Sounding the Depths: Tradition and the Voices of History

By Victor Grauer. 2011. CreateSpace. 294 pages. ISBN: 9781463741754 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Mike Heffley

[Review length: 2409 words • Review posted on January 30, 2012]


This book triggered a response in me much like the first time I glimpsed the iconic “Blue Marble” photo of the whole earth, shot from space in 1972. Victor Grauer’s big picture is of our historical world; the twin engines of the craft that took him far enough to fit it to that global frame are ethnomusicological and population genetics research, fueled by rich shots of cultural studies and linguistics. The psychological impact of his results is both as deeply familiar and as wildly novel as that of the Blue Marble, and may well loom and seep into our collective psyche like the same kind of gravity-well for human identity that it is.

The opening pages signal the project’s history and thesis in a few artful strokes. The book is dedicated to “Alan Lomax, who lives”; two epigraphs follow that, the first from ethnomusicologist Simha Arom, whose expertise is in the music of the Aka Pygmies, the second from Lomax on that same subject. They spoke, respectively, of intuiting that music as both deeply archaic and deeply familiar, and as reflective of a “utopian” social structure. Just that much reveals the bones of Grauer’s well-argued thesis: this still-living music is directly descended, and likely faithfully preserved, from the tiny ancestral population of all humans outside Africa that split off from its also-small group of origin and that continent some eighty-to-sixty thousand years ago (Kya) (83, 111). Moreover, there is much evidence from both the hard science of population genetics and the soft ones of anthropology and ethnomusicology to suggest that that musical tradition extends back to the even greater time window of 76-100+Kya (2), perhaps even as far back as 200Kya (28), and that it reflects extra-musical aspects of the culture that spawned it—traits, both material and behavioral, that likewise survived to this day, and can be traced in a wide range and variety of cultures flung far from that eastern African cradle.

Grauer’s main sources are the work of Arom and others specializing in the music of Pygmies (both western Aka and eastern Mbuti) and Bushmen (a.k.a., San and !Kung, southern) groups; population geneticists (such as Luca Cavalli-Sforza, whose work spearheaded the methods for constructing “phylogenetic trees” of descent from DNA, which produced the “Out of Africa” scenario in the 1990s); and, most originally, the extensive research into world music Grauer did with Lomax, as a young graduate student in ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University in the 1960s. The two co-created the Cantometric coding system to categorize a wide range of audio recordings from a great many collections of traditional music from around the world; indeed, the system was itself inspired by Lomax’s (and the world’s) first exposure to the Pygmy music through French ethnomusicologist Gilbert Rouget’s pioneering 1946 field recordings.

While Grauer specifies his bones of contention with the theories Lomax himself drew from their data (xix), he plants his flag no less firmly on the larger ground broken and staked out by their joint work: “basic research into fundamental issues bearing on the nature, origins, meaning, and ‘deep history’ of music, as revealed by the long-term survival of certain traditional practices among indigenous peoples” (xi). With this focus, he picks up the torch of the pioneers of his discipline, whose comparative-studies-cum-“grand narrative” approach fell out of the favor of both anthropologists and ethnomusicologists with the rise of postmodernism, shifting to “more locally oriented, hands-on studies of adaptation and change” (18). (That said, lest my opening paragraph seem excessive, one of several blurbs from eminent colleagues speaks to the success of Grauer’s tack here. Bruno Nettl, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, formerly president of the Society for Ethnomusicology, wrote about one of the book’s foundational papers, published earlier: “This is a magisterial work which takes on fundamental questions and issues of ethnomusicology.... Grauer joins the likes of Carl Stumpf, Curt Sachs, Marius Schneider, and Walter Wiora, though he is immensely more sophisticated, thanks in part to advances in archaeology and biological anthropology” [xv].)

