Posts Tagged ‘tam tam’


September 23, 2009

Scale Systems:

Songs in parallel fourths are the most common throughout the many tribes that Simha Arom has studied. Most of the time there is a fluctuation between 4ths and 5ths and an occasional 3rd in order to preserve the pentatonic sound and not veer off into polytonality.

The most widespread musical scale is the anhemitonic-pentatonic scale. It can be organized in five different ways: (Arom, 24) It is the same pitch set with just a different starting note.

1)     C-D-E-G-A

2)     D-E-G-A-C

3)     E-G-A-C-D

4)     G-A-C-D-E

5)     A-C-D-E-G

Perhaps, singing this scale with an overlapping and staggered form (as André Gide mentions in his description of the ‘Tam-tam’) results in what he describes as “harmonic richness”.

Also, note that if a D# is added to inversion no. 5 above, you have the traditional blues scale A-C-D-D#-E-G-A. One can imagine how African-American blues evolved from this anhemitonic-pentatonic scale when sung with certain vocal inflections.

Here is a hypothetical arrangement I created of four voices each singing the same melody but not in unison. Notice that the 1st time I evenly stagger the entrances of the scale. The 2nd time, the scale has a “jagged” layering. Both ways create an “harmonic richness”.

Voice 1   D-E-G-E-G                                 D-E-G-A-G

Voice 2      D-E-G-E-G                 D-E-G-A-G

Voice 3            D-E-G-E-G               D-E-G-A-G

Voice 4               D-E-G-E-G                  D-E-G-A-G

Furthermore, by moving two lines in parallel motion but with different starting notes you can arrive at a succession of 5ths. Below is a hypothetical melody I created of a pentatonic scale demonstrating what some ethnomusicologists describe as a hybrid of medieval organum:

Movement only in parallel 5ths using the pentatonic scale

Upper voice:   G-A-G-E-D-E-G-A-G

Lower voice:   C-D-C-A-G-A-C-D-C

Arom states that tribes in the Central African Republic speak in a tonal language.  If one sings a particular word, it must use the same intervallic motion or else the word will cease to have meaning. I understand this to mean then intervals heard in spoken language are similar to what Arom has heard and recorded in their sung form. That is, the pitches heard in song must follow the language’s tonal scheme. Does this mean that the tonal languages of some tribes of the Central African Republic use pentatonic intervals?


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.