Song as Genome?

Jonathan Bellman

A videorecording of a very interesting presentation, perhaps fifteen to twenty minutes, is to be found here.  Dutch evolutionary biologist —now working in England at Imperial University, London—Armand Le Roi discusses how he met Brian Eno at a party, and was talking to him about the music history of ancient peoples, far back in our evolution, and whether or not it would be possible to resurrect any of this.  Eno set him on Alan Lomax’s data and quantifications of many, many songs, since Lomax believed that songs were quantifiable; he had had a million-dollar research grant, had sought unsuccessfully to crunch the data, and so on.  So Prof. Le Roi went and got this data, and refined his crunching techniques, and hey presto! is now of the opinion that song- or melos-resemblances can be a key to not only geographical migrations but really our human history in song.  Of course, this hasty paragraph does not do his presentation justice; I urge you, dear reader, to click on the link and hear his presentation yourself.  Listen all the way to the end.

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That said—one notes a couple of familiar tropes in Prof. Le Roi’s presentation.  The first is the Bad Young Genius Scientific Polymath: evolutionary bio, music, ancient history, and oh he must have mastered it all, and he’s so brilliant and hot and hip he can dress like—well—a homeless person and if you’re so uncool as to notice that a grey T-Shirt and jeans may not be the most appropriate dress in which to present research near and dear to your heart, research about which you would like to persuade your audience, then that says something about you.  (My folks stressed dressing in a way that at least shows respect, so to my eye: should Le Roi’s ensemble have been accessorized, the most natural addition would have been some vomit on the front of the shirt.)  Then there’s the self-righteous, anti-musicology maverick trope, one of the most tired: of Lomax’s data, Le Roi proclaims, “You might have expected it to have revolutionized musicology, but it didn’t.  Musicologists hate it.  I think it’s because musicologists don’t understand numbers!”

Well, maybe we don’t—every last one of us.  I certainly don’t, as my wife and son (him of the A in calculus as a young high school junior) will happily tell you.  I like to think I understand music, however, and one of my most sensitive allergies is to people who think they understand music way they (apparently) understanding everything else, and who then consider themselves entitled to speak confidently about those silly head-in-the-sand musicologists and what we’re obviously missing.  Purveyors of this kind of nonsense, who can be extremely bright people, nonetheless evidence astoundingly fragile egos regarding trained musicians and especially musicologists, as if we’re somehow so much more intimidating than other specialists.  Let me be clear:  certainly don’t think we are, or have any right to be, or consider ourselves to be so, but I am sick to death of being treated as a bête noire by people who have some undefined, nonspecific, probably wholly imaginary grudge/inferiority complex about musicology.

Le Roi’s concept, as oversimplified in his presentation, is that similarities in the songs of peoples across the world amount to, essentially, an aural trail of breadcrumbs that traces not only the migrations of language and cultural groups but also preserves cultural practice long effaced from human record and memory. To me, the presentation is attractive and lively and sets the imagination alight: I myself am extremely vulnerable to the promise of recovering sounds long-forgotten, as I have blogged before.  So the task of doing musically what evolutionary biologists have done with mitochondrial DNA and philologists have done with language, over the last couple of centuries, is particularly alluring to me. The problem is that past a certain specious suggestiveness, a variety of key points about the presentation ring false. After trashing musicologists’ numeracy, Le Roi himself doesn’t go to a lot of trouble to actually explain how the data work. He talks about how much computer space the data take, and some of Lomax’s general parameters (wide vs. narrow intervals, rhythms and so on, but is not more specific than that). He puts up some very pretty graphics of migrations and song-types groupings and so on.  Does Lomax
specify actual intervals, or specific rhythms, or just generalized categories? We never know, and we are certainly not introduced to any critiques of these categories, as must
certainly have originated in the ethnomusicological community.  (Perhaps by musicologists he means ethnomusicologists. We’ll never know.)

Then, the proof: some recordings.  Yes, his time is clearly limited (AMS papers get more time), and he has a complex argument to make.  Still, it is skating on rather thin ice to play Zulu, then Swazi music, with its call-and-response antiphony, then to observe that it is entirely characteristic of sub-Saharan Africa (maybe it is; I can’t say), then to it with the Bantu migration of twenty-five hundred or so years ago, and then to play a call-and-response worksong (“Rosie”) by African-American workers on a chain gang in the 1950s as final proof.  There you have it!  The red thread connecting the Bantu descendants throughout myriad histories and lands!