The famously grand flaw in grand narratives has been overreach--too much abstraction and speculation, the totalizing bridge-too-far, or the Ptolemaic castle built on sand. Grauer acknowledges that, even while dismissing the postmodern turn away from it as to a thousand bridges-not-far-enough (xi, 18), or as also built on questionable assumptions (42-3). When he experienced that turn, concurrent with his time with Lomax, he went on to work more as a composer and independent scholar publishing research on his own interests in scholarly journals and later his blog (http://music000001.blogspot.com) (xi, 18). This book is the culmination of much of that material, re-ignited as solid interdisciplinary research with the emergence of the population genetics (Cavalli-Sforza, in fact, had an interest in Lomax’s Cantometrics data [23]). Grauer’s contribution is to match the DNA research with his own similarly meticulously detailed data from the Cantometrics project and other sources, in a stated bid to elevate the study of music to match that of linguistics and archaeology in the projects of anthropology and cultural history (6-8). One of his several happy writing choices is to summarily and additively reiterate throughout the book what he sees said data inferring. The radical new picture painted thereby is stamped indelibly on the reader’s mind by the end, while also stopped fittingly short of overreach.

Since online audio clips figure large from the first chapter’s first page and throughout, a summation of Grauer’s prefatory account of his chosen publishing format is in order. After a duly diligent but fruitless probe of the usual channels—agents for trade publishers by first choice, then academic presses—he elected to post the entire manuscript online as a “blog book” (http://soundingthedepths.blogspot.com), free of charge. He followed that up with a self-published hard copy through Amazon.com’s CreateSpace print-on-demand service. The blog has links to both graphics and audio files; the book refers the reader to two web pages with all such links gathered with their kind in one place. This, as the easiest workaround to the briar patches of acquiring permissions from copyright holders, or brushes with fair use disputes (his own copyrighted Cantometric and conventional music transcriptions do appear in the book).

For music scholars, this format offers a new era in the kind of “armchair musicology” first practiced with the advent of recording technology (Lomax’s pioneering work therein would have been so much easier with the internet and the media products it connects). For readers, it is a thrill to be able to click on every musical example as it is mentioned in the text, and every graphic and other textual source offered in its original context (that said, the book would benefit from an index).

For academic gatekeepers, this journal included, it poses a shakeup in business-as-usual. Peers, on the one hand, can vet it in the real time following its release, on the “comments” section of its blog; both fruitful disputes and actual changes (by the author) to the text can take place instantly. Grauer’s liberal draws on Wikipedia as a valid part of his “Partial Bibliography” (?) also suggest his comfort with this brave new world’s challenges to conventional scholarship (see http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/what-is-publishing-a-report-from-thatcamp-publishing/37420 for a glimpse of this).

As a product, it is something like an “Occupy Academia” gesture: born of a credible scholar’s inability to get his work the imprimatur and hearing he knows it deserves; or (increasingly, for similar work) chosen as preferable to an increasingly sclerotic and exclusionary academia, for the control and ownership of the work it affords. In any case, the clear resolution to the dilemma on a case-by-case basis is for the work to stand or fall on its merits and under the scrutiny of those who care enough to know enough about them. (One yet wonders how such a work will fare once the author is no longer actively monitoring its online life. Grauer is in ongoing dialogue with his “commenters”; and even at its launch, a few of the links to video clips are followed by the words “no longer available on YouTube,” usually because of copyright disputes.)

Back to content. Grauer has learned from the grand narrativists’ famous misses as well as their provocative hits. He names more contemporary and widely recognizable such work as his more immediate models: Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, Steven Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals, and classic books by anthropologists Margaret Mead, Desmond Morris, and Colin Turnbull for general readers (xi). His own narrative starts on the hardest scientific ground.

Sidebar 1 (6-8) asserts two premises key here: anthropologists unduly neglect musical traditions, unlike linguistics and archaeology, as the rich and reliable sources of information about culture that they are; and traditional cultures have a built-in mechanism that, if undisturbed, can preserve their basic form through even vast stretches of time, however much the world around them changes. The first two chapters recount the details from musicological and genetics research offered as proof of these premises; chapter 3 and sidebar 2 argue for them in more detail, and against anticipated objections to them.

