Conversation with Victor Grauer
Introduction by Stefano Zenni

Dr Victor Grauer, based in Pittsburgh, PA, is a composer, musicologist, film‑maker, media artist, poet and dramatist. He was co-creator, with Alan Lomax, of the Cantometrics coding system in 1961 and worked on the Cantometrics Project as Research Associate, under Lomax’s supervision, from 1963 until 1966. His creative work has been presented in many venues worldwide and his writings on musicology and the arts have been published in several journals. Sounding the Depths may be the first truly interactive book ever published. Inspired by many years of research on world music, and drawing upon dramatic new developments in genetic anthropology and archaeology, the book takes the reader “on a journey through some of the deepest recesses of human culture and history, suggesting solutions to mysteries that, until recently, were thought to be completely beyond the reach of systematic investigation”.

In recent decades, the horizons of our past have extended immensely. Once History with a capital “H” was considered a tale based on a certain type of facts and documents, and everything that didn’t fit that filter was considered “prehistory”. Then over the last thirty years, genetic and palaeoanthropological research has taught us to consider mitochondrial DNA, Y chromosome, a human being’s tooth, a tool fragment, a rock painting as “historical documents” too. We started to take the clock of History and culture back in time, we managed to unravel the birth of the Homo Sapiens.

We discovered that central-eastern Africa is his one place of origin, and we understood that small groups of Sapiens gradually moved from there, around Africa and then towards the Indian continent, until, a few tens of thousands of years later, they came to populate the whole of the earth. Scholars mapped the big language families, identified the great junctures in the evolution of culture, traced the routes followed in our conquest of the globe and outlined the lifestyle of our hunter-gatherer forefathers.

However, there’s one big piece missing from this rich and thrilling picture: music.

The communities of Sapiens 50,000 or 40,000 years ago seem to have been immersed in silence. Maybe they sang, but what? There exist flutes found in Germany dating from 30,000 years ago, made of bones and with five notes. But earlier still might they have built flutes from bamboo that have been lost today? And the dances?

The history of traditional music doesn’t help. It is still imbibed in positivist pseudo-evolutionism, hence it starts from a “primitive” music, with simple vocal and rhythmic forms, which then evolves following successive stages of complexity, as if it were a living organism and not a cultural product. One thing is sure: that it’s no mean feat to create the history of music from DNA and a fragment of bone, but Victor Grauer, in his book Sounding the Depths, showed us that it can indeed be done. It is possible to understand how we lived 50,000 years ago, and therefore also how we sang. Grauer shows that we can start from music to understand what makes us human. The traces of those cultures have not disappeared: they survive today in the customs of certain populations, in certain languages and even in certain musical practices. By using DNA to select the most ancient populations that have survived to the present day, by assessing the Sapiens’ forms of transmission and cultural change, we can imagine the songs of our forebears and hear their echo in the music of the present-day Khoisan and Pygmy populations of southern and central Africa, or the populations of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, the Caucasus, Georgia, or even the Basque countries.

From this starting point he has made the most sensational discoveries.

Our music was born complex, polyphonic, with a crossover of voices.

We would yodel, singing certain notes in falsetto; we built pan flutes made of canes to blow and also sing into; we might have counted uneven rhythms, we definitely marked time with twigs or by clapping our hands, or by attaching bells to our ankles. We definitely didn’t use drums, which are a product of the Neolithic age, and suited to stationary populations who were not forced to continually travel. We danced together, also in front of large ritual bonfires, lit for exceptional occasions in which meat could be eaten.

Eastern Africa was therefore the backdrop for a lively society, which very often sang in chorus. But not everyone was able to follow the same melody, as would happen in the Neolithic era. No, a crossover was preferred in which everyone sang a fragment, the fragments were put together, one on top of the other, and the ear heard a single weave of strands. A very sophisticated, complex practice, still testified to today in many corners of the world where Sapiens arrived thousands of years ago and remained isolated from other cultures (on islands, in forests, in mountains). When we weren’t singing in chorus, we were playing with canons: you know Frère Jacques which everyone sings staggered? Well, that’s one of the most archaic forms of musical game. And the same techniques were applied to flutes and horns, as we danced in a circle, stamping our feet.

Of course music then spread and diversified from that archaic African core. Grauer also tells us how the first great cultural divergence took place when the volcano Toba exploded around 60,000 years ago in south-east Asia, causing an environmental catastrophe of such proportions as to threaten the extinction of humankind. After that apocalypse some humans set off towards northern Asia. In the following millennia they would give rise to different religious and musical cultures. Elsewhere the African archaic cultures continued to survive and over the millennia the two great currents mixed, generating the modes of expression that we know today. Cultures change, but when we sing or dance, that distant Africa spark still burns inside of us.

Stefano Zenni

ByCartography: Where does music come from? Why did man create it?

Why did man start playing music? How did it all start?

Victor Grauer: First we need to think about what is meant by the term “music.” For me, there are three different types of music, each with its own history – though all are now closely related.

1. Vocal music: originating, apparently, in the hooted vocalizations of primate ancestors of modern humans – especially a certain type of vocalization where two or more individuals closely coordinate their calls, in a manner very much like what is now called “hocket” – i.e., a type of interactive singing (or playing) where a melody or a tonal pattern is divided between two or more performers, as for example in a bell choir. Bonobos, gibbons and even certain species of lemur hocket by calling back and forth in a regular rhythm, but sometimes in a more complex type of coordinated group interlocking. Interlocking hocket is also characteristic of Pygmy and Bushmen singing in Africa, which for me probably represents the earliest type of music among “modern” humans, going back roughly 100,000 years or more. I see a possible continuity between the hooted hocketing of certain primates and the yodeled hocketing of these two African groups. These possibilities are explained in much more detail in my book.
2. Tuned instrumental music: I think it possible that the earliest type of pitched instrumental music could have been derived from attempts to imitate bird calls for hunting purposes by blowing on reed pipes. When such pipes are overblown by breathing more heavily into them, one hears higher notes that are related to the lower ones according to the circle of fifths and the overtone series, which is the basis for musical tuning. These tunings could then have been picked up by the singers, which would explain the rational pitch organization found so widely in almost all music, both instrumental and vocal.
3. Percussion: most likely derived from striking objects such as trees with the hands or feet, and clapping the hands together, practices widely found among certain primates.

Why has man handed music down from one generation to another?

Here we need to understand the tremendous power of a concept that anthropologists too often take for granted: tradition. Once music (and dance) became established as a tradition in Africa, among the ancestors of all modern humans, the tradition was then passed on, along with many other cultural traditions, to their many descendants, who eventually populated the world. As I see it, this and other traditions can be traced back to their origins in a direct line from Africa – assuming of course that the “Out of Africa” model is correct. During the course of history, the original style of music making was altered in many ways, but certain fundamental properties remain, as evidence of derivation from a common ancestor.

Read the full story in Issue N.1 of Cartography