Central Australia

T.G.H. Strehlow

Part 1. Rhythmic Measures and Musical Structure

One of the most fascinating subjects to a student of languages is the examination of the evolution, both in poetry and in prose, of the literatures with which he is conversant. Literatures show interesting developments and changes in the literary genres used in different periods of their nations' history. Literary forms, like nations and empires, have their own ages of rise, growth, full development, decline and fall. They are subject to change and decay; but most of them give birth to fresh forms of expression before they pass out of current usage: the fresh-leaved young forest grows, as it were, out of the decaying limbs and trunks of the dead trees of bygone ages.

A question that presents itself in this connection is the query - Are there any general principles that can be traced in the evolution of literature and of literary genres? The final answer could be elicited only from a comparative study of the literatures of the vatious nations and races scattered over the whole surface of our globe. Up to the present this great field of research has been explored all too inadequately, and many important issues still await an authoritative settlement.

The best general analysis of this subject available to English readers is the monumental volume entitled The Growth of Literature, by H. M. and N. K. Chadwick. As regards Western European literatures, the two authors have stated the difficulty of their problem in their Preface1 as follows:

For such comparative study the modern literatures of the West offer only a very limited amount of material. Owing to the constant interaction of these literatures upon one another for several centuries past, and before that to the common influence of Latin upon all of them, they have had little chance of independent development. The most valuable material for our purpose comes from ancient records unaffected, or only partially affected, by the influence of Latin or other languages of wide circulation, and from isolated or backward communities of the present day which are still unaffected by cosmopolitan literature.

This argument is continued further down on the same page:

An initial obstacle to studies of this kind is presented by the fact that the literatures which one would expect to be most independent are generally those for which information is most difficult to obtain. We refer to the literatures of isolated and remote peoples. These are as a rule "unwritten" literatures; and they are now fast perishing before the incoming tide of cosmopolitan literature. A similar course of history may be traced in our own part of the world. Our ancestors once had unwritten literatures of their own which in time had to give way before the tide of cosmopolitan late Roman or medieval literature. Fortunately something of the old order has been preserved in both cases - in the former partly by the European travellers, missionaries and officials of last century, and partly by natives.who had received a foreign education; in the latter perhaps almost entirely by educated natives. In both cases alike the records committed to writing and preserved by these persons supply the material upon which we have to draw.

The authors of The Growth of Literature are, however, concerned only with the growth of literature, not with its origins. The latter subject has been commended by them to the attention of students who have made investigations into the literary forms of primitive peoples.

It is a generally accepted theory that in the literature of every nation poetry originated earlier than prose. Again, the earliest pieces of poetic writing are invariably hymns to deities, charms, and spells; and it is safe to assume that most if not all of these verse forms were originally intoned or chanted or sung to the accompaniment of primitive instruments, such as lyres, drums, or wooden sticks, which helped to emphasize the beats of their rhythms.

The subject matter of these early poems is always identical with that of the myths and legends of a tribe or nation, but I shall not at this juncture attempt to analyse the themes that recur in these early literatures. In these literatures prose and verse supplement each other and form an organic whole as regards their subject material. But even the most "primitive" song verse is clearly marked off from any early prose fragment by its metric form, its rhythmic measure, its peculiar sentence construction, and other special mechanical devices; and it is these points of form and structure that are to be discussed in this part of the book. It may be possible for modern English writers to compose verse which would be indistinguishable from prose if it were not printed in traditional verse lines; but even the earliest tribal chants would seem to be unmistakably different in form from the ordinary medium of story-telling, even when both deal with the same theme: the argument that we encounter in Wordsworth's theory of poetic diction would sound absurd to an aboriginal Australian.

