Saturday, August 25, 2012

A conversation with musician Yonas Ghirmay

Part two.

Yonas Ghirmay

Issayas:  Does our zeima has musical  notation? Could we even compare our traditional zeima notation with western musical  notation? If we could, how?

Yonas: I am assuming that by zeima you are referring to our church music. If it's, yes it does. However, for our conversation sake, let’s not use the word notation because it creates a problem. Musical  notation in western music indicates tone, time (measure), beat (beat value) etc., whereas in Geez zeima, it has similar intention and purpose. Loosely speaking, melekit in Geez is a hint that guides the chanter to remember the melody. It also indicates as to how long that particular melody should be held or sustained. In western notation a note carries definitive value and duration. For example, in 4/4 time a quarter note get one beat. We need to understand the following terminologies in the western concept: notes, pitch and duration. Notes are the symbols written on the staff that express the pitch and duration of a sound.  A  pitch is expressed by a note’s placement on the staff. When a note has fallen off the staff, it is placed on a ledger line. Duration depends on the note’s length (or “value”), which is specified by its color, stem, or flag(s). The length of a note will tell you how many beats it covers in a measure. The most common note lengths are: quarter note, half note and whole note.Therefore, I do not  want to suggest to anyone that melikket means notation. In fact I prefer to call it a sign.

In western music, notations are designed to represent the white and black keys of the keyboard and its construction is equally divided into 12 half steps which is known as well tempered system. Whereas Geez meleket are design to assist the chanter (Debter) to learn or help remember the short melodic patterns. Even though, in Geez zeima, we have three kinds of modes (scales) of styles of singing and most of the singing is governed under the style of GEEZ, ARARAY and EZILE. It cannot be represented as the equivalent of western musical system or key board. Therefore, the purpose and the use and the style of singing are not congruent and let us not use one term to substitute  for the other. It's like comparing apples and oranges. Western notation has its own set of challenges and short comings in representing other styles of music and rhythmic patterns. It is safe to say that western music have developed leaps and bound from the early medieval music to the modern music. If there is a need to draw a parallel between Geez meleket and western notations, it would be fair to compare Geez meleket to early western medieval music known as plainchant (Gregorian) music

Issayas: You were the first who told me about Abba Berhanemeskel's book. Abba Berhanemeskel argues that we need to formalize our traditional musical sign like western musical notation?  Do we need to formalize? If we do, why?

Yonas:  Abba Berhanemeskel is a unique musician and linguist and his book is a manifestation of all his hard work. It helps us as a guideline to lead the way and improve our understanding of music.  I bought the book immediately and started to read. If one claims to be musician, one must own this book as one’s musical bible especially when it comes to understanding our ethno-musicology and terminology in Eritrean and Geez music in general. This book have addressed all the rudiments of music in both Western and Eritrean traditional prespective in various levels and contrasts and compares music theory. For example, pentatonic scales versus western diatonic scales both in their construction and theoretical approaches and its further use in constructing of harmony. Traditional singing styles of zeima Geez both secular and sacred and their governing rules have not been shed to light before in this manner and detailed explanation. Furthermore, this book addresses so many topics as far as singing style is concerned whether traditional, secular or sacred and also examines that our musical tradition can not be misrepresented by western powers specially the governing body and theory behind western music. This is simply to say that western instruments and musical language can not truly represent our singing style because our scales are not represented in the western musical scale system. Abba Berhane's book dares musicians and engineers to come together to open up scholastic partnership to explore ways to design instruments that can truly play our style of music and singing style. In other words, if you try to play any traditional  Geez sacred music, you are out luck for the most part because the white and black key of a keyboard will not reproduce the intended sound. It means that Geez music in general is a very different animal  and must be handled with either human vocal chord or design one that can truly play it. Most Eritrean musicians do not seem to be interested to open up the above mention challenges that need urgent attention for upcoming younger generation,therefore, it is a call to better understand our heritage and musical language as a whole. Almost the entire book is the representation of the unadulterated original Eritrean culture rooted in Tigrigna terminology.  This magnificent book like what Abba Berhane wrote could not have been written by anyone else but him. It requires so much knowledge and research of a lifetime. I have learned so much and it is really a blessing to have Abba Berhane to provide us so much, which I can not put price tag behind it

Issayas:  Abba Berhanemeskel argues that no musical instruments were built to play zeima . Does it mean we need to come up with our own instrument as the Indians came up with the Sirtar?

