A look into what I think is the perfect art and knowledge medium
By CJ Sommerfeld, Staff Writer
All melodies were created as the by-product of something grander than the music itself.
Last week I began exploring how music allows its listeners to peer into the culture and the time period in which it was created. I briefly touched on call-and-response tunes, and then jumped back a thousand years to explore the chants sung during the Dark Ages.
Between then and now, the Indigenous peoples of New Mexico have also been creating songs in the form of chant. The monophonic sound heard in these tunes is similar to those sung during the Middle Ages, their intention, however, contrasts greatly from that of the medieval Catholic songs. The chants of these Indigenous peoples are not constructed with words, but instead with vocables—sung syllables that are said to have been transmitted from the spirit world. In creating songs about non-earthly matters, with syllables that do not represent any language, it is evident the importance the non-material world has in these cultures.
The opposite was happening in Europe during the Renaissance; an increase in the composition of secular music occurred in Europe during this time. This shows mass societal rebellion from accepting the notion that the church ruled all. Not to mention that due to trade and colonialization of places outside of the continent, they were experiencing vast economic growth. As colonialism funnelled money into European countries and restrictions loosened, more money could be spent on composers and musicians for the sake of enjoyment and pleasure. During the Dark Ages, politics and the church were greatly intertwined, but in the Renaissance, these two institutions began to separate. This meant that it was no longer the church who commissioned the arts.
These creative activities were taken a hold by folk who did not hold the same intentions that the church did. The church still did have presence in European society, and they were still composing music to spread their religious texts; the songs sung in these church choirs, however, were indicative of the societal hierarchy of the sexes in Europe during this time. Women were nearly prohibited from being a part of them, and while some of these choirs operated through schools, they too were predominantly male.
In December 2013 I took a solo trip to Jamaica. Being both a full-time student and part-time bartender left me burnt-out and raw. To bandage my depression, I decided to escape rainy Vancouver until the next semester began in January. Once in Jamaica, I stayed in this tiny village named Bamboo. When Christmas approached, instead of gift-giving, the people of Bamboo and the surrounding communities all went to this colossal street-party in a neighboring town named Browns Town. I had no idea what to expect. Once there, there was not a single Christmas tree nor much hinting to what I would normally associate with Christmas. Instead, stacks of speakers lined the streets. This, I learned, is called the Jamaican sound system. Dancehall and bass-heavy Reggae variants reverberated the town uninterrupted till the early morning. This music, and the sound system set-up was made for dancing.
It seemed like the pleasure that many Westerners have been conditioned to receive during this festive time via gift receiving, was instead obtained by dancing. Now I am not saying that Dancehall was created specifically to dance to on Christmas—both this genre and Reggae have come about due to other political reasoning, nor that this short-lived experience is representative of how this music ties to Christmas celebrations thought the island, but in relaying this music to the tradition that I experienced, it showed me that form follows function: all music sprouted from something. All melodies were created as the by-product of something grander than the music itself. Using this concept, we can back track and use this medium to uncover that grander things that caused the music to be so.
By no means do my brief explorations encompass much of all there is to be traversed from this thought, but maybe proposing this idea has opened your eyes to new interpretations. What does the music that you listen to tell you about the culture from which it came? What does angsty music subcultures tell us about a time or place? What about Dreampop? Neo punk? Mexican Ranchero? Argentinian heavy metal? What about Pinoy pop? What was happening in society—what was happening politically and within other overbearing structures that invoked emergence of these genres?