Some Thoughts on Dominance and Diversity
— Dedicated to the music of the ‘Are’are panpipe ensembles —

By Bálint Szabó

Bálint Szabó’s artistic focus is based on diverse musical tuning systems like non-Western tunings or just intonation. His work is heavily influenced by the issues of post-colonialism, ethnomusicology and cultural diversity. His records came out on Nicolas Jaar’s Other People label and on Stephen Bishop’s Opal Tapes. He is the founder of the band Decolonize Your Mind Society and his solo project Gosheven‘s latest release “Antipodal Polyphony” is inspired by a disappearing local culture of the Solomon Islands while he also wrote an accompanying essay about his background research subtitled “Some Thoughts On Dominance And Diversity”. 

“The danger is great that the rapid dissemination of European culture will destroy the remaining traces of ethnic singing and saying. We must save whatever can be saved before the airship is added to the automobile and the electric express train, and before we hear “tararabumdieh” [a popular hit] in all of Africa and, in the South Seas, that quaint song about little Kohn.” (Erich von Hornbostel, 1905)

I have been frequently asked why I am so much interested in the issue of colonialism as a Central-European? Without any colonial history – a statement far from the truth -, how did I encounter this problem? The answer is quite simple: through listening and studying a wide variety of musical tuning systems of different musical traditions from around the world I realised that our 12-tone equal temperament is only one possible answer out of the other supposedly billions. Nevertheless, it conquered the entire world like a contagious disease, setting an industrial standard globally, although no one had ever asked for it.

Every local culture is usually characterised by local and consequently non-standard tunings and instruments, being not only the building blocks of music but also very important factors in creating cultural identities. These identities are not interchangeable with other peoples’, so these musics are neither comparable nor compatible. Even two gamelan orchestras of neighboring villages in Java or Bali are not compatible with each other concerning their tunings. Or as Hugh Tracey notes about South-Eastern Africa, different types of the same instrument can be found even in the same village, each with its own tuning. Thus, identities can even be enriched by parallel existing tunings, and that is exactly the case with the ‘Are’are to whom I dedicate this record with my greatest respect and admiration.

As a direct consequence of the expansion of colonial capitalism these local cultures have been in rapid decline or already disappeared completely. It started a long time ago, and that is the reason why I chose the headline quote from Hornbostel, who says in the year 1905: “We must save whatever can be saved before the airship is added to the automobile and the electric express train.” It was written more than a century ago, around the time of the first Zeppelins and right before the first Ford Model T automobile was produced. What has happened since then? Technological acceleration made current times even worse: aeroplanes, spaceships, colonisation of the Moon (and other planets are expected to follow soon), computers, the Internet, global economy and transportation, stock markets, etc. And this is all happening in the midst of the already disastrous Sixth Extinction Event. The problems we are facing now do not only concern biodiversity but more generally diversity per se, whether it be local musical traditions, languages, local or indigenous knowledges, ontologies, epistemologies, aesthetics, and the list is easy to expand. All these are steadily and unquestionably fading away at an unprecedented rate.

As rulers of the world we tend to think that the Mind of the Enlightenment – not to be confused with the Buddhist term enlightened mind – should be the original intact mind of all humans because we are highly “civilised”, stubbornly scientific and superrational beings. Of course none of these is true. On the contrary, we are scientifically invasive and spatially offensive troublemakers, who civilised and baptised the “primitive savages”, the “cannibals”,

the “people of inferior races”. Centuries passed by, and we are in the middle of an even broader crisis as the failures of global capitalism are unfolding and becoming undeniable. The COVID-19 pandemic event is in fact a reflection from the environment, telling us that we are part of a much larger system, the planet, nature, non-human, and we have to constantly keep it in mind. It seems that a simple biological answer to an overpopulated species – the “global superpredator”, called human being – is a tiniest microbe. It’s actually quite poetic. And while world leaders think that by eliminating coronavirus we can move on with business as usual, in fact we are unquestionably running into a final catastrophe. In the long run we are not the centre of the Universe – and not only in a Copernican sense. According to astronomy’s and astrophysics’ latest findings the same apocalypse might already have happened to ancient or parallel exoplanetary civilisations. We only have to accept the fact that out there, there are enormous numbers of galaxies and millions of potentially habitable exoplanets where life and even similar civilisations might have existed.

