Monday, October 19, 2020

The different types of polyphonic singing 3: canonic polyphony

Joseph Jordania has outlined nine different types of polyphonic singing in his book Choral singing in human evolution.

Gailė Paštukaitė, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I will be working through each type trying to give a simplified explanation and some musical examples. This week it’s canonical polyphony.

Not every culture has polyphonic or multi-part singing. When they do, it can take many different forms.

In part 1, I wrote about parallel polyphony.

In part 2, I wrote about drone polyphony.

canonic polyphony

Canonic polyphony is a kind of call and response. One or more voices copy the lead singer’s melody, but rather than taking turns, they sing at the same time as the lead singer, only shifted in time so the voices work in canon.

True canonic forms of polyphony are quite rare in traditional music.

two examples of canonic polyphony

There are two well-known traditions of canonic polyphony: sutartines from Lithuania and the polyphony of the Ainus from North Japan.

1. Lithuanian sutartines

Sutartines is a form of polyphonic music performed by female singers in north-east Lithuania. The songs have simple melodies, with two to five pitches, and comprise two distinct parts: a meaningful main text and a refrain that may include nonsense words.

Among the different kinds of sutartines the most well-known and truly unique type is the
so-called ‘secondal sutartines’. Their most important feature is the abundance of secondal dissonances (i.e. when two melodies differ by just one note, or an interval of a second). In this type of sutartines seconds sound almost constantly giving the songs a real sense of dissonance.

It is incredibly difficult for two singers to sing two parallel melodies with the distance of a major second between the parts all the time.

In sutartines  this is achieved by singing two carefully constructed melodies in canon (i.e. as a ‘round’). By crafting the melodies carefully, and choosing the right moment to start the canon, we end up with two parts being sung with mainly intervals of a major second. Harder to sing than it sounds!

Here are two fairly simple examples. The first is Gegutyta sodi (“Cuckoo garden”):

Next is Lylio Lelijo (“Lily, lily”):

Here is a more extended video with several songs:

Finally, a 10 minute UNESCO video documentary about sutartines:

2. polyphony of the Ainus

The Ainu are an East Asian ethnic group indigenous to Japan, the original inhabitants of Hokkaidō. Arguably the most isolated tradition of vocal polyphony in the world is among the Ainu.

The traditional polyphony of the Ainu is based on canonic imitation of relatively short musical phrases. Canonic singing can vary from two parts up to six parts. This is unlike Lithuanian sutartines which are basically two-part canons.

Upopo songs are short, and fairly simple, and centre on an activity like a game or work. They are usually sung by several people seated round the lid of a chest, tapping the rhythm on the lid. Usually the lead is taken by the oldest member of the group. The leader turns their face towards the person sitting on their right, and on a cue this person starts singing a beat behind.

The first song in this video has at least four women singing. It’s quite hard to detect that they’re singing in canon because the phrases are so short:

Here is an older recording with just two women:

This example includes a simple dance and shows the game-like quality of Upopo:

Finally, two women demonstrating the tapping of the rhythm and the use of several different short phrases:


next week

In the next post in this series I’ll be looking at contrapuntal polyphony.


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Chris Rowbury




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