Numerous scholars have emphasized the influence of the sounds of the natural environment on the development of musical expressions by humans. In his landmark study of the music of the Kaluli of New Guinea, Steven Feld found that before he could begin to understand the Kaluli’s music, he had to first turn his attention to the sounds of their natural environment, particularly the birds whose sounds filled the local forests (see Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli expression. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982, 2nd ed. 1990; based on dissertation). As with so much musical discourse, Kaluli descriptions of musical sounds were filled with natural imagery and the Kaluli created their music in reaction to/in dialogue with the sounds that surrounded and enveloped them. An insightful post from History is made at night: The politics of dancing and musicking brought this all to mind (below). Our relationship with the sounds of our natural environment, including its non-human inhabitants–wild (i.e., birds) and domesticated (i.e., cattle)–have been integral to the development of music. Something it’s all too easy to forget.
How much do the origins of music owe to cattle? I was prompted to think about this when reading ‘The Storr: unfolding landscape’ (edited by Angus Farquhar) a book documenting an ambitious 2005 public art project staged on the Storr mountain on the Isle of Skye by nva (a group with their origins in Test Department).
The event seems to have involved a nightwalk around the mountain with various light and sound happenings – seemingly including the sounds of ancient horns. Hence the book includes an essay by ancient musical instrument expert John Purser, Paths of our Ancestors, which discusses their significance:
‘there were much older instruments belonging to the peoples who herded cattle in Ireland and Scotland – the beautiful curved bronze horns from the Bronze Age itself, of which many still survive. The orginals – some still playable – are derived in form from the horns of cattle and can reproduce the sounds of cattle among other things. They date from three millennia agos and, with their accompanying rattles shaped like a bull’s scrotum, they carry with them a fertile memory of a great herding culture…
Besides being able to imitate the sounds of cattle, bronze horns can also convey a sense of fear or of magic – sounds which relate to the mythology of the cattle, in to which much that is magical is woven. That deeper sound world which is shared by all living things, in which the sounds of warning, or enticement and allure, have some strange commonality beyond analysis, will carry to you the sounds of our ancestors, human and animal, from deep in their throats. Listen in silence and you too may, in imagination, follow those paths where human and animal, reality and myth, meet without embarrassment in natural companionship’.
The notions of the horn section remains at the heart of soul and jazz, even if the instruments no longer resemble their animal ancestors. But the name itself is a reminder that some of the earliest musical instruments were made from cattle (from actual horns, and in the case of drums from the skin of cattle), partly in imitation of the sounds of these creatures. Later bagpipes too were made from animal skin, as well as the belly of some stringed instruments.
I was reminded of some of the primeval power of music last week, and indeed of Test Department, when I came across this lot in Glasgow’s Buchanan Street. Clanadonia are self-styled ‘Tribal Pipes and Drums band’, and they do make a fearsome sound.