We know little of the exact rythmic measures from which our own European metres have eveloved. One reason for this is not very difficult to state - it is the general swamping of almost all European non-Greek national literatures by metrical forms imported form Ancient Greece. Latin verse derives its forms directly from Greek models, in spite of the fact that the Greek measures, which pay attention soley to quality, tended to violate the stress accent possessed by Roman speech. Similarly with Chaucer English literature abandoned the alliterative heroic verse of Beowulf and the Christ. Later thirteenth and fourteenth century poems sueh as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Piers Plowman, and a few others, vainly strove to combine the old English measures with the new French froms that went back, through Latin models, to Greek originals: the rushing tide of Greek forms proved too strong for our Middle English writers. They adopted the classical moulds of Mediterranean verse, with the important reservation that normally stressed syllables replaced the original Greek and Latin long syllables in such metrical foot. It is only in comparatively recent times that English poets like Browning, William Morris, and other moderns, have attempted to return to the freer sweep of Anglo-Saxon verse, with its indefinite number of unstressed syllables marshalled and kept in order by a regular number of accented syllables.

The other reason for the difficulty of establishing the original rhythms in such primitive European verse as has survived to our own times may be stated as follows. The early Greek fragments had been largely lost even before the fifth century B.C.; and the preservation of what had remained was neglected in any case during the great period of Attic literature. In the case of Latin, Old English, and most of the other European literatures, the recording of their earliest surviving native verse took place at a much later date, when the art of writing had already been fully developed. The educated recorders of such early verse frequently had little respect for their material. Even where there were conscientious scribes, their manuscripts were often lost in later and more disrespectful ages.2 Four manuscript collections now hold most of the Anglo-Saxon verse that has come down to our times. Our text of Beowulf itself owes much to the labours of the Danish scholar Thorkelin, who had a transcription made of it after it had been damaged by a fire in 1731. Charlemagne, in the ninth century A.D., ordered the scribes of his realm to collect all extant heroic verse composed in Old High German; during the reign of his successors these manuscripts were irretrievably lost. One little fragment of about 70 lines3 is now the sole remnant of a great poetic tradition, the full extent of which can be gauged only from the hints contained in Middle High German literature and from various tales found in Old Norse literature. Here, too, we find multitudinous allusions to stories and to verse which were then still regarded as common knowledge, built of whose contents we are now completely ignorant.

It follows that we must turn to various non-European literatures if we desire to formulate any general principles relating to the shape and rhythm of "primitive" verse. Asian, African, and North American songs all have their uses for such comparitive studies. Interesting parallels appear immediately such a comparison is made. We find the following comments made about "chants" of this type in The International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians (1944 ed.):

While the term [i.e. chant] may be applied to a song of any kind, it is usually assocaiated with a ritualistic service with musical declamation. The Incas had sacred chants in which, youths werc instructed by the priests in order to assist in the musical performances of the temple. The North Amcrican Indians had their Medicine Men who sang, among other chants, health incantations and weather incantations. The Hindu Primitives still have their chants for seed­planting and harvest festivals, religious ceremonies and dances. Their songs are unaccompanied melody with strongly marked rhythm. The African Negro has a monotonous repetitious song with syncopated rhythms in the character of a chunt which he has used since time immemorial in his religious observances, in his work und in his play. . . . . . While we have no examples of Egyptian chant, it is safe to infer from records in stone that music of this type was a factor in the religious life of Egypt, as well as of Assyria. No doubt Hebrew music was influenced by the Egyptian. From the Old Testament we gather every evidence that the Psalms were chanted in the synagogues, and the Hebrew method of cantillation, a form of chanting or of declamation, which embodied un undent tradition, was handed down to the early Christian Fathers. These cantillations were the basis of the Byzantine chant and of the Ambrosian and Gregorian chants.

The Greek chorus was a synthesis of music, poetry and the dance. The drama included speech, recitative, and song which was a type of chant. . . . . The Roman "citharoedic" chant was a form of presenting Latin poems, chanted to the accompaniment of the cithara, a species of lyre.

The Australian native chants, which in this book have been labelled "songs", are of great value for comparative purposes; and as I have spent years collecting the song verses of the Central Australian tribes, I shall try to give an account of the peculiarities of their metrical structure and an analysis of the more common rhythmic patterns in which they have been composed.

It is a pity that in the past there have been so few Australian students who were interested in cultural, and especially in linguistic, studies among the natives of of our continent. Thus, by far the greater part of the songs of Tasmania, Victoria, coastal New South Wales, and coastal South Australia, have been lost to posterity; and, with the exception of the songs found in a few special areas, little effort has becn made so far to record the poetry of the tribes that remain in the northern IInd central parts of our country. This neglect has not been merely accidental. It arises from the fact that not only the average citizen but also most anthropologists and missionaries during the nineteenth century regarded our aboriginals as constituting one of the lowest-standing human races in the scale of culture and development. It was not thought necessary to learn the language of these "primitives", who were generally regurded as practically sub-human creatures.

