What has survived the ancient wisdom of sound rites in artistic music, or rather entertainment? According to musicologist Marius Schneider, very little. Very little is also left in the so-called “religious ceremony music”, especially western one. But, somewhere still remain attempts to restore the private channel between heaven and earth. Maybe imitating the sounds of nature. Schneider tells us that it was typical of ancient Egyptian priests to imitate the sounds of birds or other animals.
My translation from the Italian edition of “La Musica Primitiva” by Marius Schneider, Adelphi Spa publisher, Milano, 1992.
Magical thinking partially survives in Aesthetic Ideas
The general symbol of music is the drum or the tree. It indicates the relationship or harmony between heaven and earth. A more specific symbol is the god of thunder, whose drum distributes food. The inhabitants of Mangaia also depict him with a shell. The god of music is often the morning star, “the doctor who never ceases to sing” to dispel the darkness and help men. On the famous drum of Malinalco (Mexico), the god of music is depicted next to the olin sign (the flow of time), the eagle, and the emblems of sacrifice. Xochipilli is adorned with flowers and feathers, sings and dances, and has clouds, symbols of sound, under her head and feet. Bells hang from his ears; his sandals are equipped with small balls that symbolize the dance. On the entire surface of the drum are the hieroglyphs of war and the rope of sacrifice, intertwined with blue and red threads symbolizing water and fire (wet and luminous music).
It is said that Tezcatlipoca, the god of war, snatched that drum’s music from the sun’s nocturnal house. Just as the ancient Egyptians revered the god Thoth as the master of music, writing, dance, and monkeys, Mexico and India have elevated the monkey to the god of music. In Mexican manuscripts, this great warrior and drummer are sometimes depicted as the god of death leaning against the god of life. It is, therefore, probable that the pair of ancestors symbolize all music. The civilizing hero would then correspond to spontaneous creation and the god of war (the monkey) to imitative music. Now, what men and the earth (feminine compared to heaven) do with music is imitate the gods. It is a technique that the ancient Chinese designated with the term Kung, which means first of all “music”, and then “manual work” and, in particular, “women’s work”. It was with their great talent for imitation, combined with a certain creative vein, that the ancestors performed so many miracles: they resurrected the dead and defeated demons.
They settled the earth with sound tools and made the animals dance. Thanks to this principle, an attempt was made to imitate all the sounds of nature with the “tuned voice”; and in this respect, men strove as much as possible to follow the example of their ancestors. But as soon as religion began supplanting magical ideas, the commanded voice and naturalistic imitation gradually lost their effective value. Thus, they assumed a profane and artistic character and landed on descriptive or program music. The tools of advanced civilizations are much less suited to imitating the noises of nature than those of primitive civilizations. Their only ambition in this order of ideas is to imitate the human voice. The Far East has produced a literature of imitative music for the zither, whose poetic titles are extremely suggestive: the spring dawn that floods the sky, the vigor of the steed, the flight of the dragon, the murmur of the wind in the forest. Confucius was famous for the dignity that he knew how to give to the execution of these pieces, of which he explained his meaning to his students. But the descriptive style of that music is seldom completely realistic.
Often it combines musical imitation, already quite stylized, the expression of a feeling of nature rendered with a pure melody. Moreover, this technique does not appear completely new; it seems rather the last reflection of the conception that one had of the imitation of the creative sound substance, which, before manifesting itself in the noises of nature (materialized world), was a shout, the expression of a feeling or a creative will. This oscillation of style, motivated by the presence of two kinds of sound substance, is also found among some primitive peoples. When a group of Baule (Africa) sang “the melody of the stork” to us, they all found that the song imitated the animal’s movements. However, imitation was not the essential part of that song. The music above all had to render the “life” or the strength of the stork.
Thus there were many “pure force” sounds or themes that were not descriptive but constituted the essence of the animal’s sonic force. That force cannot be expressed by descriptive music, as it has no visual equivalent. It is these wholly abstract force ideas which, in a considerably ‘secularized’ state, appear later (in the great civilizations) to constitute the abstract part of program music. For music of this kind played on the flute, sometimes underlying texts translate the composer’s intentions into non-descriptive passages. As for realistic imitation, it generally boils down to the musical expression of certain literary elements that are particularly easy to imitate.
In India and the countries of Arab civilization, descriptive music is linked to a compositional technique that develops its ideas by constantly referring to a pre-existing musical and literary model called rāga or maqām. A. Schaeffner has already underlined how the rāga is not simply a specific musical mode but represents a still magical stage of it.
It contains particular melodic and rhythmic figures characteristic of a mode, constituting the thematic essence of any composition conforming to that model. Rāgas or maqâm are not exclusively musical creations. Al-Fârâbî, Safioddîn, and al-Lâdhiqi closely associate them with certain signs of the zodiac and with particular psychological qualities. The diatonic genre, somewhat coarse, generates courage and corresponds to the temperament of mountain peoples. The maqām Isfahan, concordant with Gemini, dilates the soul; it must be sung in the presence of a loved one. The ragas or maqams are to be performed at certain times; at dawn, it is sung in Husayni (Scorpio), at sunrise in Rast (Aries), and at noon in Zangulah (Virgo). This ideology seems even more developed in the Hindu rägas. The raga Sri, which corresponds to November and December and the time of twilight, expresses the image of a man offering a lotus to his beloved. However, O.C. Gangoly has clearly shown how, originally, the rāga was the sound body of the god to which it belongs.
