Comparing Musical Cycles Across the World

Author: Roeder, John

Publication details: Presented at the 2018 Rocky Mountain Music Scholars Conference in Tucson, Arizona, 24 March 2018.


Abstract: Growing interest in world-music analysis has highlighted the challenges, long recognized by ethnomusicologists, of comparing music from different cultures on the basis of their divergent indigenous conceptions. Yet, in today’s free-for-all sonic economy, listeners enjoy musics of unfamiliar cultures and histories. What are they hearing? My talk reframes this question in music-theoretical terms: what kinds of insight can a few basic and presumably universal principles of musical listening provide into a ubiquitous musical procedure, “cycling” (persistent repetition)? Most scholars who study musical cycles classify them, or associate them with the general affects they afford, without considering individual examples in much detail.  Recently, though, Agawu and Locke have carried out detailed analyses of cyclic West African traditional music in terms of basic percepts. Their approach seems worthwhile to refine and apply to other repertoires.

Of the many different manifestations of cyclicity, I restrict my inquiry to simple textures featuring constantly repeated rhythms, from isolated traditional cultures relatively untouched by colonizing/globalizing influences. My approach concentrates not on rhythmic “objects,” such as fixed metric states or events, but on the dynamic processes through which listeners acquire and continuously revise their sensations of music continuity, articulation, and event categories. Attention to these processes helps move beyond generalities to describe exactly how cyclic pieces differ, and also to recognize common strategies for making the repetition lively or for weaving large-scale processes out of precisely calibrated variations. To expose the basic concepts I first examine some proto-musical chanting of Tibetan Buddhist nuns, then I present analyses and comparison of cyclic music from Haida Gwaii (Canada), Gabon, Bolivia, and Vanuatu. The presentation is intended not only to appreciate the art of these examples, but to advocate for more analytical investigation into traditional sources as a valuable resource for music theory.