Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Epic poetry

Musician from the cover for  
Afghanistan et Iran
11" x 8.5", various drawing
materials on paper, 2013
Ten years ago I came across a recording of the epic poetry singer Avdo Međedović from Montenegro. The recording, made by Milman Parry in the 1930s, was less then a minute. But some of his songs, according to Homeric scholar Parry, were similar in length to that of the Iliad (15,690 lines), and were performed over three days. Homeric scholar Milman Parry (1902-1935) was an authority when it comes to knowledge in the field of epic poetry. He believed that the epic poetry attributed to Homer (Greek, 9 b.c.?) was based on oral traditions. Oral traditions exist where there is no written language, and Parry could not find any evidence that there was such a thing in 9 BC Greece. Through the analysis of an oral epic tradition that in the 1930s still existed in parts of the Balkan and Asia Minor, Parry showed that it was highly unlikely that a work such as the Iliad was conceived by one single person. Parry and his assistant Albert Lord (who continued Parry’s work after his untimely death) recorded thousands of discs of recordings of epic singers, made thousands more transcripts from epic poetry, and compared and analyzed the data. The implications of the research by the two scholars reached far beyond their proposed answer to the “Homeric Question”: It became the standard in the fields of folklore, anthropology, and comparative literature. In the process they questioned the concept of originality long before it became a key of Post-Modernists’ discourse. The singing of epic poetry used to be a tradition throughout Europe and Central Asia, and persisted as long as illiteracy did. Traditional epic songs are property of men, only very few women are known to have performed. I have been intrigued by the tradition of oral poetry since I came across the Parry and Lord recordings, and it became a metaphor for what it was that I liked about traditional music in general. I went as far as to apply Parry and Lord's Homeric theory to that of the blues. Needless to say that if I come across recordings from within that tradition I seek a copy. I found a CD of music from Afghanistan and Iran recorded in 1956 by J.C. and S. Lubtchansky for an expedition organized by the University of Indiana, that had a example. In it we hear a Kurd singer perform a epic poem. Unlike that of the Yugoslavian singers recorded by Parry and Lord, and Turkish recordings I have of the genre, it's without accompaniment.

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