Saturday, November 19, 2011

Oddities of Multiculturalism

Roaming around the web, I ran across this page which has "Thirteen Notable Traditions" from UNESCO's list of "Intangible Cultural Heritage". Passing by the awkward phrasing of that, there are some really odd things about this list. First and most prominent is that most of these traditions are very tangible indeed. Nothing more tangible than an ox or gingerbread or oil wrestling. Does UNESCO know the meaning of the word 'intangible'? Second, there is a kind of willful blindness to any kind of historical or evaluative sense. I'm sure this is intentional because underlying these kinds of initiatives are either a commercial purpose (increasing tourism to World Heritage sites, for example) or an ideological one. The ideological one is that of multiculturalism. As Wikipedia says, "A common aspect of many [multicultural] policies is that they avoid presenting any specific ethnic, religious, or cultural community values as central." In practice the motivation is often political. The Liberal Party in Canada, for example, attracted most new immigrants to Canada to voting Liberal by means of multicultural policies. There is a heavy price to be paid, however, in that multiculturalism tends to wipe out the historical foundations of a society as they become inconvenient. Politicians in Europe who have in the past been advocates of multiculturalism are starting to tack the other way as the problems become evident.

But forgive me this digression from music as it is essential background to my next point. If you go to the list I link above and click on the one about the duduk you come to this:

Very interesting. You may recognize this as the instrument that has become hugely popular in soundtracks in recent years because of the unusual sound. It was used in a great deal of the Battlestar Galactica series. If you go directly to the YouTube page, you see a lot of related videos, such as this one, also from UNESCO:

The narrator says, "The Aka Pygmies living in the south-west region of the Central African Republic have developed a distinctive vocal musical tradition, which involves a complex type of contrapuntal polyphony based on four voices, mastered by all members of the Aka community." If you listen on, you will hear this described as an "extremely complex type of contrapuntal polyphonic singing" which "unlike polyphonic systems that are written down using notation" this tradition "allows for spontaneous expression and improvisation." So, much better than those silly written systems then!

The only problem I see is that this is a kind of ignorant fraud. The Aka pygmies don't seem to be doing anything I would recognize as polyphony, let alone complex polyphony, let alone complex contrapuntal polyphony. These terms have certain specific meanings in the tradition of Western music, where they were invented, along with the notational system that allows them to be written down. In the Western tradition, what the Aka pygmies are doing would probably be described as primitive heterophony, meaning the different singers tend to go their own way pretty much whenever the mood strikes them. Complex contrapuntal polyphony is actually something like this (and if you read this blog much, you know exactly what I am going to pick):

This is a double fugue with invertible counterpoint at the interval of a tenth. I'm afraid it doesn't allow for improvisation, but I don't think that is a deficiency!

If the Aka music is complex contrapuntal polyphony, I don't think there are words to describe what Bach is doing.


Anonymous said...

When you have a "diamond ring" you consider selling or buying, you have a jeweler authenticate and appraise it, because despite the obscene stack of cash you are considering, a non-jeweler really has no idea how to make such an evaluation. "Nonsense! I may not know anything about facets and edges, but I know what I like!"

If I had heard the Aka without the narrator, I would have thought it all very interesting in an anthropological way. Without your comment, I would have thought (or at least been open to believing) that the Aka had figured out how to do something quite astonishing on the verge of substantially enriching the first world of music.

I mean, "they" say that the Homeric epics were originally composed in a pre-literate society...

Ignorance is ignorance.

Bryan Townsend said...

I feel I should add that I find the music of the Aka pygmies interesting in its use of polyrhythms. What I am objecting to is the misinterpretation of this music for what I suspect is an ideological purpose.

There is an enormous difference in an interpretation that strives to uncover what is going on in an artwork and one that simply pastes a preconceived interpretation on top of the artwork.

Jon Silpayamanant said...

What ideological purpose? Polyphony is, simply stated, "polyphony, in music, strictly speaking, any music in which two or more tones sound simultaneously (the term derives from the Greek word for “many sounds”);" (Encylopedia Britannica) which simply means.

"thus, even a single interval made up of two simultaneous tones or a chord of three simultaneous tones is rudimentarily polyphonic."