Staying on our planet, there is no question that the musical tuning that represents our Zeitgeist is equal temperament, with its mathematical precision and agitated pulsating inharmonicity. It is the standard tuning of most of the music heard today. The polymath German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz wrote about this acoustic pulsation, or beating, that forced our instruments into a rapidity of movement, thus we could never enjoy “the full harmoniousness of slow chords”. Add to this the electronic tuners with a God-like perfection and exactitude to set the tuning of this rigid and flattened discoloration system that serves as an industrial standard, while giving the venerated Composer endless modulation possibilities to present breathtaking salto mortales of a glorified European Genius. Or, it might be better to say that this vicious temperament is a metaphor of space colonization that aims to leave our planet on fire and inhabit planets not too far away without atmosphere and oxygen, without fertile soil and drinkable water, coupled with deadly radiation and low-gravity. Well, this is not exactly for humans, but luckily NASA is working on it. What I said previously in a poetic rage does not mean that I am against equal temperament. I am not at all against it, despite the fact that it is overused and was destined to be finally consummated by the Second Viennese School. Above all, our greatest enemies are standardisation, monoculturalism or anything that does not support, sustain or even multiply diversity.

We certainly know that musical tunings do not stand alone by themselves but go hand in hand with the instruments and their respective design. And both of them are in close interaction with the environment: the climate, the flora, the fauna. Therefore they can be viewed as bridges linking nature and culture, natural and supernatural, non-human and human. Musical tunings are in fact a discrete set of pitches selected from the pitch continuum. Unlike human voice with its amazing flexibility, many instruments are fixed pitch instruments, so they need an actual selection of pitches. Not too many however, to keep them playable, and the music organised. These selections have mathematically infinite variations, but due to the constraints posed by instrument design, or even more importantly, the aesthetic preferences and other tendencies inherent in the human perception of sound, their actual numbers are several though, but finite. Once we have a set of pitches, we can make different scales out of them. A very small number of pitches cannot make a scale, however, György Ligeti tried to experiment with the one-note octave scale in his first Musica Ricercata piano piece. But if we look at musical traditions around the world, the lowest number of pitches we can find is the three-note tritonic scale, for example in the indigenous Andean music of North-West Argentina. If we go further up with numbers, the most frequent scales are the five- and seven-note scales, namely the pentatonic and heptatonic scales. Although the affinity and tendency of idealizing numbers can also play a part – like the Pythagorean harmony of the spheres, or other mystical, philosophical or metaphysical considerations -, we can say that these two are the most general on planet Earth. However, it does not tell us anything about the exact pitch heights – an issue we will consider later.

Before that, let me give you some thoughts about “Antipodal Polyphony”, the title I chose for this record. I first encountered the term “antipode” in a documentary by Viktor Kossakovsky, entitled Long Live The Antipodes!. By definition, an antipode is a diametrically opposite point of any point chosen on Earth’s surface. In other words, it is the furthermost or maximum distance point on Earth from where we are. It may reflect both a physical and a cultural counterpart. It is a place of a cultural antithesis where our morality is turned upside-down, or, on the contrary, where our failures evaporate and our most magical dreams come true. To put it another way: the antipode is a best or worst possible imaginary geography of our psyche. Best, when we think of Polynesia, the islands of Hawaii or Tahiti. These were considered to be the lands of paradise where sex was not taboo (even if the word taboo originated from the Proto-Polynesian language). Some of our favourite painters escaped from the “civilised” Europe to let their desires of exoticism come true on these faraway lands. Among them was the French Post-Impressionist Paul Gaugin who also must have enjoyed this paradise, although sometimes leaving suffering behind: he seduced a 13-year-old vahine and left her with a child and a syphilis infection. In sharp contrast to this corporeal heaven, on the other side of the Pacific, there also existed the worst of all possible worlds, the bloody hell, “the land of cannibals”, the fierce, dark-black-skinned Melanesia. Borrowing a typical image of how it was perceived in the colonial era, a quote from Jack London’s novel Adventure, published in 1911, tells everything: “These boys are Melanesians. They’re blacks. They’re niggers – look at their kinky hair. And they’re a whole lot lower than the African niggers. Really, you know, there is a vast difference.” Or, to have a Hungarian example, adventurer Rudolph Festetics of Tolna wrote in his travel diary Among Cannibals that on the island of Malaita (home of the ‘Are’are) lived the wildest savages. Due to this fear, Melanesia was one of the last territories on Earth where colonizers set their foot.

