Academic journal article Yearbook for Traditional Music

Liminal Utterances and Shapes of Sadness: Local and Acoustic Perspectives on Vocal Production among the Yezidis of Armenia

Academic journal article Yearbook for Traditional Music

Liminal Utterances and Shapes of Sadness: Local and Acoustic Perspectives on Vocal Production among the Yezidis of Armenia

Article excerpt

The Yezidis are a Kurmanji-speaking (northern Kurdish2) religious minority living scattered across northern Iraq, Syria, the Caucasus (Armenia and Georgia), and western Europe.3 Among the Yezidis of Armenia, "speech" (axavtin), "song" (stran; pl. straněn), and "words about" (kilame ser; pl. kilamen ser) constitute the three main categories of vocal production. This article is a detailed exploration of the acoustic characteristics of these categories of vocal production with a special focus on "words about." At first sight, one may question whether "words about" (kilame ser) actually amounts to a separate vocal category. These words lack any name that would set them clearly apart from axavtin (speech), which is clearly also made up of "words" (kilamen). Furthermore, the Yezidis never refer to an abstract category of "words about" but only to "words about" something, "words about the dead" (kilamen ser mirya), "words about exile" (kilamen ser xerîbîe), "words about the hero" (kilamen ser meranîe), and so forth. What these topics share in common is their association with tragic events and/or feelings of sadness and nostalgia; "words about" are thus lamenting utterances.4 When Yezidi people (especially women) say "words about" such things, they often resort to a special tone of voice. This tone may be described as a kind of chanting that combines characteristics of axavtin and stran. As with axavtin, there is neither metre, rhyme, nor steady beat. And as with stran, there are sustained pitches and an interactional salience. These differences are all addressed in more detail below.

The present study reflects the joint work of one ethnomusicologist and three acousticians. Yezidi vocal practices previously have been addressed by Amy de la Breteque from anthropological and ethnomusicological perspectives (2010, 2012, 2013). We have extended this work by inquiring whether analysis of precise acoustic features might shed light on the way Yezidi people make use of and conceive their voices. Ethnomusicologists have long borrowed concepts and tools from acousticians. In relation to vocal production, these tools are generally deployed to describe certain aspects of sound that might theoretically be heard, albeit not by untrained ears (e.g., Charron 1978; Vaughn 1990; Fal es 2002). Spectrograms, for instance, are favourite ways of representing characteristics such as overtones, glottal stops, or minute ornaments (e.g., Zemp 1996). Here, however, our approach differs from what is typically found in ethnomusicological studies. Extracting "low-level" features is common in the literature on acoustics, and many relevant calculations may be carried out with user-friendly, free software.5 However, such computations are not usually part of the ethnomusicologist's toolkit. Thus, in addition to the initial aim of better understanding Yezidi vocal practices, this paper also serves as a trial for analytical methods seldom applied in ethnomusicology.

Our study takes as its focus a single five-minute field recording of a casual conversation that took place in September 2006 in the village of Alagyaz near Mount Aparan in Armenia. In this recording, one can hear axavtin, two instances of kilamen ser, and one short stran. The first section of this article describes the ethnographic context in which the example was recorded and the local typology of vocal productions. We then proceed with an analysis of the recording from both musical and acoustic perspectives. We measure the distribution of many "low-level" acoustic parameters across the three vocal categories. From all the features measured, we selected a sample that ensures a detailed and focused description of all the utterances contained in the recorded example. This restricted set of acoustic parameters enables us to compare the three vocal categories distinguished by Yezidis and put forward a new hypothesis regarding their interactional relevance, linked with ethnographic observations. Finally, the last section summarizes some of our findings and discusses their relevance for the anthropology of laments. …

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