NOTES FROM “THE NORTH AMERICAN INDIAN”
BY EDAWRD S. CURTIS
VOLUME VI – NOTES ON INDIAN MUSIC
“In the course of transcribing Indian melodies from phonographic cylinders for Volumes VI, VII, and VIII, one of the first things to impress me was the impossibility of representing these melodies accurately by means of our normal musical notation. The principal reason for this difficulty is that while our notation provides for the representation of certain definite degrees of pitch (and those only), the Indian habitually sings degrees of pitch for which we have no symbols. For instance, we can represent e (330 vibrations per second) and f (352 vibrations per second), but when an Indian sings a tone lying somewhere between these two (say 335 vibrations per second), our notation is powerless to represent this tone with accuracy.
In such cases I have written the note which most nearly approximated the tone sung by the Indian. A notation could easily have been invented which would have permitted the more accurate expression of Indian melody, but this would have been of questionable value. If the Indian deliberately uses a different scheme of tones and intervals from that of the civilized races, as had been suggested, one would naturally expect this difference to stand out clearly, or at least noticeably, in the course of several repetitions of the same song. But in the examination of more than sixty songs much variation appears in the repetitions of each one. As a general rule the repetitions fail to agree in length, rhythm, or accuracy of intonation; frequently they agree only in general contour. It can truthfully be said that in the case of the phonographic records examined by me for these three volumes no song is repeated twice exactly alike. Any single tone is likely to vary up or down at least a quarter of a tone, and in some cases the variation is as much as a full tone. It is more than likely that the Indian is somewhat blindly groping for the diatonic intervals which form the basis of civilized music, and that his deviations there from are not caused by a conscious disregard of them so much as by his inability to intone them accurately. In many instances, however, he is quite successful in his use of the usual diatonic intervals, and while he vary rarely uses the complete diatonic scale, he frequently uses five or even six of the tones comprising it.
But there is a great difference in his manner of using these tones from that of civilized man. In the melody of civilized man the tones are all related to a central tone called the tonic or key-tone, and however widely they may wander from this key-note, a definite relationship to it is always preserved, the melody usually ending on the key-note itself. This relationship among the tones of the melody produces a definite musical atmosphere called a tonality or key. Among the Indians this sense of tonality is largely lacking. In the majority of songs no key is established which lasts throughout the song. Here and there a few measures definitely indicate a particular key, but the sense of this key is usually lost before the song ends. In many of the songs no key whatever, as we understand it, is established, such songs being more or less rhythmic yells upon certain tones, and sounding much as if they were intended for incantations rather than songs. An occasional song is found, however, in which the sense of tonality is quite perfect.
Although rhythm is of great importance to the Indian, it is my belief that he has not consciously developed any very complicated rhythmic schemes. All the rhythmic schemes which have come under my observation seem to be very simple and the complexities which have arisen seem to me to be purely accidental. When a song is accompanied by a drum-beat, it usually happens that the drummer keeps time in the most rigid and inflexible manner throughout the song. The singer, on the contrary, will introduce ritards, accelerandos, pauses of different lengths, and numerous variations of time. There consequently arise many complicated rhythmic relationships between the drum-beat and the melody. But inasmuch as both singer and drummer start with evident agreement as regards time and accent, it is quite probable that the subsequent complications are accidental rather than intentional.
The Indian’s manner of singing has much to do with the particular character of his music. Embellishments such as grace-notes, trills, and shakes abound. Pure sustained tones are somewhat rare. Most long tones are broken up by a kind of fluttering or pulsing of the voice. In most instances this has been carefully indicated in the transcriptions. The Indian is also addicted to the exaggerated use of portamento, or the slurring of one tone into another. Instead of singing one definite tone after another, he is very apt to glide from one tone to the next, producing the impression that he is feeling his way among the intervals. This has been indicated in the most marked cases by the sign \ and in other cases, where it is not so apparent by the slur. Extended slurs have also been used to indicate phrasing, as is the custom in civilized music.
The Indian singer also takes many liberties with the time. Although rhythmic values are fairly well preserved, he introduces retards and accelerandos, and sometimes a long ritenuto, causing the end of the song to be sung at a much slower rate than the beginning. On the other hand songs that accompany dancing or other regular rhythmic movements are sung in strict time.
It is impossible, especially while listening to those Indian melodies of which the tonality is more or less perfect, to escape the conviction that the primitive music has been considerably influenced by the Indian’s contact with the white man. In Nature melody is represented by the songs of the birds, the sighing of the wind in the forest, the babbling of mountain brooks, and there is no doubt that the Indian in his first attempts at melody was largely influenced by such sounds. But with the coming of white men a new musical element was brought to him; the element of tonality. Tonality is present in even the simplest folk-song sung by the rudest pioneer, and it is but natural that the Indian should imitate the songs of the pioneers just as he had imitated the sounds of Nature. It is well known with what patience and perseverance the early Jesuit missionaries taught the Indians to sing church hymns, and when one listens to such (Indian) songs, it seems certain that the Indian music of the present day shows this influence.
By no means the least interesting feature of an Indian song is the yell which precedes so many of them. This yell is usually a very complicated affair, and besides mere shouting is apt to consist of trills, shakes, slurs, and frequently short but quite well-defined musical phrases. When a musical phrase is hinted at in a yell, the same phrase is usually to be found in much more developed form in the subsequent song. This is to be expected, as the yell is simply a wild prelude to the song, a tuning up of the voice, the singer getting himself into the mood, as it were. Of course, the yells practically defy accurate expression in musical notation. At first hearing they sound decidedly more akin to noise than music. The voice glides with such rapidity and in such a slurring and sliding manner through so many changes of pitch that often only the approximate contour of melodic outline of the yell can be indicated. I nevertheless consider these yells to be more interesting, and certainly more significant from an ethnological point of view, than many of the melodies themselves.
Songs are frequently followed by yells, but these are not musically important, as they consist for the greatest part of one or two shouts with a with a falling inflection of the voice, and have no relation to the foregoing song. Sometimes, however, the yell at the end consists of a long and beautifully sustained tones at the top of the voice.
Transcribing Indian melodies in ordinary musical notation is somewhat like forcing a square peg into a round hole; it can be accomplished by dint of sufficient exertion, but the original form may have suffered. The vital part of these melodies can be expressed on our notation, but many a delicate nuance of wild and wayward beauty will have disappeared. However, though the letter may be bruised in the process, enough of the spirit survives to make the transcription valuable, but not only to the reader of today, but especially to the student of the future, who will find in such records as these his only opportunity to study this phase of primitive culture. It is in the songs of a people that we rightly look for the greatest spontaneity of self-expression.”
HENRY F. GILBERT
See attached image of “Love Songs”. See more music in this volume: http://curtis.library.northwestern.edu/curtis/viewPage.cgi?showp=1&size=2&id=nai.06.book.00000246&volume=6#nav