Sounding the Depths: Tradition and the Voices of History

By Keller, Marcello Sorce | Yearbook for Traditional Music, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Sounding the Depths: Tradition and the Voices of History


Keller, Marcello Sorce, Yearbook for Traditional Music


Grauer, Victor. Sounding the Depths: Tradition and the Voices of History. Self-published via CreateSpace, 2011. xx, 294 pp., figures, musical examples, appendices, bibliography. ISBN 9781463741754.

Victor Grauer's latest book is accessible free of charge at http://soundingthedepths. blogspot.com/. A printed edition can be bought through Amazon. Only on the website, however, does one find most of the photos, diagrams, audio, and video documents referred to throughout the text.

With the title Sounding the Depths, the author wishes to appeal for an investigation of "deep history" (a concept advocated by historian Daniel Lord Smail), the kind of history that goes back to the very beginnings of the human species. The thesis is that scientific means exist today "for recreating not only the music but many aspects of the culture of our 'most recent common ancestors' in Africa 100,000 years ago" (when Homo sapiens still co-existed with Neanderthals) (p. xii). That said, let us go back to the beginning of the story (but not as far back as the Stone Age) and tell how Grauer laments that ethnomusicology no longer ever tries to grasp wide scenarios, and that it should not exclusively consist of "engaging modernity, constructing identities, negotiating gender" (p. xvii). I empathize with his plea for the wide-angle lens, and for embracing all possible help from the natural sciences. Yet I am not sure this excursion into "deep history" yields "testable hypotheses to be employed as exploratory tools" (p. 4). On the contrary, this mix of insights, daring extrapolations, and hypotheses is as fascinating as it is unlikely to ever be tested.

Grauer's attention centres on the vocal practices of three non-contiguous populations: Pygmies of eastern central Africa, Pygmies of western central Africa, and Kalahari Bushmen. He states that "the Pygmies and Bushmen of Africa, now recognized by population geneticists as carriers of the most ancient lineages in the world, share a remarkable musical language, despite thousands of miles of separation in completely different regions of Africa, with totally different environments" (p. 2), adding that, according to Gilbert Rouget, Alan Lomax, and Charlotte Frisbie, their musical differences are almost indistinguishable. The similarity is further explored by Grauer himself (a former student of Alan Lomax), in appendix A, using cantometrics as a tool, and rather convincingly. The big leap, and the difficult one to accept, comes when he finds such musical similarities "strongly [suggest] that this musical practice is a survival from the time the geneticists tell us the two populations most likely diverged, tens of thousands of years ago" (p. 2).

Here we are confronted with a diffusionist assumption: that these similar styles were not generated independently but must find their origin in populations that were originally one. It was in fact Franz Boas, often mentioned throughout, who suggested there was correlation between the wide distribution of cultural traits and their antiquity. Diffusionism is favoured by archaeology and organology, but has seldom been studied in the domain of vocal styles. Fairy-tale scholarship established criteria to determine whether a story is the product of diffusion or has arisen independently; for instance, plot similarity per se is no indication of it, but "motifs" and seemingly irrelevant plot details are. We do not have similar elementary units of musical style to go by and verify diffusion, although Grauer suggests that cantometrics parameters are just that. …

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