The Swiss-French ethnomusicologist Hugo Zemp, who was an imaginary mentor during my research, also travelled to this antipode in the 1960s, to the island of Malaita and Guadalcanal, to study the local musics, among them the music of the ‘Are’are. He was first invited to do research in Malaita in 1969 by French anthropologist Daniel De Coppet, who had been studying their society. He thought that their unparalleled polyphonic music was worth examining. To European ears it might sound “out-of-tune”, but the ‘Are’are considered it harmonious. For instance, they attribute special aesthetical value to the sounds of the rapi ‘au or twin bamboos denoting the simultaneous sounding of two consecutive pitches on a panpipe. At this point we must ask what “inharmonious” or “out of tune” denotes? Is it not just another ethnocentric category, like cannibalism? Just another term to justify our superiority? I know some composers working with just intonation, the so-called “pure” tuning. Some of them may consider equal temperament infernal, perhaps it is our original sin, who knows? But what is pure? As a last resort, let us call the science of acoustics for help, and find an answer. We will get an exact and simple one: an excited string not only vibrates with its full length, providing the basic pitch, but also with its whole number proportions (1/2, 1/3, 1/4…), giving the overtone series. So in one sound of a string there are in fact all the other pitches hidden, of course with decreasing relative loudness. Since the higher overtones are less louder, the lowest pitch will give the name of the equivalent musical note. In other words, we can say that in one single note the entire harmony is coded by nature. These harmonies, based on the pitches of the overtone series, sound extremely beautiful, yet they are not used everywhere in the world. There are numerous counterexamples, and as Helmholtz’s English translator Alexander J. Ellis notes: “the Musical Scale is not one, not “natural”, nor even founded necessarily on the laws of the constitution of musical sound, […] but very diverse, very artificial, and very capricious.” While equal temperament can be considered a weak approximation of “pure” tones because it does not actually use overtones above the 3rd partial, ‘Are’are panpipe music does not even go above the 2nd; but it is definitely intentional on their part, revealing a completely different aesthetical choice. They don’t seem to care about the overtones at all. So it is highly disrespectful to say that the music of the “devils” living on our imaginary antipodes is “inharmonious” or “out of tune”, when our equal temperament sounds similarly “inharmonious” or “out of tune” judged by the same acoustical principles. Most musical cultures of the world simply do not follow the laws of acoustics and this raises a central question, a core dilemma of ethnographic inquiry: are there universals? What is heard “harmonious” or “in tune” is universal? This question naturally comes up after studying remote cultures. If we look at our issue, the answer is quite simple and straightforward: harmony is not universal. Neither are tunings. They are multiversal. We live on the same planet, and we all are humans who have something that can be labelled “music”, but it is not at all universal. It is multiversal in the sense that many of our attributes are inherently different: our minds, our ontologies, our aesthetics, our languages, our perception of sounds.

Nevertheless, it was tempting to make definitions that favoured our culture and underlined our superiority. Take for example polyphony, as it also appears in the title of my record. Not so long ago, Europeans still believed that polyphony or independent multi-part music was scarce or completely missing in non-European cultures. Needless to say that European music was considered the highest point of all musical traditions. It was obvious to find a definition that excluded all other potential polyphonic candidates of non-European musics. Even Pierre Boulez stated in 1958 that “the evolution of music in a polyphonic direction is a cultural phenomenon that belongs exclusively to the civilisation of Western Europe”. Anybody having doubts? This was in fact a very dangerous statement from a French composer of great authority. They are simply excluded from brilliance and ingenuity. They can compose and play monophonic or heterophonic music, but have never been able to create polyphonic music. They can’t even play structured music properly, or tune their instruments correctly. But thanks to the accumulation of ethnomusicological data and field recordings, we can now make a counter-statement: even by taking Boulez’s definition, we can find polyphonic music in every corner of the world. Examples are endless: Aka Pygmy singing or Central African Banda Linda horn ensembles in Sub-Saharan Africa, music of the Iatmul in Papua New Guinea, Wayãpi tule clarinet orchestra in French Guyana, or the music discussed here, the ‘Are’are panpipe ensembles in the Solomon Islands. But they are disappearing at a very fast rate, and soon we will reach a point where every music in the world will be inherently European. Ignorance coupled with expansive oppression is a perfect combination for the complete annihilation of cultures.