Yonas: Yes. All western instruments are designed to produce what is needed in their culture. As time went by many modern instruments were invented. Lute, violin, 4 string guitar, harp, harpsichord , organ, synthesizer and so on.

Issayas:  The Holy Mass is divided into sections: Introductory rites, Liturgy of the Word, Liturgy of the Eucharist, Communion rite and the Concluding rite. Are different zeimas applied to the sections in our traditional Holy Mass ?

Yonas: All  Geez zeima  follow seasonal sequence. During the Lent, one can tell the melodies are different because it has a lots of lamentation and sorrow, which is similar to the minor scale in the western system.

Issayas:  I hear many Eritrean singers or musicians talk about "so and so sings in minor". What are they referring to when they say minor? Is minor the only reference to Tigrigrna music?

Yonas:  I heard the same comment that you're referring to  millions of times. And each time I hear it, it drives me crazy. It seems that minor is mislabeled as to mean genre. We can say this song is written in the minor key: of A minor or D minor. It just indicates what keys and what note are available to you. This is basically when you are playing in western musical concept and piano. In other words, in  western music, minor is associated with subdued or sad feeling  whereas, major is associated with happy or festive feeling. This phenomena is deeply rooted in western music than any other cultures, because some eastern European cultures write music in a minor key and it does not feel sad or depressive. As I have mentioned before western music and philosophy have a great deal of limitations to clearly define other non -western musical phenomenon.Tangential evidence for how nurture, rather than nature, forms our collective musical brains and ears comes from 18th-century mathematician Robert Smith, quoted in Ross Duffin's mind-opening book How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care). Smith is talking about something else we now take completely for granted (it's in the way pianos are tuned, and the way we hear most music today): the division of the octave into 12 equal semitones. Here's Smith, writing in 1759:

 The octave being always divided into five tones and two limmas [diatonic semitones]; by increasing the tones equally … the difference between the major and minor limma will be contracted to nothing, which … annihilates all the false consonances. But the harmony in this system of 12 semitones is extremely coarse and disagreeable.

To his ears, maybe. But we've become used to it over the past two and a half centuries, for better or worse. I bet Smith heard a minor third differently from us, too. As we noticed in the previous topic, the A Natural Minor scale contains the same notes as the C Major scale, with just a different starting note.  This is a very important property of the Natural Minor scale. Every Major scale has a relative Natural Minor scale, starting on its sixth note, which contains the same notes.  This means that music in a Natural Minor scale can be written on staff lines in the key signature of its relative Major scale without any accidentals. Some examples of equivalent Major and Natural Minor keys are shown below.  You can assume that when a minor key is referred to, it is the Natural Minor scale, unless one of the other minor scales is specifically mentioned.So how do you know when music is in a major key, or the related minor key?  The starting or ending chords in the song often give the best clues. Music in a major key has the characteristic major sound, and tends to use more of the related major chords of the scale (such as Cmaj, Fmaj and Gmaj in the C Major scale). Why does Handel's Water Music and The Beatles' 'Here Comes The Sun' sound happy, while Albinoni's Adagio and 'Eleanor Rigby' sound sad? Some might say it's because the first two are in major keys, while the
second two are in minor keys. But are the emotional associations of major and minor intrinsic to the notes themselves, or are they culturally imposed?

