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: I 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.