Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Toward an Understanding of Primal Music

People respond to music in ways that are real and profound. In the last post, we discussed one theory around why that might be, but there are certainly other ways of looking at this. Here, I want to take a look at how we are designed and how insight into our nature can help us arrive at an understanding of the musical forms that we, as a species, may be most attuned to.

There are some senses that are pretty tough to temper, and hearing is one of them. You can always close your eyes. Our clothing greatly reduces our exposure to tactile stimulation. Our tongue is protected from unwanted tasting by virtue of its hidden position in our head.

Audition and olfaction are interesting in that comparatively aggressive mechanical intervention is required to block stimulation of these senses. We need to pinch our nose or forcibly stop up our ears, or else remove ourselves entirely from the stimuli if we find the sensory experience undesirable. Sounds and smells go right into us.

We're going to focus on sound here, but, as an aside, the Prophet Muhammad, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him, loved perfume and advocated its liberal use among men. A primary tenant of the Qasida Monday and Tea-Share gatherings has always been to show up smelling good. The relationship between smell and sound is something that we can explore later, insha Allah.

We are absolutely primed for listening. And although we might hear all kinds of things, nothing attracts our attention or excites our passions so much as music, which we will define here as a relationship between rhythm and melody. Primal music insists upon a simple and accessible relationship between these two fundamental elements.

An awareness of voice as instrument is necessary to understand it's fundamental role in primal music. If we are to adhere to these stipulations of simplicity and accessibility, then we must concede that, excepting those individuals born or otherwise rendered mute, there is no instrument more simple or accessible than our voice. Through the voice alone we can realize the two musical essentials of rhythm and melody, as in this example from the Sacred Harp tradition:

And am I born to die?
To lay this body down!
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown?

Soon as from earth I go,
What will become of me?
Eternal happiness or woe
Must then my portion be!

Waked by the trumpet sound,
I from my grave shall rise;
And see the Judge with glory crowned,
And see the flaming skies!

Another point to consider in defining primal music is the transactional reality of sound. This is captured in the famous conundrum of the tree falling in the forest where nobody is around to hear it. Does it make a sound? In attempting to answer this, we might come to the conclusion that it is the interplay of production and perception that confirms experience.

And this is why music has historically been a communal rite. While one can create music to be appreciated in isolation, like a meal or a conversation, we have found that involving others enhances and intensifies the experience.

Our charge in advancing the notion of primal music is not only to discuss what it is, but also what it does. Primal music is simple and accessible and through primal music we build community. It is therefore necessary that primal music, in its execution, be inclusive. And while most everybody has a voice, not everybody shares the same language.

Enter the drum.

If you don't know the words, sit in the circle and keep time.

Primal music from the Northern Cree:

Simple, accessible, inclusive. Voice and drum. Melody and rhythm.

Primal music. Go out and make some!

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