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on making music with nature....

Singing in thin air

by René van Peer

It was on a cold Sunday morning that a Dutch reed player took a camera crew to the Amsterdam zoo. In a live television programme he was going to demonstrate a phenomenon he had come across: gibbons responded to his music, in such a way that the interaction was reminiscent of duetting. In front of a cage he played all manner of melodies, riffs and sounds. While the apes were less than forthcoming the presenter wondered whether he spotted the response he had come here for: "Ah yes, I believe something is happening now." Later he could be heard conferring with the musician - if what they witnessed now, was comparable to the earlier experiences of the latter; whether the apes perhaps needed time to get used to the camera crew, or to warm up to what was expected from them.

This duo turned what they had intended to be an eye-opener into a classical comedy of confusion. We may safely assume that some sort of sonic interaction had taken place (why else would the musician have been so confident that he wanted to demonstrate it live on television?), but apparently not much thought had been given about what had actually happened when he had first coaxed responses from these animals with his instrument. They had not stopped to wonder what makes gibbons vocalize in the first place, how their calls and songs are structured; but had taken for granted that gibbon songs can somehow be equated with music, that gibbons would take any opportunity to respond to sounds that are in fact alien to them. Possibly the thought had not crossed their mind that an insurmountable difference might exist between human and animal motivations for emitting structured sounds.

A failure to understand, then, on a deep level, with hilarious consequences. A basic misunderstanding, undoubtedly resulting from being rooted in urban life, which has its effects on the perception and understanding of phenomena that have not emerged in response to urban, manmade, environments - and resulting from not being aware of this. The environment humans have created around themselves is intended to function as a life support system, a semi-permeable membrane that should ward off potential agents of destruction (or discomfort) and let in what is seen as benevolent - an extension of the skin, so to speak. For our protection and survival we rely on our inventiveness and craftsmanship, and on the resources that we have at our disposal.

In this, cultures from all over the world don't differ so much. The difference lies primarily in the resources, which in turn determine the living conditions. In industrial and post-industrial societies there is less of an acute sense of how powers from nature influence our lives on a day to day basis. On the other hand, when all else fails we are more than ready to resort to powers outside the realm of what our knowledge can accomplish. Burning candles, visiting faith healers, invoking the power of numbers - in spite of all scientific progress and the positivist materialistic outlook it has spawned we have evidently retained the belief in superhuman forces.

In societies where people live off the land, contacts with natural surroundings are far more immediate and critical. Understanding of the daily goings-on there is of vital importance. Paying attention to the slightest detail can mean the difference between life and death. To protect themselves from such overwhelming powers and to get these to work for them, people have had to develop ways to address them. Arguably intensified and concerted modes of activities (rituals that would entail singing, reciting, dance, decoration of the body) could summon and channel the energy necessary to establish contact with those powers.

An example of this is the ritual for fertilizing millet seed, conducted by the Bunun tribe of Taiwan.1 They plant a grain of millet, then form a circle around it and start to sing at pitches that rise with every round. The overall effect is of a chord that is lifted ever so gently - but if you listen closely, you can hear heterodyning occur. Some of the participants push their tone upward in a long drawn out movement, approaching the others until they are just microtones apart after which they move away again. Thus they create an uncanny throbbing sound that rises and subsides in waves.

The analogy between the rising of the chord and the growing of the plant is of a poetic clarity. Millet being the staple food of these people, this ritual is of vital importance. The heterodyning throb must be intended to add extra potency to the song. The sound is of a staggering intensity to those who produce it. It has the effect of binding the singers together - and it is the result of a concerted effort. Another aspect of the ritual is that according to the Bunun millet has ears. The seed (and, more importantly, the spirit that inhabits it) actually hears what is sung to it. The men are directly addressing this one kernel, and through it all the others they are about to sow. What is more, this song is part of a larger ritual cycle that takes place on various occasions throughout the year.

Evidently these people are on speaking terms with the natural world. The fact that nature lives independently from them and has to be negotiated with, is ingrained in their thoughts and their culture. It is an integral part of their lives. It is an expression of how they view their world. It binds the people together as a community. It identifies them, they identify themselves through it. It springs from an awareness of their position in the web of life. This is an exquisitely sophisticated, integrated complex of art, mythology and life.

