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Impearls: HIC 4.15: Music

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

Music   by A. L. Kroeber

Music, like art, is difficult to characterize without a special vocabulary that has grown up around it.  Such vocabularies do not exist for most primitive arts because their essential qualities are too foreign from our own.  Usually it is only certain incidental features of an alien art that have any meaning in our thinking and feeling.  We detach these aspects of expression from their roots and describe them in terms which seem significant but are of real meaning only as they refer to our own schemes.  It is only the individual endowed with exceptional sympathy or sensibility that can understand any primitive art without a long acquaintance; and since most people have not the interest to familiarize themselves with the art of their own civilization they are wholly incapable of knowing what a remote foreign one is about.  Hence they prefer Indian baskets with bastard European patterns; and though they may find something vaguely pleasing in many primitive works of decoration — if seen sufficiently rarely — the quality which appears is that of strangeness and the grotesque.

It is the same with music.  The first impresion of a native song is one of funny noises, grunts, deflected intonations; and the almost invariable report is of plaintiveness, wailing monotony, minor wistfulness — emotions which the hopeful lover, the religious devotee, the community celebrating a victory certainly were not trying to render when they uttered the song.  A few examples in our inadequate notation convey but a terribly distorted impression.  The music must be heard and heard and heard by those both willing and able to listen to it before it can be understood.

Nevertheless the most casual can discern with ease a distinctiveness in northwestern music.  Hear again and again any half dozen songs of the Yurok, the Yana, the Pomo, and the Yokuts.  Then listen to a new song from one of the latter three nations.  Only a fairly proficient musician would venture its definite attribution to one of the three peoples: their range of stylistic peculiarity is slight.  But let the additional song be from the Yurok, and even the novice could usually place it with confidence.  It should be added that the Yurok themselves can not distinguish their own music from that of the Hupa and Karok, and in many cases from that of other near-by tribes.  But the difference of northwestern songs from those of central California in mass is considerable.

A few external traits can be mentioned.  The northwesterner, particularly in the music of his great dances, loves to leap upward an octave or more to a long, powerful note, and then sink back from this by a series of slides, often of a continuous tonal transition.  The accompanists at time chant a rhythmic bass pulse without definite melodic relation to the strain.  The levels and climaxes vary enormously in pitch, in rhythm, in intensity of intonation.  Central Californian music moves more uniformly in a narrower range of smaller intervals.

These are inadequate hints; but they reveal the rich and unexplored field that lies cultivable for understanding to him with sympathy, patience, and a catholic musical sense.  For centuries hundreds of thousands of human beings in California have been forming a style, a variety of styles, according to nation and occasion, in which they expressed some of their profoundest feelings; and we can not yet make a single exact and intelligible remark about their accomplishments.



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