Friday, December 8, 2017

The Origin of Music (2)

Rundi women performing "Ubuhuha"
12 x 16 inches, oil on wood, 2013

We may assume that when Homo Sapiens evolved they built shelters, made art, and made music. The oldest known instruments, flutes made of femur bones of bears with holes drilled into it, were found in caves in Europe alongside the earliest known figurines. The problem with music history is that there was no sound recording available until the end of the nineteenth century. What we know of music before sound recording is musical notation, instruments that survived, literature on music, and images of musical performances and instruments in art. The earliest known example of musical notation stems from around 2,000 BCE, written in the cuneiform script of Mesopotamia. There are scenes of musical performance depicted in the art of Ancient Egypt that give us an idea of their music. A pottery chard found in Israel containing an image of musical performance related to a wedding ceremony dates from 5,000 BCE. Vedic literature contains theory of music alongside that of acting and dance. Before sound recording  came around, music was a temporal form of art and how it sounded can’t be recaptured and remains guesswork. Music can be reconstructed from non-temporal information but this is usually not without bias. The temporality of music compared to the materiality of art makes the study of music history less objective. Another difference between art and music is that folk (secular) music has a more prominent place in music history than folk art does in art history. It also appears that traditions in music are more persistent than traditions in art. Traditional music could be compared to oral poetry. Oral traditions remain virtually unchanged throughout centuries, perhaps even millennia. Towards the end of the nineteenth century when sound recording became widely available, ethnomusicology (the study of the music of various cultures) was an uncharted field. Over the next decades musicologists went around the world to record musical traditions of the various cultures they came across. The recordings of cultures that had lived in total or relative isolation are of special interest because their music provided a glimpse into the music of a distant past. The numbers of living cultures displaying characteristics typically associated with Paleolithic or Neolithic cultures were dwindling fast in the twentieth century, making the early recordings of immeasurable value.

There’s no definite answer to the question of how music started. Various hypotheses have been forwarded and debates have been going on for more than a century. Did music start from percussive or vocal traditions? If vocal, did it arrive from language or from animal imitation, or was it an autonomous evolution? If percussive, do the rhythms stem from work or from dance, or perhaps by chance? Is the origin of music ceremonial or secular? These are some questions asked that deal with the origins of music. The answer to these questions appear to be multifaceted, hinted at by recordings that seem to reflect ancient traditions. The enigma of the origin of vocal music for example, seems to lean towards an independent development, derived neither from imitation nor speech. An almost universal characteristic of ancient vocal traditions is that of the distortion of the speaking voice. Techniques include the cupping of hands (as in the 2013 painting above), the use of trumpet like instruments (such as shells) as soundboards, or the use of falsetto by male singers. The effect of voice distortion is an enactment of otherness. Sounds are created that are outside oneself, thereby allowing communion with a different plane of consciousness. The aim of which is the contact with the sacred. Shamanistic chant recitation is often performed in falsetto. The (male) shaman assumes an identity that resides in the spiritual realm. They act in accord with what seems a universal belief that the essence of nature and the ancestral spirit, is hermaphrodite or nonsexual. As in trance ceremonies, an essential and timeless function of music is the attainment of a reality different from the mundane. Some of the older musical recordings referred to here may sound outlandish or simply weird at first, but the weirder such recordings sound, the more it seems to touch a hidden compartment in our brains. There is where the sacred is found, closer to the primal source of humanity than we will find in daily routine. Music is an escape of daily routine. All human beings should start to accept that humanity is, well...weird. To accept that we’re all weird may unburden us from the restraints society puts on us. Let’s debunk the myths of beauty, beauty is an illusion, we’re all beautiful.

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