Many voices

May 21, 2008

The term polyphony means many voices and is traditionally used in reference to a kind of musical texture where each voice has a certain amount of independence. A canon and a fugue are good examples. You heard Ketjak last week as an example of polyphony in other cultures.

Yesterday a visiting scholar spent an hour and a half in my counterpoint class, giving me a break from endlessly having to shape students in a Baroque mold which I would just as soon break. He spoke to us primarily and briefly about several of his passions: the Beatles and Georgian polyphony — that is from the country, not the state or the late Beatle. He had the class sing some lovely examples of crunchy harmonies generated from each member having only to sing a few notes, but at an interval of a second from each other. As he explained Georgian harmonic theory, early Stravinksy choral and vocal music all of a sudden made a lot more sense, as did the music I have heard from Bulgaria. He referred to the great classical choral tradition as but one of the great European (and Asian) choral traditions — a humbling and sobering view I thought. He described a rare vocal tradition in the mountains in Afghanistan and a small lute instrument tuned in a whole tone cluster — C, D, E, and F#. No chords, all there songs just strum that chord and have melodies over them.

He also pointed out that polyphony as a social musical tradition, is dying out around the globe. Pygmies and counterpoint classes seem to be leading the charge of keeping polyphony alive, but I have to tell you that I have not much interest in teaching too many more classes on how to compose in the style of Bach. He was dying to go on and tell us more, and we wanted him to, but my students had been in class all day, and I had to go home and get back to revisions.

This scholar is a man trained as a musician in the Classical tradition, his area of expertise and scholarship is Georgian music, and the music he loves most is the Beatles. He has a circle of friends where they play Beatles music for 4 to 6 hours a week. Before class I sat down and asked him to give me some songs to play. “Martha My Dear” was his first selection. I couldn’t remember the key, but played it. He laughed and said “You are playing it a half step lower than it is.” We determined that either my piano was out of tune when I learned the song, or that my turntable was slow. Amazing. I asked for another. “Lady Madonna” and I obliged. He laughed again. “What?” I asked after playing through it. He said “This time you are playing it a step higher than it was.” He confessed that learned a lot of Beatles songs in the wrong key as well because his parent never tuned the piano.

I regretted that he was returning to Australia today as nothing would make me happier than to play Beatles music all night with him. But deadlines are deadlines. Sigh….

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Michael Kaulkin: About the Composer » Blog Archive » Update from NPAC
June 12, 2008 at 9:09 pm

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Michael May 21, 2008 at 12:13 pm

I’ve been fascinated by Georgian music for a long time, although I don’t know much about it. The notion that Stravinsky had probably encountered this music and that it influenced his sense of harmony is something I’d wondered about, but never looked into. I would love to have heard this scholar speak.

If it’s all right, I’d like to link to a related post of mine from a while back, where you can hear two examples of Georgian choral music.

Roger Bourland May 21, 2008 at 3:56 pm

Thanks Michael. Terrific music! Very different examples, yes? I especially loved t the first one.

When I get some time, I’ll notate some of the illustrations he put on the board that helps understand the sound of this music.

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