Simha Arom is a trained musician in the Western European tradition. In the 60s, as he puts it, he was like most musicians in the Western tradition in thinking that any music outside that tradition was not quite music. Then one day, he stepped off a plane in The Central African Republic (east of Cameroun, between Chad on the north and Congo on the south sides) where ceremonies were being conducted and passed by a local orchestra. His life’s course changed at that moment.”I thus found myself suddenly plunged into a universe of sound which was as strange to me as it was unexpected….” He calls it ‘love at first sight’. (Mine was hearing the last cut on one volume of Ethnic Folkways Africa Below the Sahara, the Ewe piece).
Fortunately, his work kept him there for four years, so he was able to traverse the country sampling and studying the stunning variety of music in just this one geographic and cultural area. In the process, he developed a means of investigating the music, which was impenetrable on simply hearing it even by the most trained musicologist.
The foreward to the book by Gyorgy Ligeti contains several eye-opening comments: “… I became aware of the music’s paradoxical nature: the patterns performed by the individual musicians are quite different from those which result from their combinations. In fact, the ensemble’s superpattern is in itself not played and exists only as an illusory outline. I also began to sense a strong inner tension between the relentlessness of the constant, never-changing pulse coupled with the absolute symmetry of the formal architecture on the one hand and the asymmetrical internal divisions of the patterns on the other. What we can witness in this music is a wonderful combination of order and disorder which in turn merges together producing a sense of order on a higher level. “
Arom evokes the sense of “… the elusiveness of something ‘always the same though never the same’….
If only I knew someone who could help through the scores and technical discussions. The book is 668 pp.
P.S. He makes some comparison with the approach to reading, Whole Language, but I can’t find it just now.
As I read this book, I’ll throw in my own experiences with the music which support these observations.