It was in the 1960s and 1970s when Hugo Zemp collected his recordings in the ‘Are’are communities, but the current state of their music seems quite controversial. There are several possible reasons why they have been losing their precious and diverse musical tradition, but mimesis is certainly at the heart of the problem. Close to the end of World War II there was a huge battle between Japanese and US forces in the Solomon Islands. The people of Malaita fought on the side of the Allies. The African-American soldiers helped the ‘Are’are a lot in establishing their emancipation movement called Maasina Ruru to fight for freedom against the oppression of the colonial British Empire. But these US soldiers might also have introduced the acoustic guitar to them, with its tempered pitches. Thus, the typical process began, where a foreign instrument behaves as an alien virus and infects the local musical tradition step by step. (I had the same experience travelling in Java: a lot of people have an acoustic guitar, showing that mimesis got under way.) There are other accounts of the process of gradual infection as well. Supposedly, there was a man in Small Malaita who is said to have made tempered panpipes already in the 1970s. There is another, an even more absurd film-like story about an Australian producer who contacted one of the local panpipe bands and gave them an electronic tuner to make their music sound “good” to the ears of world music festival audiences. So mimesis was working on multiple levels until its fruits appeared as invitations from international festivals. In 2012, for example, Hungary’s biggest music festival Sziget invited a band from Malaita named Narasirato to present their show. Watching their performance is utterly heartbreaking, especially if someone has watched Hugo Zemp’s documentary presenting their diverse musical traditions under the guidance of local master musician Irisipau. By imitating and replicating essential features of European popular music, they could easily get success and earn money, but in the meantime they lost their elaborate musical tradition. Not only did they lose their core identity expressed in the tuning, but the instruments also changed completely. The panpipe designs changed a lot, and the instruments were tuned to equal temperament, while drums were added to make a more powerful effect, and the songs and their rhythmic structures also changed following the simple 4/4 time signature – all these happened, so that their music could become westernized and “modernized”. They also added singing to the repertoire to make it even more approachable. And the spatial arrangement of their performances also changed drastically: instead of playing in a circle or facing each other in two rows, now they stood in a row facing the audience. The original spatiality and song structures, that expressed the connectedness of the community, totally disappeared.

On the other side of the coin there is a similarly ambiguous issue, namely appropriation. To give a perfect example, we have to look at Northern Malaita where Hugo Zemp recorded an original Baegu lullaby entitled Rorogwela, sung by a woman called Afunakwa. UNESCO released it as part of their Musical Sources collection, and later a French electro-pop music group called Deep Forest used it without permission. They added their own sounds, and named their track Sweet Lullaby. It can be considered as a prototype of commodified ethnic electronica, that helped middle-class people to relax and enjoy imaginary traveling after long hours of work in the office. Panpipe-like synth sounds together with Pygmy singing and water drumming set the pace for smooth chord progressions, backing the intimate voice of Afunakwa. On top of it, in the second half of the track, comes a We are the world type singing choir to make it a real pathetic kitsch giving a false picture of the people of the world embracing each other. Above all this stands the heartbreaking original lyrics about two orphans who lost their parents. Deep Forest might never have read a translation of it so they licensed the song to many commercials, for Sony, Coca-Cola and Porsche, to mention just a few, giving no financial compensation to the tribe. The most shocking example is the megalomaniac Porsche 911 commercial from the year 1995. It surpasses any expectations of how global capitalism reproduces and recontextualizes indigenous songs through the chain of ethnomusicological field recordings, audio production, circulation, marketing and consumption. American ethnomusicologist Steven Feld coined the term schizophonic mimesis, which describes this particular phenomenon. The commercial was obviously made for the wealthy elite through the quite questionable efforts of the art director and the copywriter, but the job was well done indeed. They tell us the story of how we lose touch with the voice of our heart, adding that it’s not too late, all we have to do is listen. “Are you listening?” they ask, and this is where Sweet Lullaby suddenly begins, and we can see the end credits with the mechanical data and other parameters of the Porsche: $59.900 price, 270 horsepower, 168 Mph top speed, air conditioning, pollen filtering system etc., while Afunakwa is singing the sorrowful lines of the lullaby in Baegu language. In fact there is nothing more to add, I think this speaks for itself. And let us underline again: no compensation was given to the Baegu community so far, despite the fact that in their CD booklet it is declared that “Deep Forest is (sic) the respect of this tradition which humanity should cherish as a treasure that marries world harmony, a harmony often compromised today”.

