A Musical Journey in Six Books

At the musee de la musique in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Visiting the musee de la musique in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

“Diversity, colour and vitality” is how Simha Arom describes his impression of hearing African music for the first time. It was 1963 and he had arrived in Bangui, the capitol of the Central African Republic.

I have always been impressed by the energy and complexity that one hears in African music. It is first and foremost the percussive and rhythmic drive that propels this music and interests me.  In Bangui, Arom heard percussionists playing “tightly interlocked rhythms” and horn ensembles of up to twenty musicians each playing a single note that was a part of a larger whole of  a “precise polyphonic latticework.”

…No conductor and from memory! I would venture that rhythm is the most vital aspect of this music.

How amazing to hear these ensembles live and ultimately to have the privilege to document, analyze and record them. By 1972, he developed a re-record playback technique to transcribe the ensembles somewhat like pop music studio recording techniques. It is also worth noting that Arom had a background has horn player performing in some of the worlds top orchestras It is not surprising then that with his horn background he would be intrigued with horn ensembles and the large role they play in the music of this region of Africa.

What interests me is how he will describe the musical system underlying Central African polyphony and polyrhythm and how this study can better elucidate my day to work as a composer.

Ethnomusicology as Arom states embodies “four different but complimentary fields”: 1) social aspects, 2) sound production tools, 3) the way the users conceive of it and, 4) the system.

In African Polyphony and Polyrhythm, Arom focuses on The System:

  1. The procedures used and, classify them as a typology.
  2. How each procedure is organized vertically and horizontally
  3. Show how parts are “divided into segments” elucidating recurrence, substitution and variation.
  4. The manner in which variations are created based on a minimal model used by the musician i.e., what is the minimal formulae for each part.

The 4th point is very important and reminds me of jazz riffs. An experienced jazz improviser will have a vast library of gestures  drawn from a collective memory as well as personal frequently used motifs and patterns by which he creates a “spontaneous production of a musical event” but, also makes decisions based on what other musicians are doing at the same time.

And as with jazz, both Arom and the musicians he recorded understand that what is recorded and transcribed is but one variation in an organization of sound that is never totally fixed. As Arom has stated “everything is measured, but nobody counts.”

So, as I read through this expansive study in six “books” I am eager to learn about the following topics:

Book I: social aspects of the music, functions and how it relates to language and dance and, typological features such as vocal and instrumental, formal structures, scale systems, etc.

Book II:  classifying polyphonic music in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa via techniques such as “heterophony, overlapping, drone, parallelism, homophony, ostinato, imitation, hocket, and counterpoint”.

This second part is of special interest in that I use all of these techniques already in my compositions and I hope to gain a further understanding of how another culture uses them.

Book III: “The difficulties involved in studying polyphony in an oral tradition”, and the technology employed and what it means from an anthropological viewpoint.

Book IV: The problems involved in transcribing music with an oral tradition.

Book V: The temporal structuring of African music.

Book VI: Polyphonic and polyrhythmic techniques with many transcriptions examples.

From a quick glance, Book VI contains an incredible compendium of ensemble excerpts. These score realizations are simply stunning to look at in their organization and variety.

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2 Responses to “A Musical Journey in Six Books”

  1. A Musical Journey in Six Books « Music & Africa Blog | centralafrican Says:

    […] he had arrived in Bangui, the capitol of the Central African Republic. … Read more here:  A Musical Journey in Six Books « Music & Africa Blog Share and […]

  2. A Musical Journey in Six Books « Music & Africa Blog | burkina Says:

    […] describes his impression of hearing African music for the first … Originally posted here: A Musical Journey in Six Books « Music & Africa Blog Share and […]

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