Many music psychologists suspect the latter, but a new study now suggests that there's something fundamentally similar about major or minor keys and the properties of happy or sad speech, respectively. Nigel Tufnell of spoof rock band Spinal Tap famously called D minor "the saddest of all keys". But are minor keys intrinsically sad? Neuroscientist Daniel Bowling and colleagues at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, compared the sound spectra — the profiles of different acoustic frequencies – of speech with those in Western classical music and Finnish folk songs. They found that the spectra in major-key music are close to those  in excited speech, while the spectra of minor-key music are more similar to subdued speech. Most cultures share the same acoustic characteristics of happy or sad speech, the former being relatively fast and loud, and the latter slower and quieter. There's good reason to believe that music mimics some of these universal emotional behaviors, supplying a universal vocabulary that permits listeners sometimes to deduce the intended emotion in unfamiliar music. For example, Western listeners can judge fairly reliably — based largely on tempo — whether pieces of Kirghistan, Hindustani and Navajo Native American music were meant to be joyous or sad.

A study of the Mafa people of Cameroon, who had never heard Western music, also found that they could guess whether extracts were intended to be happy, sad or fearful. So although it's simplistic to suppose that all music is happy or sad, these crude universal indicators of emotion do seem to work across cultural boundaries. So is musical key another of these universal indicators, as Bowling's study suggests? The idea that the minor key is intrinsically anguished, while the major is joyful, is so deeply ingrained in Western listeners that many have deemed this to be a  natural principle of music. This notion was influentially argued by musicologist Deryck Cooke in his 1959 book The Language of Music. Cooke pointed out that musicians throughout the ages have used minor  keys for vocal music with an explicitly sad content, and major keys for happy lyrics. But he failed to acknowledge that this might simply be a matter of cultural convention rather than an innate property of the music. And when faced with the fact that some cultures, such as Spanish and Slavic, use minor keys for happy music, he offered the patronizing suggestion that such rustic people were inured to a hard life and didn't expect  to be happy. No such chauvinism afflicts the latest work from Bowling and colleagues. But their conclusions are still open to question. For one thing, they don't establish that people actually hear in music the characteristic acoustic features that they identify. Also, they assume that the ratios of frequencies sounded simultaneously in speech can be compared with the ratios of frequencies sounded sequentially in music.  And most troubling, major-type frequency ratios dominate the spectra of both excited and subdued speech, but merely less so in the latter case. This work also faces the problem that some cultures— including Europe before the Renaissance, not to mention the ancient Greeks — don't link minor keys to sadness. Western listeners sometimes misjudge the emotional quality of Javanese music that uses a scale with similarities to the minor mode yet is deemed happy by the musicians. So even if a fundamental sadness is present in the minor mode, it seems likely to be weak and easily over-written by acculturation. It's possible even in the Western idiom to write happy minor-key music — Van Morrison's 'Moondance', for example — or sad major-key music, such as Billie Holiday's 'No Good Man'. It seems too soon to conclude that minor keys give everyone the blues. New evidence for a musical phenomenon we've taken for granted for centuries: that the minor key is sadder than the major. Dido's Lament is audibly bleaker than Kylie's "I Should Be So Lucky" – although neither are as sad as the doleful monotone of the vuvuzelas that blared out from Bloemfontein on Sunday.

A scientist in Massachusetts thinks that she's discovered a link between the interval of a minor third (C major to E flat, say) and expressions of sadness in human speech. Meagan Curtis found in her study that the speech-melodies of actors' voices (the movement of pitch in their intonation) happened to encompass a minor third when they were asked to communicate sadness. And when listeners were played the same speech-melodies, short of the words, they accurately interpreted the actors' emotion. So which came first, the sad minor third in music or the sad minor third in speech? Have centuries of music in minor keys conditioned us to the sound of sadness, or has music through the ages drawn from the cadences of our speech and heightened its emotional power? There is another question, too: given that we can only hear a minor third as sad if we imagine the harmonic context around it (as an interval, it's the top half of a "happy" major triad, and is part of all major scales as well; D–F and A–C in C major, for example), is this phenomenon limited to western musical cultures and harmonic systems? Other languages and other musical cultures will surely have different expressions for emotional intensity – something Curtis's study can't tell us, as her sample was limited to American English. Besides which, the use of the minor key in any song or symphony is only one way to communicate sadness. I think what Curtis has discovered is more  to do with learned behavior than the revelation of a universal cultural or musical truth.

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