Monday, July 20, 2009

173. The Pygmy/Bushmen Nexus -- Part 12 -- A Comprehensive Musical System

While much in my most recent essay is based on materials first presented in this blog, under the heading Music of the Great Tradition (see especially posts 118 through 146), one very fundamental idea, which only occurred to me after I'd gone to the trouble of systematically listing all the many Pygmy-Bushmen commonalities, is new. The list is very long and I won't bother to reproduce it here, since anyone interested can look it up in the paper itself (Some Notable Features of Pygmy and Bushmen Polyphonic Practice, with Special Reference to Survivals of Traditional Vocal Polyphony in Europe, pp. 3-4). What is new is my realization that this list reveals something truly remarkable and possibly unique in all of music:
Indeed, as careful study of the rich and unusually long list of distinctive features reveals, both the Pygmy and Bushmen traditions seem to have already encapsulated within them features characteristic of many different musical traditions in many parts of the world, as though P/B had served as some kind of prototype. The notion that a single style of great antiquity could serve as a prototype for so many different musical practices now prevalent throughout the world is speculative, to say the least, yet consistent with evidence suggesting that the original “Out of Africa” migrants could have been perpetuating the same tradition . . . In this sense, P/B could be considered as, in some sense, a comprehensive musical system. Is this simply an interesting observation? Or could it have more serious consequences for our understanding of music generally (pp. 4-5)?
What impressed me so deeply, in addition to all the many other things about this style that impressed me, was the fact that I could not think of a single other musical practice in which so many different characteristics to be found elsewhere in the world came together in performances of such apparent complexity and intricacy which, at the same time, were produced so effortlessly and with so little self-consciousness. Many musical features usually thought to be completely different or even opposite from one another are actually conflated in this tradition. While P/B is fundamentally polyphonic, certain passages can take the form of a kind of tightly coordinated heterophony. Moreover, extended heterophonic passages of this kind can sometimes come quite close, in their effect, to simple unison. The intricate back and forth interplay of hocketed parts can't always be distinguished from antiphony, the basis of mainstream Bantu "call and response." As Susanne F├╝rniss has so effectively demonstrated, solo songs can be derived from an amalgam of polyphonic parts and, as Emmanuelle Olivier has so clearly shown, multi-part counterpoints can be derived from single melodies.

While P/B performances can sound to the uninitiated like unorganized streams of continuous group improvisation, careful study has revealed that they are, in fact, based on controlling, continually repeated rhythmic cycles and melodic configurations, either expressed or more often implied, which provide a harmonic, rhythmic and motivic reference for everything else we hear -- much as in a jazz performance, where the controlling melodic/harmonic basis can go completely unheard. Not only jazz, however, but a great variety of otherwise very different musical structures from many different musical traditions are also based on regularly recurring rhythmic/metric cycles and repeated melodic phrases or groups of phrases, often set to different words with each repetition, but in every case based on a musical principle already found in a tradition that can be traced back to Africa tens of thousands of years ago. While the existence of regularly repeating meters and so-called "strophic" forms can all too easily be taken for granted as musical givens, it should be clear by now that nothing to do with music can be taken for granted, that everything we now hear had its origin at some point in the past.
(to be continued . . . )

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