Postulating a profile of the ancestral Hypothetical Baseline Culture (HBC) in some detail, chapter 4 spells out the methodological tools of “triangulation”—“any distinctive tradition, in the form of a value system, belief system, performance practice, behavior pattern, artifact or attribute, not likely to be the result of outside influence, found among at least three different groups representing each of the three populations with the deepest genetic clades…may be regarded as a potential survival from an older tradition traceable to the historical ‘moment’ of earliest divergence, and thus ascribable to HBC” (44)—and Occam’s Razor to support them. Chapter 5 suggests a general trigger of change countering the preservationist mechanism, to explain the various divergences from the HBC we see alongside its long endurance. Sidebar Three compares the merits of the three main theories of cultural evolution; independent invention, convergence, or survival. Chapter 6 (re: Lomax’s descriptor “utopian,” above) distances Grauer’s picture of the HBC from previous “noble savage” associations with such ancient hunter-gatherer cultures, while also arguing for two of its traits the modern world should heed (“the avoidance of war, vendetta, or any other type of socially sanctioned violence,” and “social equality in terms of individual autonomy, mutual cooperation, and the equitable sharing of goods” [4]).

Chapters 7 through 15 track and chart, working backwards from both genetic and musical data, the progress of the Out-of-Africa migration “from the initial exodus across the Red Sea, to the long march along the Asiatic coast, to the subsequent populating of East and Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Oceania and the Americas” (4). Noted are points and events along the way that evinced either the persistence of the HBC or disruptions to it, by natural or social catastrophes, “forces which have, in turn, given rise to new and, in some cases, highly competitive and violent societies quite different from HBC” (4). Sidebar Four injects new research data that emerged in the course of his writing that he wanted to address (another efficiency the technology of blog and print-on-demand provides the scholarly enterprise).

Having established this narrative—emphatically not as proven, but as the best working hypothesis—Grauer devotes the final three chapters to three different examples of how one might build on and apply it to other studies. He speculates that the music of the HBC may already have evolved to its current complex state as early as 100Kya. Accordingly, he leaps even farther back in chapter 16 to speculate from contemporary ape and gibbon populations’ collective “hooting” patterns that resemble “duetting” and “chorusing” on the vocal behaviors of their shared primate ancestors of humans, and what those might say about the evolution of music, language, and religion. (Elsewhere [chapter 6] he discusses the different social organizations of chimpanzees and bonobos as legacies of both aggressive competitiveness and peaceful cooperation, respectively, humans may be living with). Chapter 17 retells the ancient Chinese myth of the Yellow Bell, foundational to both Chinese music and culture, for its possible resonance with an actual history of tuned pipes (originally bird bones) as a technology instrumental in developing both music and language. Chapter 18 recaps the whole book, and meditates on its implications for both culture and politics, seeing the original “African Signature” bequeathed by the HBC in Western polyphony and ideas of government, hip-hop music, current films and books, and other aspects of the historical and modern world.

Grand narratives as single-cause explanations rightly make thinking people’s eyes roll at this point in our intellectual history. While they can seem inspired and transcendent, they are arguably less rather than more insightful, since life is always in flux, always complex, and needs our attention to it as such, not some “fixing” of it into a simplifying paradigm. But those that complement and pique rather than insult our intelligent respect for sound science and logic—especially those born of thick and long hands-on engagements with the “dots” they connect, as is this one—are those that explain better than other such the roots of complexities, nuances, and variations. It matters whether we accept the Big Bang over the book of Genesis, given the data, even if we don’t want to hear our more local political or psychological dynamics relentlessly rationalized or contextualized by either or by any such narrative.

The Blue Marble photo is widely understood as a stark reminder that the borders we’ve drawn on maps, like lines in the sand, are not really there, and that our little planet is fragile, finite, and the one and only home, hanging in unfathomable space, for us to either share and respect in peace and health, or damage as our fit habitation. This book’s picture reminds us that we are sprung from a small band of lucky survivors of a long parade of mass extinctions and catastrophes marching through times far more vast and far less fathomable than recorded history. Like the borders on a map, racial, national, class, gender, generational, and cultural boundaries similarly melt away in the details of its meditation.

As one who has written extensively on the reality and relevance of music’s “deep history” to the ethnomusicological enterprise, I relish this book’s grounding of its “grand narrative” in hard data and rigorous scholarship. I second Bruno Nettl’s assessment of Grauer’s work as not only an update but also an upgrade of our discipline’s initial reach for the brightest stars of both knowledge and thought, after losing sight of them in the fog of postmodernism.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.