The Gestalt: from African Polyphony and Polyrhythm


“I became aware of this music’s paradoxical nature: the patterns performed by the individual musicians are quite different from those which result from their combination. 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.” p. xvii Ligeti

“I was intrigued by the elusiveness of something ‘always the same though never the same’, and by the way the performing techniques appeared to ally constraint with freedom.” p. xix Arom

“On the contrary, in societies where there is practically no conceptualization or abstract speculation about the substance of the music, the (in every sense of the word) unheard-of experience of listening to the parts of a polyphonic construction, first separately, then in combinations of increasing numbers of parts (in successive layers, as it were) provides a strong stimulus to the verbalization of the musicians’ reactions, i.e. to the emergence of the (often implicit) vernacular musical terminology, and thereby makes those who know the tradition aware of the individuality and the complexity of their musical heritage. I may add that the method involves active experimentation, insofar as the musicians themselves decide how it should be applied at all stages prior to transcription. The set of operations leading from performance to modelization of a given piece, like the steps which allow the model to be checked by deriving new versions of the piece from it, are not speculative in nature; rather, they take the material form of recordings made by the traditional musicians themselves.” p. xxiv Arom
[this makes me think of a naïve native-speaker having the underlying grammar of his language revealed to him and then using that grammar to construct sentences which he can then verify as well-formed or not.]

“These two examples clearly show how important music is in moderating excessive individual emotions, which it achieves by taking the person in hand socially, in the second case at the most intimate level, that of the mother-child relation, and in the first case on the largest scale, with the participation of the entire community.” p. 10 Arom
[this reminds me of the scene in Twelve Years a Slave where Solomon is at the graveside, so upset, and the rest of the slave community begin singing and Solomon, reluctantly at first and then lustily, joins in, assuaging the grief and anger that might have otherwise led him to foolish acts. Is this sort of thing a feature only of Black African music and its New World progeny?]

May 2, 2021 Addendum: Agawu quoting Ligeti here in How Does It All Fit Together To Produce The Superorganic?

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