Her life was steeped in classical music, but Ida Halpern was passionate about the songs of British Columbia's Indigenous people, music she set out to prove was equal to that of Bach and Mozart.See, that is the part that puzzles me. I'm very fond of the classic music of north India and the music of the Balinese and Javanese gamelan and have heard interesting music from Ghana and Zimbabwe, the traditional music of Japan and other places. Some of it is quite sophisticated, but in terms of structure and aesthetic power, these musics have limits that I suspect come from the lack of really good systems of notation. In the absence of that, what tends to happen is that a small core of traditions is preserved instead of the radical advances of individual composers--call it an inherent difference between "folk" music and "art" music. That is just a private theory and, yes, it would take a great deal of research to flesh it out. Call it an informed intuition.
The music of the Indigenous peoples of Canada that I have heard is particularly limited in its techniques and devices. There is not much rhythmic interest and even less harmonic interest. The vocal lines tend to focus on just a very few intervals, seconds and thirds mostly, and the impression one gets is of a single chanting tone, with a small amount of variation. In the absence of notation, of any kind of formal training for musicians and of the largely ritual function of the music, this is not surprising. If you want to sample a few fragments, you can go to Amazon and listen to the clips from this album:
Now why would someone with a PhD in musicology from the University of Vienna think that this was equal to the music of Bach and Mozart? Even for a second? And how would she go about proving it? That's what puzzles me.
I can only find one significant article on her work, by Kenneth Chen, and I can't find any original articles or books authored by her. Chen comments that most of her written scholarship was in the form of liner notes to the albums of field recordings. This passage from his paper reveals a bit of her approach:
It is worth reading all of Mr. Chen's paper as it outlines some of the reasons why Halpern's pioneering work has received such little attention over the years. Perhaps one of the reasons why she worked so hard to record and preserve this music and also why she wanted to give a high aesthetic valuation to the music was a kind of collective guilt over the very harsh way that Indigenous culture was treated in the 19th and well into the 20sh centuries:Halpern did, however, do more than instantiate Kulturkreis concepts even in her early scholarship. Notably, in comparing West Coast First Nations and Euro-Western art musics, she reasoned that:"The [former] may be considered melogenic [my emphasis]. Sometimes it is logogenic (world-bound, logos-word) as when the chief sings his potlatch song and recites some parts. Sometimes it can be pathogenic (pathos-full of emotion) as in a medicine man's song. Often, however, it passes these two primitive stages, blending already into the melogenic style which is the style of our western culture."This argument downplays the "primitive" (logo- and pathogenic) features of First Nations musics in favor of the more "progressive" (melogenic) style found also in Euro-Western art music—a disconcerting move logically insofar as Halpern's inference (underlined) does not flow from what her evidence actually supports. From a phatic point of view, though, her rationale betrays her eagerness to present First Nations music-making as developmentally "like" Euro- Western art music-making: advanced rather than backward.
Halpern began and conducted much of her fieldwork during a period when it was actually illegal for First Nations cultures to be celebrated, much less preserved. From 1880 until 1951, the Indian Act forbade First Nations Peoples to partake of their own cultural activities, and Section 140(1) of its 1927 version specifically decreed that: "Every Indian or other person who engages in, assists in celebrating or encourages either directly or indirectly another to celebrate any Indian festival, dance or other ceremony ... is guilty of an offence and is liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months and not less than two months." Halpern herself acknowledged: "all of us could have been jailed and fined because of strict Canadian laws proscribing native culture at that time."
Institutionally, the Department of Indian Affairs, the Board of Education as well as the Church enforced a policy of cultural assimilation professedly with the honourable intention of "saving the Indians" by "civilizing" them—à la Western standards of civilization.I am quoting from the Chen article. It is astonishing how severe these policies were and how we have swung to virtually the opposite policies today! If you will recall my series of posts on Stravinsky and the road to the Rite of Spring, it seems that the Soviet Union, where similar projects to record and preserve the folk music of Russia were being undertaken around this time as portable recording equipment became available, was far more "enlightened" than the colonial administrators in British North America and the subsequent Canadian government.
My conclusion is that, while Halpern certainly wanted to attribute aesthetic value to the music of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, she likely never said anything like that she regarded it as "equal to that of Bach or Mozart." For that we can likely blame an ideologically-blindered journalist.
I have ordered the album pictured above in CD form so that I can study Halpern's liner notes, so I may have more to add later on.
Here is one Nootka song available on YouTube: