through many different parts of Europe overall, the former is found most frequently in Eastern Europe (including the Baltic states), less frequently in pockets of Southern Europe, but rarely in the rest of the continent, including Britain. (The many remarkable points of similarity between these drone traditions and drone as it appears in early Medieval polyphony cannot of course be ignored, but is a somewhat different issue, to be discussed in future posts.)

While all indications are that drone polyphony arose in Europe, therefore, as a mixture of an autochthonous contrapuntal practice with a newer monophonic/ unison style with roots in Asia, this explanation would appear to be inconsistent with the overall world picture, since drone polyphony of various types, sometimes strikingly similar to that of Eastern and Southern Europe, can be found, as Jordania himself points out, in many other parts of the world. This is a part of the problem I've already referred to, a very puzzling problem I'll be addressing in future posts.

To be continued

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