Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Cinderella and the Didgeridoo

In keeping with lessons learned in China, we ddi a lot of shopping around before making a decision on where to buy a didgeridoo for Letizia's birthday. In the process, we learned a number of interesting things:

Didgeridoos are tree trunks hollowed out by the action of termites, but then sealed by the artisan to make them less susceptible to rotting when the players' saliva runs through them (a feature of wind instruments I learned the hard way by sitting in front of the brass section in a band a long time ago).

They possibly originate in the North of Australia - Arnhemland - but nowadays each region has its own distinctive style of decoration.

Although they produce single clear notes, the art of playing the didgeridoo lies in the timbre that you can extract, the rhythms you produce, and the variety of special noises, animal imitations for example, that you can create.

The deeper the note, the softer the wood, or the straighter the instrument, then the harder it is to play - in other words the more air you have to physically push through. A higer-pitched, harder didgeridoo, with a bit of a bell at the end is a good one to get started on.

There's no bloody point in trying to haggle down prices here. I'm gutted. After 3 weeks of China, I have to hold myself back from arguing over the price of a pint of milk in the supermarket, so I find the deadpan "No mate - that's the price" reaction in an outdoor market very hard to accept. Oh well - there's always South America.

The didgeridoo was for Letizia, and her requirements were purely aesthetic. I wanted the salesmen to demonstrate the musicality of their goods, something they all did happily (note the different kinds of requirements: one Italian, one Irish).

Getting a sound from a didgeridoo is as easy as getting a promise of lifelong friendship from a drunk. It's a simple matter of blowing in such a way as to let your lips flap (I know I know). But actually playing properly requires a technique used by bagpipe players, and other sadists, called circular breathing. This involves filling your cheeks with a reserve of air, to keep the instrument going for the split second it takes you to refill your lungs through your nose. This can be practiced without any instrument, and in public, and results in long unending farting noises - the kind which your daughters find hilarious when they make them in bed an hour after they are supposed to be asleep, but which they find embarassing coming from their Dad while walking along Elisabeth street. Odd. The fact is that I can't even do it properly. Getting air into or out of my lungs quickly through my nose is not easy. My nose curves with aerodynamic sleekness to the right, and as a result, partially closes off one airway. The same trait makes swimming difficult - not just for the breathing, but also because it tends to pull me slightly to starboard.

I digress.

From the point of view of pitch, the didgeridoo is less musical than a kazoo. Aboriginal music is all about timbre and rhythm. Interestingly, given the huge variety of chords, notes, scales cadences and keys available to the Western musician, pop rock and especially dance music is also, relatively speaking, mostly about timbre and rhythm. Last week, we went to Sydney Opera House to see Rossini's Cenerentola (Cinderella). I haven't been to very many operas, and this was the girls' first. It was a fantastic experience, especially given the venue. The production was very funny, with a lot of physical and choreographical comedy. And the music - well that was at a level of musical conplexity that made most rock sound primitive, never mind aboriginal music. But the structure of the opera was formulaic and the timbre was precisely what any orchestra and chorus could be expected to produce (my ignorant ear heard nothing particularly different or special in the soloists' voices). I was entertained, impressed, but only very occasionally moved.

It's polically incorrect to use the work 'primitive' when talking about other cultures, but there's little choice in the matter when comparing the musical scope of the Chinese or Europeans, with that of the Australian aboriginals. This is where the comparison between language and music (see earlier blog entry) falls apart. There's no such thing as a primitive language, but there is such thing as a primitive culture and its music. You cannot compare the beating of sticks to the nuances of a jazz drumkit, nor the hypnotic pulse of the didgeridoo with the voice of the erhu. At least not in sophistication. But in terms of emotional impact, there's no distance between them. All you have to do is know the code.

The code? What code? I bought a book the other day: The Flamingo's Smile by Stephen Jay Gould (my first book by this author despite reading about him for years). My decision to buy was based almost entirely on the following line that I found while browsing the book: "The jolt is direct and emotional - as powerful a feeling as anything I know. Yet the impetus is purely intellectual - a visceral disproof of the romantic nonsense that abstract knowledge cannot engender deep emotion". He wasn't talking about music, but he might just as well have been - the principle holds. We react emotionally to music, at least in part, based on our intellectual expectations of it (after being brought up listening to standard patterns belonging to our culture). I found Cenerentola unmoving because it presented nothing new to my ear - either because I didn't understand what I was hearing or because the work wasn't particularly musically surprising. Similarly, I couldn't tell the difference between one didgeridoo 'song' and another, when played in the New South Wales Gallery last week by Adam Hill, because they were using rhythmic codes that regular listeners and players are familiar with, but which mean nothing to me. Years of playing bad guitar means that I know the rock code, and I can tell when some band goes off the beaten track (npi) in an interesting or imaginative way. The ability to react emotionallyto music can probably be learned.

Much the same as circular farting.

(My 100th post, by the way)


Simon Moore said...

maybe you should swim backwards and use your nose as a fin. or, for fun, paint it black and swim on your back off bondi beach.

Brendan Lawlor said...

Aren't you supposed to be too fatigued at this point to achieve humour?