UNLEARNING MUSICAL LITERACY
I participated last summer in a conference dedicated to young musicians from many countries who presented their own music. There was a palpable gap between the performances of music from our culture, using forms, instruments and poetry from our tradition, and that of people from African, South American and Asian roots.
If I oversimplify these two strains into ‘West’ and ‘East’, it’s almost as if we are separated by the page. The kind of lovely working-out of chamber-music ideas of the North Americans comes from the page, where the
music is, as it were, ‘stopped’ and elaborations can be worked out mentally, then fixed on paper. From the ‘East’ came the melodies and rhythms of improvised song, with their easy informality and quirkily different use of vocal and instrumental sounds. Why do they seem so different?
objective subjective, personal
simplified pitch/ complexpitch/
The western world moved in a unique direction when its music began to be systematically notated, in the late Medieval and early Renaissance periods. This trend exactly paralleled the development of written language some millennia earlier, when the oral story-tellers were replaced by symbols on a page. Much was gained: easy transferal to another place or time, a growing standardization of language and forms, even the formulation of ‘grammar’, which could not exist until the flow was stopped and could be analyzed. What was lost is less easy to evaluate. The individual voice with its own tone, color and unique expressivity was replaced by a collective, impersonal speaker. The tiny changes which occurred in the transmission from one generation to another were gone, as was the human drama which surrounded each telling, with all the senses evoked around the reciting. We moved from ear to eye, from subtle variation to a kind of standardization wrought by the written symbols. The ‘objectivation’ of language was aped in a simplification of sounds in music, where it became possible, even necessary, to speak of a ‘quarter note’ or an ‘interval’ or a ‘rhythm’ completely divorced from any vibration of air. The symbols lose their ‘voice’ when they are read by people unaware of their sound-sense.
It’s almost as if the rest of the world exults in the many ways that ‘A - 440’ can sound, while we reduce it to a
single, unified concept that can then be interpreted in different ways. The page is devoid of sound until someone ‘interprets’ it. The interpretation may be thoughtful and sympathetic, or rough and ill-tempered (as on an out-of-tune piano) – whatever happens, the page remains the same. It has no control over who picks it up, and how they read it.
The page has dominated our music-making for some seven centuries now, resulting in the development of the language of harmony which is one of its chief wonders. But that achievement was reached through an almost unimaginable simplification of tone and beat. Pitch and rhythm were ‘corseted’ in order for harmony to arise, and we’ve almost lost our ear for the kind of subtleties of Indian/African rhythms, of Arabic/Asian pitches, of improvisatory forms that unfold over hours.
How do we, then, cross this divide? We must, somehow, unlearn our literacy, our own (my own!) tendency to want to see something ‘written down’ in order to remember it. We have to realize that ‘writing it down’ tends to lose the very individuality that makes the music so appealing to us. If the page reminds us of what we have just heard, then fine – go ahead. But if we’re reading a melody from an unfamiliar culture in western notation, we have almost no chance to recreate the original vibrations, to find the characteristic sound. We must go back to trusting our ears.
Here is my method. Put the paper aside. Listen to the curve of the phrase, the lilt of the beat. Move your body to the rhythms. Open your ears and your mouth. Echo whatever sounds you can. Hear the color of the language and try to taste it in your mouth. (Don’t worry yet about what it means.) Listen for the whole, not just one-note-after-another. Recognize a memorable moment: a climax, a repeated figure, a sudden change. Forget trying to predict what will come next: give yourself up to it. Don’t analyze it: echo it. Join in. Be engaged. Don’t be afraid you’ll make a mistake: the music won’t stop for you, and there are many ways you can participate in what you’re hearing. If you can lose your critical mind in the stream of sound, you’re on your way.
On the other hand, what happens when the music crosses from East to West (as in our hymnals)? The moment we write a tune down in our notation, we’ve simplified it almost beyond recognition. When we squeeze it into our scales and rhythms, it loses its very heart. And when we put a metrically-correct but poetically-bereft English translation to it, we’ve delivered the death sentence. No one will want to sing what’s left, no matter how pure our intention!
In short, we must return to the way the good Lord designed us: to make music from ear to voice, without the intervention of the page. We can sing lullabies in any language – join in songs of joy and lament – in dancing and praying – in life and around death. The ‘universal’ language is one of human use and communication. ‘World music’ should not be reducing all tunes to familiar harmonies in 4-4: it should be celebrating each unique culture within the overarching similarities of our very existence. Vive la differénce!
— Alice Parker