Humans may express their relationship with nature in a more intimate way as well. Particularly touching is a little chant intoned by Tuvan herders to re-establish the tie between a newly born animal and its mother, to secure its survival. Even though there are well-defined pitch contours the Tuvans themselves view this as separate from their music. This kind of intoned magic song exists in a category of its own.

Imitation does occur as well. On a recording of Central African music in the Unesco series of Bärenreiter/Musicaphon one can hear how people mimic the sound of drops in a rain dance. There are numerous examples of very convincing imitations of animal calls to lure them in a hunt. For a recording released by Folkways an Indian from the Brazilian jungle gives out an entire series of lifelike calls, hoots and cries. Only the last, the jaguar, is nowhere near the real thing. No explanation is given, but without any doubt the hunter must have thought it wise not to enter on a course that might bring him face to face with the most powerful being in his world.
Mongolian music abounds with galloping rhythms, immediately reminiscent of the horse - the animal that has of old been most important to the Mongols. So much so that a boy was only named (and thus became a man) when he was given a horse. Without the animal he is a nobody. It appears in the major Mongolian instrument, the morin-khuur, or horsehead fiddle. A story tells how the horse of a hero was transformed into the first morin-khuur after its death, when the man stroked the animal out of grief. The sound of the fiddle can indeed be a close approximation of the voice of a horse.

Another level of conversing with nature can be found in Afghan music, if the Taleban government hasn't rooted it out, that is. Rubâb players often take a caged bird with them on stage, preferably a nightingale, but a canary will do as well; from time to time during the concert the bird will sing with the music - a pinnacle of aesthetic and spiritual beauty, according to the audience. The bird is seen as a mediator between humans and the supreme being. Consequently, whenever it starts to sing, prompted by the music, a direct line is established with the powers on high.

Something similar happened in rehearsals of the Maciunas Ensemble, the music group of the Dutch sound artist Paul Panhuysen who has an aviary in his studio, a large space on the second floor of Het Apollohuis, the building where he lives, works, and (until January 1997) presented exhibitions and concerts. A recording made of this event was released on CD. In the liner notes to this album Panhuysen describes the circumstances of this sonic coming together. "The studio where the recording is made is the same room where the birds live in their aviary. The birds were so inspired by the sound of the aluminium strips, that they immediately joined the music as improvising musicians and continued to play with us in an often very loud and competitive way for more than an hour. The birds stopped only after we had stopped. The event was not planned, it just happened…"

However close this comes to the Afghan setup, it does not have its spiritual dimensions. But, in contrast with the wonderful non-event in the Amsterdam zoo, it was based on some knowledge of what was going on, derived from close observation - although, admittedly, chance did play a significant role in it. In fact, we have arrived at a place where music from oral traditions and contemporary Western sound works overlap. Here the expressions are also indicative of human views on their relationship with nature. Sometimes there is evidence of an attempt to fathom what is going on out there, but just as often the product can be the result of ignorance and indifference. Of not wanting to realize that there is something to know there. This field is another matter altogether, waiting to be explored. Before it is too late - and nothing remains to be explored.

René van Peer


The Music of Taiwanese Aborigines 1 - Songs of the Bunun Tribe (Wind Records TCD1501)

Taiwan - Music of the Aboriginal Tribes (in Wolfgang Laade's Music of Man Archive, Jecklin-Disco JD653-2)

Tuva - Voices from the Center of Asia (Smithsonian/Folkways SF CD40017), recorded and annotated by Ted Levin

Music of the Central African Republic - An Anthology of African Music 10 (Bärenreiter/Musicaphon BM 30 L2310) - now deleted, but it might be re-issued on CD in the Anthology of World Music series of the American label Rounder Records, whenever that will be resuscitated

Music from Mato Grosso (Folkways 4446 - original vinyl album deleted; to be ordered through Smithsonian/Folkways in CD format)

Mongolian Folk Music (Hungaroton HCD18013-14)

The Rubâb of Herat (VDE-Gallo CD-699), recorded by John Baily

Maciunas Ensemble & Kanary Grand Band - Live with the Birds (Apollo Records ACD129615)

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