Or not.  Call-and-and response forms are found the world over: the psalmody of the Roman Church, the “lining out” practices of early Anglo-American hymnody, etc.  Is that African, or is it simply practical: I sing a line and you then learn it and repeat it, or I sing a line and you answer because I’m the leader?  One does not necessarily need a complex migratory theory to explain this.  Furthermore, anyone with a modicum of listening experience would be far less confident of “obvious” similarities than Le Roi is.  I remember taking a Romanesque Art course at UCSB with the scholar Larry Ayers.  When a student rather cluelessly blurted out that something on the screen reminded her of eighth-century Japanese art, Ayers lost it: “This is what I hate about interdisciplinary studies!  People don’t know anything about either discipline!  The lines in the two styles are entirely dissimilar!”  A sage warning taken to heart by this music major: know your s— before you start popping off about how X is “obviously” like Y.  It is far too easy to posit causal relationships when it is not safe to do so.

A later example involves moaning solo chants by old guys, one an Inuit on an ice floe and one an Indian from somewhere in, if I recall, South America.  So, of course, the Asian migration is the explanation.  In probably every culture, though, we can find old men chanting, whether it’s the American Indians who sing the world into being every morning, the Jews who intone prayers and readings, Hawaiians telling their old lore, or anyone else.  Besides being old guys chanting, I don’t hear all that much similarity.  Out of charity, I won’t belabor his playing of a lovely Scandinavian lullaby, pointing out its resemblance to what we usually associate with Celtic music (maybe or maybe not; real Celtic music is something very different from Celtic pop product), and then saying—I kid you not—“This is what Celtic music is really about.”  Another excerpt: “I don’t know what this sounds like to you, but to me it’s pure Bollywood.  But it isn’t; it’s a Macedonian Gypsy song.”  Ergo…?  So the “argument” runs: A sounds like B, therefore there is a causal relationship.

I hope there is more to this research than meets my ear.  The theory is (to me, at least), of siren-like beauty: imagine having the tools to recover the lost song styles of humanity and protohumanity!  To listen again to the melos of the distant past!  Problem is, the musical conclusions as presented are amateurish in the extreme.  Either that or I’m too hide-bound and unimaginative, just like all those musicologists, to get it.

I don’t think so, though.  But please, make up your own minds.  I at least applaud the sheer out-of-the-boxness of this kind of project, but I wish there was more musical expertise evident in the musical study about which musical conclusions are drawn.  It is hard to feel all that bad about my undeniable innumeracy, though, because at least I shy away from lecturing mathematicians about their ignorance.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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16 Responses to Song as Genome?

  1. Sara Heimbecker says:

    When I posted this on Facebook I was hoping that the students would jump all over it, but either they are out enjoying the summer weather or they just didn’t get it (as one brave soul admitted).
    You pointed out all of the phrases that set my teeth on edge (especially the “this is what Celtic music is really about”). The part that irked me the most was at the very end when he dramatically posits the theory that the Pygmy song was perhaps the oldest song still in existence, or at least the oldest song type.
    Musicologists hated this when Lomax and other “comparative” musicologists tried this, not because of the data, but because of the basic premise: that music evolves like species evolve. The dangerous conclusion one must make is the same dangerous conclusion made by those who applied these theories to human ethnicities: everyone is somewhere on an evolutionary time-line with white Europeans (men?) at the top and Pygmies at the bottom. Oldest = most primitive.
    Musicologists quickly abandoned comparative studies due to a quick realization that what functions as an important signifier in one culture may not even be perceived as significant by someone from a different background. For example, I remember Tom Turino mentioning that one of the important aspects of mbira music was that the instruments rattled. Western listeners found the rattling simply annoying, but loved the plucked tine sound. So how does one quantify signs and sign types that don’t function similarly across cultures?
    Le Roi’s insistent “can’t you just hear it?’ wasn’t “scientific” enough to satisfy me either.

  2. jonathan says:

    Oops. Sorry to have scuttled your heuristic device. Actually, I think he implies the opposite (and equally wrong) point about musical evolution: it DOESN’T necessarily evolve, thus melos types are markers for all time. Kind of a “trope of the eternal orient” kind of process. I know nothing of Lomax and the hostile reception to his book, but you can see an earnest and utterly wrongheaded idea at work. It’s ironic how often loudly trumpeted “new” modes of out-of-the-box thought end up being even more ethnocentric and authoritarian than the old ones, though often garbed in the trappings of the new and hip.

  3. Sara Heimbecker says:

    But he’s saying that the song types evolve when they move. So the people who stay put are the “eternal orient”; a kind of musical Atlantis?
    Language studies, however, show the opposite. People who migrate tend to slow linguistic changes as compared to the clan members they leave behind. I don’t know a lot about this, but I remember hearing some really interesting theories about it. (Perhaps linguists are laughing about that theory just like we are chuckling about this musical genome project.)

