In the old New Grove article on Australian Aborigine music there are magical sentences. The highlight of the article is naturally the following:
“A number of researchers have found themselves the subject of newly created songs. In one case, a 20-year interval elapsed between the visit of researchers collecting urine specimens in jam tins and the recognition of the source of the resultant song series and ceremonial which centered on jam tins.”
When you think about it, it’s not that odd. If some strange man came up to me and asked for a urine sample in a jam tin, I’d probably eventually write a song about it and maybe come up with some sort of ritual to mark the event.
I also like the names of the operas written by Isaac Nathan (1790-1864). His hits included The Merry Freaks in Troublous Times and Don John of Austria. Given that both cast, crew, and audience were most likely criminals, the odd titles seem apropos.
The biggest idea is only suggested in that polite, scholarly, non-committal sort of way. The aboriginal melodies are described as “foursquare rhythms and phrases and a marked monotony of shape (which some may attribute to the influence of the landscapes and climate of much of outback Australia).” [italics added]
Here is an idea that we can sink our teeth into. Flat landscapes make flat melodies. I’ve heard it before of course. Only the last time it was “tuberculosis and a leaky ceiling make Preludes in D flat”. Also, West African tribal music is structured to reflect the way the tribe is structured.
I am certainly not suggesting that there is not such a thing as a “national characteristic”. There is, but it is often elusive when we try to pin it down. It’s popular for the marketers of art to make one to one semiotic correlations between events and sounds, but in real life, things are much messier and more complicated. You can quickly get into strange areas when you start doing this. It is like the man who farted every sunrise and concluded that the sun was causing his gas because the two events never happened apart from each other.
It’s not that music isn’t sometimes “reflective” of something. I just have some issues when people tell me that music is a “reflection of the culture”. The problem is that it assumes that music (and the people that make it) aren’t part of the culture. It makes just as much sense to me to say that the culture (a very slippery term) reflects the music that is being written.
For that matter, why not:
The foursquare rhythms and phrases and a marked monotony of shape of much of outback Australia (which some may attribute to the influence of the landscapes and climate of much of the aboriginal music). That’s a sentence I can understand. Music is magic and shaped the landscape with some mysterious power. It’s miraculous and far-fetched, but I understand the meaning. How flat ground makes people write flat melodies is something I can’t wrap my head around. It’s of great concern to me because I eat lots of eggs, and I’m not sure how that is affecting my counterpoint.
Fortunately for me, if I get writer's block, I can just collect some of my urine in jam tins and write a song cycle about it.