The ethnomusicological study of the relationship of past to present began largely with map-making, that is, with the study of geographic distributions. Thus, early comparative musicologists such as Hornbostel and Sachs participated in the development of Kulturkreis theory, in which the congruent distribution of clusters of traits would signify a historical period (Schneider 1978). Somewhat later, ethnomusicologists such as George Herzog (1930), Helen Roberts (1936), and Alan Merriam (1959) used the culture areas of American anthropologists as a model for their musical areas . Here a contiguous area with a common group of traits most concentrated in the center was thought to be a map of history; the center, or climax, was the culture's place of origin from where its characteristics moved to the fringes.
Related to these theories is research in which the distribution of a tune type or a ballad type or even a motif -- the English Child ballads or "Sul Castel che'l mira bel" studied by Marcello Sorce Keller (1984) come to mind -- are studied in the belief that the contemporary distribution is a guide to how it came about. Bela Bartók's studies of the Hungarian folk song and its division into styles (Bartók 1931) representing periods is an early example of the transfer of the concept of tune families and types to entire repertories. Thus, taking the term "map" more metaphorically, a repertory in aural tradition and its internal structure, living in a sense only in the present, may also be a map to its past.
Absence of conventional historical data in the form of written sources or physical artifacts has usually led to theories of development -- regarded as laws by some, and as statistically significant regularities by others -- based on history's arrow, the tendency to move from simple to numerically complex, or on history's circle, some kind of alternation from Apollonian/Dyonisian to classic/romantic and so on. But whatever the basic assumptions of what is likely to happen, musicologists have usually assumed that the present in some sense contains the past. The variants of "Lord Randall" provide clues to the nature of the original tune. The late Quartets tell us something about Opus 18.
Can an isolated tribal repertory provide this kind of map? Sometimes we really have nothing else. Let me briefly give an example of a kind of archeological style analysis from the culture of Ishi, the last member of the Yahi tribe, of California, sometimes called, in his day, "the last wild Indian" (Kroeber 1961).
|Ishi, the last Yahi Indian, shown with the anthropologist A.L. Kroeber, 1911 (as reprinted in R. Heizer - T. Kroeber, eds., 1 Ishi, the last Yahi: A Documentary History, Berkeley:University of California Press, 1979: 111).|
Ishi was the last survivor of a tribe that went into seclusion as a way of escaping cultural and physical destruction by whites. It numbered about 200 at its largest, but there were no more than a dozen in 1900, only four in 1910, and Ishi, the last, joined western society in 1911 and lived for five years at the University of California in Berkeley working as an informant for the famous anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber. As part of his work he recorded his entire song repertory, which included songs of many functions. Extremely simple in scale, form, and rhythm by our conventional standards, it nevertheless exhibited amazing variety. Most of the songs have three or four tones; and most have a two-part form in which the second part is in some sense a restatement of the first -- variation, extension, contraction, inversion. This is the style of the central repertory, stylistically speaking.
Flint song sung by Ishi, the last Yahi Indian
But there is also a much smaller, more varied, part of the repertory, which I will call peripheral. It consists of songs which remind of musical styles found elsewhere in traditional North American cultures. These have scales of four and five tones. There are two using the peculiar ascending form of the Yuman people in the southwestern U.S. Others remind us of the Apache, and yet others of the songs of the Plains Indians, with their sharp descent and incomplete-repetition form type. What are these strange-sounding peripheral songs doing in this otherwise rather homogeneous repertory? In earlier times, these peoples were distant from Ishi's tribe in central California. In the period after 1850, ad maybe even before, the Yahi seem to have had little contact with the outside, and the culture deteriorated because of the people's need to move constantly, the ever-declining population, life as a constant emergency. The culture as a whole seems not to be divisible into "central" and "peripheral" components. (For a summary of Ishi's song styles and transcriptions, see Nettl 1965.)
I suggest that Ishi's repertory is a map to its own history
and an indicator of culture change or contact. First, the vast
majority of the repertory suggests consistency, like the culture
as a whole. The fact that a single kind of form dominated and was
developed into numerous variants indicates a musical culture in
which composers kept doing pretty much the same thing for a long
period. But the few Plains, Yuman, and Athabascan-like forms
leave us wondering. Do they tell us about the wandering of songs
from tribe to tribe? Or about long-ago visits by travelers from
these tribes who left songs but evidently little else? Should we
regard these songs, outside the mainstream as they are, part of
the Yahi musical culture, or aberration? There are numerous
possible interpretations; but I insist that the presence of these
songs means something in a historical sense, and that the music
history, if -- or when -- we discover it, will provide important
clues to the history of a culture for whose there is virtually no
data beyond what was learned from this last survivor.
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