Great blasts of sunshine down here in Devon. Air still chilled, but radiant skies - a thrilling spring, and it's still only March. Not that i have seen that much of it, having been painting the front room for the last 6 days. Starts quick, and then just gets slower and slower. Still, good to get out on Monday afternoon to Schumacher college and enjoy a few hours talking with students - see you at PARZIVAL, a week friday! Something from the new book this week - it will be tucked right back in the epilogue. The lead up to this segment is looking at logos and mythos, village and forest - ideas we have explored here before, so i won't repeat them, rather just drop us straight in.
# We have updated the COURSES page on the website, which now contains more details on individual weekends, and several hrs of radio interviews, youtube clip and book reviews. So please check it out - also news on July's wilderness fast in Snowdonia - and please spread the word. Dates for year course coming soon.
Polyphony and Homophony
In his essay ‘Singing with the Frogs’, Robert Bringhurst lays out some ideas around these two areas. Polyphony is music that is insistent on multiplicity; of several differing patterns, vocal structures, arrangements. One is not seen as superior to another, but they relate in the cave of the listeners ear, it is there they find their uneasy den. Homophony is a far more relatable experience: there is a clear melody, and a supportive progressions of sounds and ideas that lead us, sometimes predictably, to their conclusion.
In our day to day life, we are surrounded by polyphony – whether wandering that backwoods of Wales and experiencing bird song, river singing and the occasional chainsaw, or traversing Piccadilly Circus with hoots of taxis, bursts of radio, and snippets of language. The difference is that we rarely rate it as a form of art. It’s just something we put up with.
The genuinely shamanistic route of polyphony, to tripwire the senses till the spirit lurches from the body into the consciousness of sparrow or cobra, is not widely commented on. Dancefloor’s from Land’s End to Grimsby are empty of its disorientating charms.
As a storyteller, you are aware that the story you may seemingly tell the same way hundreds of times seems to have a distinct mood of its own, a wild horse breaking out of the coral of scripted intention. When you reflect back on this snorting menagerie of tellings, it is impossible to place one mono-theme over the many. They are a scruffy, magical happening, which seem to be unfolding all at once in the tellers mind. It’s not tidy.
Roy Franklin Barton, the anthropologist, witnessed something that relates directly to this. Whilst staying with the Ifugao, he saw 16 priests telling over forty myths – all at once. There was no spotlight on a lone reciter, no raised platform supported by music, but this collection of priests incanting like the humming of bees in front of an appreciative audience of woman and children; who were letting this seeming collision of words and images land where they might in their eager ears.
Who knows who heard what, who caught what. In the Seneca story, ‘The Listener’, the main character warns his men that there are some voices it is not appropriate to listen to. That each of us are tuned to certain frequencies, certain sonic panoramas, and to open to that which is not meant for us will lead to misfortune. So what to you or I, or Barton, or Bringhurst, could be a muddle of sound and gesture, to the life-long attendee may not be the case: they could be selectively drawing from it a distinct line of story, some understood progression. Even in the west we have the ability when called for to single out a certain pitch, phone ring, child’s voice amongst the wider hub-bub. What is sweet is the honouring of the many, and how pleased the stories may have been to be brushing up against their brothers and sisters in the telling. What new story emerges from the moving collective, squabbling cluster of sound?
Barton tells us that these mythteller’s learnt their stories by ‘talking with the water’ of a nearby stream. Not talking ‘at’, but ‘with’.
The Ifugao seem to have a remarkable insight into what a bundle of simultaneous energies that stories are – even that something else was born when they were told together. Those hearing from a distance claim that it sounded like birds, or insects - chattering and rattling and tweeting.
We get a sense of the beginnings of the old oral mythtellers again – when the human voice was not 'gatekeeper' but embroiled, utterly.
So I would like to think that a doorway to polyphony is open, even as I present the idea in a strident, homophony type of way.
Copyright Martin Shaw 2012