  4. peter alexander says:

    Jonathan — boy am I with you on this one! Having had to tolerate the fawning admiration for the so-called program notes cobbled together by a local “amateur musicologist” for years, I have really cultivated a hatred for people who are sure that THEY get music while all of us who go into musicology are just a bunch of music-hating, disillusioned no-talent would-be soloists. You simply cannot tell them well, it’s more complicated than that. Or it really helps to be able to read music and know a few facts. Or you have to love music to want to spend that much time studying it. (Or maybe I should pass myself off as an “amateur psychologist” and tell HIM what his problem really is.)
    But this seems in a category of its own. I’ll have to fortify myself before watching this

  5. Florin says:

    I was immediately annoyed when he played the Macedonian song, “Chaje Shukarije” composed by Roma singer Esma Redzepova, and claimed it sounded like Bollywood. Genetic and linguistic evidence indicates that Gypsies migrated from Rajastan to Europe, but to my ear that song just had to have come out of the Balkans. Maybe it takes a fresh ear like that of Mr. Leroi to see these connections, like the untrained eyes of the student who saw Japanese lines in Romanesque architecture.
    I also have a point of contention with variables like ‘size of orchestra’ and ‘number of singers’, ‘tempo’, ‘volume’. It is possible that a new arrangement of a song can totally change these values. Such variables might better be applied against classical music, where new arrangements of established works are not very common.

  6. Jonathan says:

    I endorse all these objections. Sara, there is a lot of hard evidence to support the migration-slows-evolution-down linguistic theory; it is fact, and it is proven by Yiddish among other diasporic languages. Diasporic languages preserve old ways of communicating and the forced separation of the cultural communities tends to concretize the older forms while they continue to evolve on the home turf. Our German colleague has observed that Yiddish sounds to him above all like archaic German (and not just because pen=feder rather than Kugelschreiber), and I know that research on Golden Age Spanish has been carried out by scrutinizing the Ladino (Judezmo) spoken by Sephardim in Turkey, Morocco, etc.
    Florin’s points are also well taken. Roma traveled the world and their musics reflect a huge variety of styles and personal transformations thereof, as do Jewish musics. “Sounds like Bollywood”?! I mean, is that the best we can do? I had not been familiar with Esma Redžepova, but I note that the song was “composed,” not a folksong of uncertain provenance. Actually, it sounded Macedonian to me too, insofar as I can distinguish the Balkan styles I’ve heard, and that’s not really surprising for someone born and raised . . . in Macedonia.
    I really dislike mud-pie research.

  7. Boxplayer says:

    While I think that the work of Le Roi is speculative, and that the criticisms are accurate, I couldn’t help noting this –
    – ‘he can dress like—well—a homeless person and if you’re so uncool as to notice that a grey T-Shirt and jeans may not be the most appropriate dress in which to present research …should Le Roi’s ensemble have been accessorized, the most natural addition would have been some vomit on the front of the shirt.’
    It would be hard to be more culturally elitist and snobbish – frankly how the heck someone dresses has no bearing on their research. This really weakens your argument and criticism.
    Anyway, it might be worth (for others reading who might not now it) looking at Victor Grauer’s blog (and other writing) which is much more detailed and developed.

  8. jonathan says:

    I have no problem being called culturally elitist, to be honest–I’m a west coast kid who went to non-Ivies all the way through, and who teaches at a non-research institution, so go ahead and knock yourself out about my elitism. That is both the easiest and the very most fashionable accusation to make, and I am secure enough in ALL the cultures to which I belong, including that of academia, to respect their protocols and to understand why such protocols exist.
    Dr. Le Roi’s presentation was just that: a presentation, a performance. So his dress and manner was every bit as much a part of his “message” as his rehearsed asides about musicologists, and how “obvious” certain vague similarities might have been. That I’m-too-cool-to-care manner and rehearsed urgency was a kind of camouflage for really weak musicianship, and you’ll notice that this *musical* presentation was given to scientists, not musicians. As someone who advises graduate students, I would come down like the wrath of God on the shoulders of any of my mentees who tried this pretentious crap.
    Cultural elitist? Sure. Whatever. Put my name down first.

  9. Peter G says:

    This is why good ethnomusicologists typically have a very specific regional specialty (or is that redundant?). As acerbic as it can be, Taruskin’s Danger of Music has some fine passages, typically in the score-settling postscripts, deriding and diagnosing theory-of-everything inclinations. I’d love to see him tee off on this one.