Art music gradually moved away from these magical ideas; nevertheless, it seems probable that music rich in visual and sometimes even olfactory sensations constitutes the last reflections of the concept of luminous music. Indeed, certain aesthetic ideas found in Ssu-ma Ch’ien are far from possessing that artistic refinement: ‘The high registers (of music) make a man seem relieved; the low registers make it feel knocked down; the sinuous passages make it seem curved; the parts in which there is suspension make it motionless like a dead tree». However, these ideas were probably determined by the system of concordances, which seems to have bullied certain Chinese authors.
The magical root of artistic music could also explain the almost sacred and often completely official character attributed to musical manifestations already completely separated from the cult. You will never have an orchestra play for the simple pleasure of hearing music. Produced with limited means until it is placed at the service of the theater, it avoids everything that would reduce it to being nothing more than mere entertainment. It is a valuable means of illustrating all sorts of important events and of emphasizing the specific character of ceremonies. The perfect music must always reveal a just and right balance and “act without violence”. “All those who instituted music did so to temper joy.” Music must not excite the passions; it is “the flower of virtue” (Li Chi). If rites symbolize justice, music corresponds to goodness. “Through singing, man corrects himself and manifests his virtue”.
Yet despite this official character of their art, Chinese theorists do not entirely refrain from alluding to the intimate feelings that music can channel or evoke. “By prolonging the sound, man expresses his feelings”, “When the heart, struck by certain objects, is moved, it shapes one’s emotions with sound. And from the sounds that music is born, its origin is in man’s heart. Thus, when the heart experiences a feeling of sadness, its sound is contracted and fades away. When the heart experiences a feeling of pleasure, the sound it makes is natural; when the heart experiences a feeling of joy, the sound it makes is high-pitched and runs away freely. If the heart has a feeling of anger, the sound it makes is harsh and violent; if the heart has a feeling of respect, the sound it makes is frank and modest. If the heart feels love, its sound is harmonious and sweet” (Li Chi).
As long as music has a purely magical character, no idea of an aesthetic nature can moderate its dynamism. A certain concern for the beauty and balance of sound begins to manifest itself only on the threshold of artistic music. Imitating the frog’s crack, a ritual in rain ceremonies is condemned as obscene by etiquette; however, one continues to sing in the belly voice, which is magical. The musical instruments, no longer having to resonate all together, are subjected to an alternating rhythm that better corresponds to the aesthetic sense. Still, this alternating chant continues to represent the concerted action of the opposing forces of the universe. The great civilizations, possessing a richer assortment of tools, divide them into different ethical groups. In China, bells are war bells, and bows are austere; the winds suggest the idea of breadth and multitude, and the drum evokes the impetus of the crowd.
Magical survival remains sensitive everywhere. The fact that the Chinese dance begins with the drum, which evokes the crowd, and ends with the war bells, recalls precisely the magical conceptions of primitive peoples, who, at the beginning of the dance, invite the spirits and men with blows of drum and end with violent cries that must protect the crowd from possible attacks by the spirits released by the music. The first place has always been assigned to the human voice; often, the most celebrated qualities of the flute or the zither are in knowing how to imitate the human voice. The voice is the man, and man is the measure of all. Musical instruments, talking trees, and the entire universe are made on the model of man. Rocks are the bones, rivers are the veins, and forests are the hair of the cosmic giant or giantess whose sacrifice gave rise to the material world. The substance of his strength, resonating in the volcanic channel that crosses the world, makes his whole skeleton vibrate when the sonorous sacrifice begins to “spread”. An analogous phenomenon occurs in a man who “performs” the sacrifice. He then feels his power rising along the spinal column. His sonorous breath rises through the internal channels, dilates his lungs, and makes his bones vibrate.
Thus transformed into a cosmic resonator, the man stands as the speaking tree. That sound force will settle in his skin or skeleton when the sacrifice is total. Then he will be no more than an instrument in the hands of a god, and his bones, still impregnated with the materialized sound power, will constitute precious amulets in the hands of his children. The immortal part of him (the fundamental sound of his soul) will walk toward the Milky Way. When it has succeeded in crossing the perilous bridge located in the east, between Orion, Gemini, and Taurus, where astrologers place the larynx of the world, it will merge with the hearts of the dead and participate in their song in the cave of light which hurls the solar egg and fixes it on the horn of the spring bull. The larynx of the world is the cave of light, the wide-open mouth of the gods, which, every spring, renews the action of the primordial abyss by opening its doors to the sun, which grows like a tree, a shiny egg or a singing skull. And it is this skull that heralds the world anew through a piece of music whose rays resound at first like the syllable OM, like a shell or an intermediate sound between the vowels U and O. To emit that gloomy song of origins, destined to clear increasingly, it was necessary for the lips of the living corpse to round to form the circle o, the symbol of the opening of the resonance cave from where the sun comes out every spring to renew the sound substance of all that exists.
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