Posts Tagged ‘Central African music’

Tempo is the Only Constant

September 9, 2009
Excerpt from Susman's Pentateuch showing divisi polyphonic and polyrhythmic wind, brass, percussion and string sections with three choir groups of tenors and basses in 5ths below the soprano lead

Excerpt from Susman's Pentateuch showing divisi polyphonic and polyrhythmic wind, brass, percussion and string sections with three choir groups of tenors and basses in 5ths below the soprano lead

Thoughts on the Typology of Central African Music:

Melody in Central African music is determined by the tones of the language. As I mentioned in a previous blog Steve Reich uses this approach in his work Different Trains. Also the melodic line can be transposed allowing a wider range of intervals. Often the lines descend in the form of terraced movement resting on “successve levels”. (Arom, 19)

Tempo is the only constant. The speed of a piece of music never varies. Only melody, rhythm and instrumental patterns may change in a musical discourse.

There are different techniques of plurivocality or multi-part singing: Heterophony, overlapping and homophony. André Gide relates his impressions of a ‘tam-tam’ in 1928, “but imagine this tune yelled by a hundred persons not one of whom sings the exact note. It is like trying to make out the main line from a host of little strokes. The effect is prodigious and gives an impression of polyphony and of harmonic richness.”

Simha Arom aptly describes the features of this heterophony which I will delineate in a list:

  1. A melody whose outline is refracted by a kind of halo
  2. The voices are slightly unfocused
  3. Minute variants
  4. A coming and going of dissonances
  5. Overlapping between solo and chorus parts (Gide called this ‘brocading’)
  6. Often in the middle of this process a singer will sustain a single note thus creating an intermittent drone. (Arom, 21)

Homophony on the other hand is the most common form of multi-part singing. This form of plurivocality involves parallel movement of the voices. Typically they are in intervals of 4ths, 5ths and octaves. Often certain tribes are known for singing distinctly with these intervals as 8-5-4 tribes and some sing in 3rds. (Arom, 22)

In Pentateuch (1983) a grand divisi orchestra, choir and soprano work written when I was 23 (with influences from Ligeti and Xenakis) the three male choir groups sing for an extended period in 5ths. Each group takes its turn singing a phrase in 5ths while the soprano voice predominates above in a quasi call and response. My intent was to create a very raw, basic and forceful sound in the midst of a constellation of divisi polyphonic and polyrhythmic wind, brass, percussion and string sections.

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Call and Response

September 5, 2009
A mosque on the main street in Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso with a speaker to broadcast the call of the Muezzin

A mosque on the main street in Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso with a loudspeaker to broadcast the call of the Muezzin

More on the Typology of African music

Continuing with a typology or characteristics of Central African music Simha Arom mentions that antiphonal and responsorial structures predominate.

Another characteristic I found fascinating are litanical songs. These pieces contain short melodic cells typically no more than four to five in a given song but usually two.

What gives a song originality is the way they treat the form of the phrases or melodic cells for example ABABABACCAB or,  AAA…BBB…CCC or, a litany and then a refrain or, a through-composed passage followed by a litany.  Lomax documented this formal structure in 1968.

As in medieval church music repetition is used to focus the mind or create greater intensity of thought on some specific idea or purpose. Repetition is a universal concept crossing over many cultures.

In call and response music the response is nearly always invariable where the antecedent can change and often does melodically because to change the words means to change the melody as tones are tied to language.

This call and response form also reminds me somewhat of Gospel music where a leader intones a story through a series of verses followed periodically by a chorus that declaims a recurring melodic and, or harmonic response.

Arom says that the formal structure is isoperiodic that is “The periodic structure is dependent on an extremely strict division of time into segments of equal duration, each segment possessing its own internal organization. The periodic unit is like the basic material of the musical structure, or a kind of mould.  Periodic units … can be subdivided into two or more melodic and/or rhythmic units. (Arom, 18)

Arom goes on to describe how vocal music is accompanied by a formula that organizes the melodic instruments and percussive instruments. For example thinking in western measurements you could have a sung strophe which takes 8 bars to complete accompanied by an instrumental melodic pattern with a “periodic unit” of 4-bars repeated twice and under that a percussive pattern of 2-bars repeated 4 times. Many popular songs in western music follow this formula.

In other words, “in a sung periodic unit of a given duration, the melodic instruments will follow a repetitive formula that is half the length, and the percussion a formula that is a quarter of the length.” (Arom, 19)

Below is a schematic I created showing a common exponential (8,4,2) formula for segmenting time into segments of equal duration and thus creating an “isoperiodic” structure.

Sung strophe:

|____________________________|

Melodic instruments:

|______________||_____________|

Percussion:

|______||______||______||______|

For Internal Use

September 3, 2009
A granary commonly found in family compounds. This storehouse, one of hundreds in the village of Zogore, holds millet, a food staple of Burkina Faso, Mali and other West African countries.

A granary commonly found in family compounds. This storehouse, one of hundreds in the village of Zogore, holds millet, a food staple of Burkina Faso and other West African countries.

Through my research into African music I hope to answer questions about why I compose the way I do and where it is leading. Perhaps the journey will take me somewhere new and, or simply back to a place I have always known.

Simha Arom in African Polyphony and Polyrhythm sets out to create a typology of music in African Societies. i.e classifying it according to its characteristics.

I paraphrase the general features:

Popular music where anyone can play it and you don’t verbalize the theory surrounding it.

Oral music where it is passed on from generation to generation without notation.

Anonymous and undatable music where no one knows who wrote it or when.

Collective music where the whole community is responsible for preserving it as part of their heritage.

Music for internal use where it is particular to that society, used for communication and even a higher means.

(more…)