  10. James Fittz says:

    Bravo, Jon.
    Perhaps the best result of LeRoi’s “out of the boxness” is the discussion qua criticism/illumination that results from his not having his s— together before trotting his “research” out there for others to scrutinize.
    As one who comes from the despised “interdisciplinary studies” background with a strong cognate in philosophy, I’m happy to “propose” so that brilliant folks like Jon and Sara can “oppose.”
    So I urge Tricia not to be too “cautious” or “careful” with her research. Fearlessly go where your research takes you, and then be audacious about trotting it out where others can critique/illuminate. You, as LeRoi, will do lots of folks some good. If, as in this case, some profess hate as the result, it is a reflection on them rather than on your research. Strong feelings often spur some pretty profound research. As another who has directed quite a lot of graduate research, the worst case is the researcher unenthusiastic about her subject.
    I get a chuckle thinking about LeRoi making his presentation to an AMS national. Oooooo!

  11. Jonathan says:

    Thanks so much for this, Jim–I agree wholeheartedly, and would suggest only that however audacious one’s work, *strive* to know your stuff and back it up. My work–including the forthcoming book–is regarded in many circles as pretty radical, but the point is to have everything backed up, and conclusions arrived at properly. This is where Le Roi falls down utterly with his musical superficialities.
    Nothing to do but close with a quote I heard once. I think it’s Elizabethan-era in origin, and I’m unfortunately reconstructing it from memory. With apologies for the archaic sexism: “Make no matter about argument amongst good men; ’tis but truth in the making.”

  12. squashed says:

    Give me enough data, I can create any conclusion out of it. Specially bad collection of data like “somebody’s muusic collection”
    Is it possible that a collection of music library is more a reflection of the library editor?

  13. Heather Buffington says:

    Sara Heimbecker sent this link to me on facebook and I have only just gotten around to watching it and reading all the comments (not on break at all – just writing the dissertation).
    After having a good laugh at the video and all the ‘data’ presented, I recalled a lecture given by Gary Tomlinson at Cambridge. I dug out my notes from it today, and unfortunately I had been in lectures for many hours prior to this particular lecture, so my notes are a bit brief. The lecture was entitled “The Archaeology of Music,” which I found out later is very similar to his book (Music in Renaissance Magic). The lecture was very stimulating and the idea of approaching music this way was very attractive for most of us. His goal was similar to that of LeRoi’s, but his presentation was just a tad more convincing.
    The running theme this year at King’s College has been interdisciplinarity. I have attended entire conferences on this, and thought about it quite romantically. It has been all the rage, so to speak, over here amongst the students and faculty. I couldn’t help but think that this presentation should be shown as a ‘what not to do’ at future conferences. His bumbling ‘and and and …’ due to a lack of musical terminology made him resort to a sort of touchy-feely approach, of “oh, can’t you just hear it?”
    A friend of mine was particularly offended by his flippant remarks on the Zulu and Swazi clips played – she is from Africa and intimated to me that he was way off-base. I am all for the approach, but a little respect for musicologists could go a long way for this guy. Thanks for posting this on facebook! Hope you are well Dr. B and Dr. F!

  14. James Fittz says:

    Having enjoyed and referenced more than once your STYLE HONGROIS, I look forward to POLISH BALLADE.

  15. Peter (the other) says:

    As Alfred Newman (the Hollywood one, not Mad Magazine)said something like “Everyone is an expert at two things, their job and music”, why should this genius of academic marketing be any different. In the last few months I have taken on some research in partnership with some evolutionary biologists. I have found their usage of music amazingly cavalier, and have a curious lack of discipline in their methods. I think it is because they are used to being taken seriously, whereas us musical folk are always feeling like we have to try a bit harder to be believed.

  16. Charles says:

    Very interesting post. The thing that really rubbed me the wrong way about Lomax’s cantometerics wasn’t the numbers but the fact the model revolved around static and seemingly unchanging cultural types. Thus musical qualities, which if I remember correctly were in fact fairly specific, were always correlates to sociological custom. So what about the weirdos? The entire experience of music, from this perspective, seems to take the imagination out of the picture. You are simply hard-wired by your sociological type to enjoy/create music that suits you. Music always follows (rather than inspires) cultural and historical change because the productive imagination is out of the picture. How does one account for the fact that cultures can and do often borrow from each other? Surely this happens not just because the two cultures have some similar mores, but because of whims, exoticism, accident, or anything else. Cultural types are, and I presume have always been, the product of imaginations, unlike DNA, and are always open to change, modification, manipulation, etc. It will always be an interpretative project of the imagination to relate music and culture, as it should be. Comparative and historical work in musicology is still important, as long as cultures keep listening to each other anyway! Unfortunately work like Le Roi’s that try to appeal to an objective scientific approach end up disempowering music and listeners by attempting to cut out the messy creative interpretation that is inherent to musical understanding.

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