What they mean by “world harmony” remains unanswerable. And it becomes even more mysterious as they continue: “a harmony often compromised today”. Harmony is not universal but distinct in each local tradition and mixing one with another and adding our tempered tuning is nothing but sheer ignorance. And “compromise” is a soft term for an act like this. It would be better to say exploitation or appropriation to get closer to the point: exploiting in the name of respect. A bit controversial, isn’t it? In addition, the reason why it was so easy and tempting to appropriate a tune like Rorogwela is that it uses a pentatonic scale very close to the European tempered pitches. This must have been a fundamental factor. So they appropriated it, recontextualized it, and made huge profits from it. We can assume that Deep Forest must have heard other recordings from this area as well, like the panpipe ensembles of the ‘Are’are. It is true that nothing compares to the human voice but the sound of panpipes seems also exotic. They could have used it, but in this case, it probably sounded too exotic for them. And that is exactly the point of my argument: exoticism is part of our dreamworlds, but even there we don’t dare to surpass our cultural conditioning or the collective Western unconscious. Perhaps it would be a nightmare to us to hear the equiheptatonic sounds of the ‘Are’are panpipes in a dream. Even if we could hear them, they would feel inharmonious or out of tune. Fortunately, we never seem to have such nightmares because we are too much trapped in our culture for such distant dreams. We prefer to stay on safe and familiar territory.

Maybe it is not in our dreams, but equheptatonism is surprisingly common in distant parts of the world: not only in the panpipe music of the ‘Are’are but also in Thailand or in Sub-Saharan Africa for example. In European cultures it seems to be completely missing. There, music is heptatonic, which means that the most popular scale in use is the diatonic seven-note scale or the major/minor scale. Though equiheptatonic tuning also means a seven-note scale, the pitches – especially the third, the sixth and the seventh – fall in between our tempered pitches. Therefore this scale can also be considered a neutral or average version of our major-minor modes. The theoretical frequency relations of the pitches are multiples of ⁷√2, or expressed in the logarithmic unit cent are 0, 171, 343, 514, 686, 857 and 1028 cents, respectively. Certainly people in these musical traditions did not construct their scales by means of logarithms or electronic tuners, rather by taste or intuition, sometimes using their bodies for measurements while making the instruments. These scales are of course never as exact as pure mathematical calculations. Those are left to the “civilised world”.

According to Hugo Zemp, ‘Are’are music is the most complex musical culture throughout Oceania. Zemp made hundreds of recordings and released many of them on multiple records He shot three documentaries presenting diverse types of ‘Are’are music in detail and filmed also how they create their bamboo panpipes. Within their complex musical culture, my focus has been the panpipe ensembles, which they consider their most valued music. There are four basic types of these ensembles: ‘au tahana, ‘au keto, ‘au taka’iori and ‘au paina, with 4, 6, 10 and 8 players, respectively. The first three types are tuned to an equiheptatonic scale with slight differences on each instrument, while au’paina uses a pentatonic scale. What struck me the most when I first listened to the tunes was a certain kind of “dirtiness” of the sounding, that can also be considered a basic feature in the majority of local musical traditions around the world. It conveys an immanent fragility, which is ab ovo coded in the environment. And it also carries a certain type of beauty that is completely unknown and unattainable for our robotic, flattened, discoloured, standardized and unnaturally perfectionist sounds. Of course this “dirtiness” of tuning may partly be attributed to the fact that it is hard to maintain the tuning of bamboo instruments in such a humid, tropical climate. At the same time it does reflect a certain kind of aesthetics that is supposedly intentional. It is similar to the male-female tunings of instrument pairs in Bali in order to create a wobbling effect that is so important in Balinese music. Here, the purpose might be different: the intimate sounds of the sustained tones of blown air express an ultimate fragility, intimacy and tenderness. And this is further enhanced by the way these tunes are performed, standing in a circle, facing each other quite closely to be able to follow the complex structure of each composition. It might as well be a nice representation of the community: the soloist is completely missing and everybody’s part is equally important in creating the overall superstructure of each composition. This is a polyphony never encountered on other parts of the planet. My record stands here as a humble and distant appreciation of this distinct and ephemeral world.