Integrating words and music

The University of Bonn has been marked on the maps of international epic scholarship as one of the capitals of comparative research on oral epics. The seminar series on Central Asian epic traditions conducted for decades by Professor Walther Heissig and the more recent pair of symposia organized by him and his colleagues are now finding one more new dimension through Professor Karl Reichl’s exemplary work on Turkic epics. The international colloquium on “The Oral Epic: Performance and Music” at the University of Bonn on September 7-10, 1997 was the result of Reichl’s interest in the musical aspect of epic composition and performance. In his opening paper, he scrutinized the aspect from a general point of view and referred to his field work among the Karakalpak singers.

Many scholars, myself included, have faced with frustration the dilemma of integrating the verbal and musical elements in epic singing. The music, be it vocal or instrumental, obviously plays an important and meaningful role in the production of oral epic. Yet, its role tends to become subdued in our text-centred analyses. The book we publish does not sing in the same way as the original oral product. There is a hiatus between the musicological and textual analyses, and the epic scholar is left alone with his “rhythmic recitations” where the verbal element seems to dominate over the melodic one. Both musicologists and linguists remain uninterested. Nobody knows where intonation transcends into rhythmic recitation and this again into song.

The agony is reflected in the following questions posed to the audience: What is the function of the melodic accompaniment or its expressive impact on the text? What and how does music add to the meaning conveyed? Does music help the singer to compose and the audience to receive the text? Or, is the music itself even more important in the processing of the poetic message than the blurred wordings of text often lost in the variegated soundscape?

There were basically two answers: one pointing out the subsidiarity of music in relation to oral text, and the other speaking about the cultural integration of the two. The previous line of thought was well epitomized by Dwight Reynolds (UC Santa Barbara) who, in his paper on “Techniques of Oral Composition in Arabic Epic-singing”, described music as a latent signifier which the singers are mostly unable to conceptualize. Yet, its presence is felt at all times and its importance is accentuated when it undergoes a change. Reynolds saw four main functions for music in epic composition: 1) it is a structuring device (musical contrasts mark out textual segments), 2) it puts programmatic emphasis on some message (e.g. women, foreigners and slaves get musically marked), 3) it alludes to other types of music, different genres, etc. (musical intertextualism), and 4) it divides epic performance into logocentric (action-oriented) and melocentric (non-action-oriented) moments by using, respectively, simple or embellished melody.

This additive mode of explanation was supported, in one form or another, by several speakers. The keynote speaker, Gregory Nagy (Harvard), explored the role of music in the performances of the 4th and 5th century rhapsodes from the point of view of the gradually developing art of epic sequencing and the ritual context of singing contests. Stephen Erdely (M.I.T.), the expert on the music of the South Slavic heroic songs in the Parry-Lord collection, distinguished two main types of performers, the stichic and the stanzaic singers. He said that both are cognizant only of the poetic line, not the distinctive melodic line. Margaret Beissinger (U. of Wisconsin) saw in her Romanian oral epic material a compromise of word and sound. The text tends to dictate the music but the best singers are able to break the monotony and produce very active musical variation. Hiromi Lorraine Sakata (U. of Washington) compared several epic traditions and stressed the importance of music as a marker of space and time as well as a structuring device. Nicole Revel (CNRS, Paris) described the vocal styles of Philippine bards on the basis of her lengthy field work and pointed out, among other things, the role of experiences in nature and natural sounds as a source of bardic melodies (cf. onomatopoeia). Emine Gürsoy-Naskali (Marmara U., Istanbul) took up the Turkic genres of contests in the sound quality of words (e.g. maximal alliteration) where sound overrides text. The (north European) Medievalist aspects of the problem were laid out by Joseph Harris (Harvard) and John Stevens (Cambridge).

The “second” answer to the dilemma of text and music, namely, the integrative analysis of verbal and melodic expression was most lucidly expounded by Christiane Seydou (CNRS, Paris) in her paper “Le luth parle: L’épopée chez les Peuls du Mali”. Among the Fulbe, the interplay of verbal and musical “mottos” immediately identifies the epic genre and forces the hero of the story, e.g. a chief who may be in the audience, to conform to the narrative. Both mottos are equally evocative and may on occasion replace each other, i.e. the musical motto “speaks” in wordsjust as the verbal one. In a description of the struggle of the hero Silâmaka against a monstrous snake where the snake throws him on the ground and coils itself around him, the griot may utter just two verbs and describe the rest on his lute, i.e. a certain melodic figure can replace a textual element. Referring to myths about the origin of the lute, Seydou concluded: “As to the instrument itself…, it was not considered as the work of a craftsman, but as the product of a revelation of a supernatural character. Lute and music are clearly situated in the universe of spirits, the use of such an instrument implying an incursion into the world of the unknown and an ambiguous relationship with occult powers, which gives a good impression of the images attached to musical art and to the power of the strings, whose effect is so strong on men’s souls, and which the griots alone – by virtue of their specific status, their training and their knowledge – can tame and utilize at will.”

Consequently, music does not “add” to the meaning of text, it is meaning. Frustrated analysts are incompetent, not because of their lack of musicological finesse, but because they are unable to read cultural meaning.

Lauri Honko
University of Turku

(FFN 14, December 1997:16, 28)

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