That we tend to associate a particular connotation with the term (deservedly) doesn't change the fact that we're just dealing with a core semantic meaning that perfectly includes the Aka pygmies' music in ways that it wouldn't apply to, say, polyrhythmic West African Drumming since most, if not all of the percussion instruments are unpitched (therefore aren't, strictly speaking, 'tones').

As for the issue of complexity--depends on the function of the music. I just think the author is highlighting the fact that improvised polyphonic structures in oral traditions can be every bit as complex as organum or species counterpoint or fugal counterpoint and that the way the music is 'composed' will serve that function in the same way that, say Western music notation serves a 12 tone per octave function admirably but utterly fails to serve a 53 note Turkish division of the octave.

Bryan Townsend said...

As I say in the post, the ideological purpose is the promotion of multiculturalism as an essential good. In order to do that the heterophony of the Aka pygmies is presented as being "extremely complex contrapuntal polyphony". The viewers mostly don't know the precise meaning of these words so they just nod appreciatively. And no Jon, here is where we disagree: the improvised heterophony of the Aka is in no way equivalent to the counterpoint of Bach. That is precisely my point.

Jon Silpayamanant said...

Fair enough--and I think one of the problems is precisely the equivocation of counterpoint (the phrase 'contrapuntal polyphony') with polyphony itself (the phrase 'unlike polyphonic systems'). The level of precision is deplorable but understandable and often committed (as I describe here).

However, Aka pygmy polyphony isn't heterophonic in any normal sense of how we use it. Their music is apitched equivalent of what happens in most West African polyrhythmic musics--separate and clearly distinguishable fragments that overlap and dovetail in a relatively predictable fashion. The complexity doesn't come from the individual lines themselves, but in how they are performed together.

On the other hand, Bach's counterpoint is also just another type of polyphony itself. I suspect the authors might have wanted to (or should have striven to) make the point that there are many types of polyphonies including (but not limited to) the Aka pygmy music and Bach's counterpoint, not that the two are in any way equivalent since they're both just examples of different subclasses of polyphony.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm agreeing with your point about the Aka: what they are doing is a pitched equivalent of what is happening in West African polyrhythmic textures. Layers of different downbeats are combined. It is a linguistic problem we are dealing with. The term contrapuntal polyphony doesn't apply very comfortably to what the Aka are doing. But we don't have a good theoretical apparatus to deal with what they are doing. For one thing, rhythm is the one element in music that theory is least comfortable with. The only term I have trouble with in your discussion of linguistic prototypes is the word 'privilege'. This is a card that is too easily played, I think. I'm not trying to privilege Bach over the Aka in some linguistic sleight of hand. I'm just saying that describing what they are doing as if it is like what Bach is doing is incorrect.

Different kinds of polyphony? Quite right!

Jon Silpayamanant said...

The only term I have trouble with in your discussion of linguistic prototypes is the word 'privilege'. This is a card that is too easily played, I think. I'm not trying to privilege Bach over the Aka in some linguistic sleight of hand.

No, you're not. I was talking about the fact that polyphony simply means the simple definition in the Britannica I quoted above (and in my blog post) but the elaboration of the definition, and the statements made by the narrator in the documentary piggy back on the close historical association of counterpoint to polyphony even though it just happens to be one of many types of polyphony.

That is privileging a subclass of the members of described by the definition in the same way I would be privileging, say, the State bird of Indiana while using characteristics specific to a Cardinal (which may or may not overlap characteristics of birds in general) when talking about another new and generally unknown species of bird. Why not start with the general definition of 'bird' itself?

I didn't feel as if either the Britannica entry nor the documentary were attempting to say anything disparaging of Bach and counterpoint. I simply felt as if both were too preoccupied closely tying one subclass of a musical phenomenon (contrapuntal polyphony) with the superclass of the musical phenomenon (polyphony) without questioning the need to make a distinction as the two are almost treated as functionally equivalent.

Bryan Townsend said...

You didn't get the sense from the commentary to the documentary that the narrator was keen to point out that the complexity of the music of the Aka was high, standing in for the notion of 'quality'? And that the allowance for spontaneity and improvisation was an added plus? And that the social nature of the music was somehow better than the way Western music tends to be composed? Wasn't there a Rousseauian myth being put forth?

In other words, didn't you sense a agenda there?