Their main interest to, scientists in that period lay in their being regarded as living examples of a low form of human life: as such they formed an excellent foil to ourselves, who of course constituted the apex and the crown of human society. It was assumed without investigation that their customs were invariably "beastly", that their languages were ill-developed and defective, and that their meagre religious beliefs could be ascertained through the crude medium of pidgin English. The Australian scientific attitude of those days is well summed up in the following sentences written by Sir Baldwin Spencer in his Preface to The Arunta (1927 ed.):4

Australia is the present home and refuge, of creatures, often crude and quaint, that have elsewhere passed away and given place to higher forms. This applies equally to the aboriginal as to the platypus and kangaroo. Just as the platypus, laying its eggs and feebly suckling its young, reveals a mammal in the making, so does the Aboriginal show us, at least in broad Outline, what early man must have been like before he learned to read and write, domesticate animals, cultivate crops and use a metal too1. It has been possible to study in Australia human beings that still remain, on the culture level of men of the Stone Age.

Even more enlightening in this regard are Spencer's comments on our natives in his Preface to The Northern Tribes of Central Australia:5

Thanks especially to the work of Messrs. Howitt, Fison, and Roth, we already know a great deal about such matters as the, organisation and initiation ceremonies of various Australian tribes, but, up to the time when we com­enced our work upon the Arunta, it is only fair to say that, apart from initiation ceremonies, no serious attempt had been made, to investigate other forms of sacred ceremonies - in fact the existence of such was not suspected. . .
.....At the present time the natives in Central Australia carry on their ceremonies in secrecy, without the few white men who are scattered over the country knowing, as a general rule, anything about them. . . Even an investigator sufficiently conversant with, and trusted by, the members of the tribe to be allowed to see the initiation ceremonies, mighteasily overlook the totemic ceremonies unless he happened to be present just at the particular time when they were being performed, or made special inquiries in regard to them.

A word of warning must, however, be written in regard to this "elaborate ritual". To a certajn extent it is without doubt elaborate, but at the same time it is eminently crude and savage in all essential points. It must be remembered that these ceremonies are performed by naked, howling savages, who have no idea of permanent abodes, no clothing, no knowledge of any implements save those fashioned out of wood, bone, and stone, no idea whatever of the cultivation of crops, or of the laying in of a supply of food to tide over hard times, no word for any number beyond three, and no belief in anything like a supreme being....It is one thing to read of these ceremonies it is quite another thing to see them prepared and performed. A number of naked savages assemble on the ceremonial ground. They bring with them a supply of down, plucked from birds which they have killed with boomerangs or gathered from plants, and this down they grind on flat stones, mixing it with pipe-clay or red ochre. Then, drawing blood from their own veins, they smear it over their bodies and use it as a gum, so that they can outline designs in white and red. While this is in progress they are chanting songs of which they do not know the meaning, and, when all is ready and the performers are decorated, a group of men stand at one side of the ceremonial ground, the decorated men perform a series of more or less grotesque evolutions, and then all is over.

lt is easy to understand from such remarks why it was clear to nineteenth-century Australians, both scientists and others, that nothing of any value could be learnt from the crude and unmusical songs of these animal-like savages. Here are some comments on the Central Australian songs by a man who was regarded in his own day as one of the great experts on the culture, customs, language, and legendary material of these tribes. The quotation has been taken from Dr. E. C. Stirling's remarks as recorded in the Records of the important Horn Scientific Expedition to Central Australia in 1894. Dr. Stirling6 summarizes his conclusions on the Central Australian songs as follows:7

It may be as well to state here, as the remarks are applicable to almost all corrobborees, that the natives are quite unable to assign any meaning to the words of these and other chants, of which there are a great number. They appear to be merely a collection of sounds uttered with varying emphasis, but each corrobboree has its own special set. As they are uttered they form a series of recurrent rhythmical dull monotones, nearly always occurring in couplets, each couplet being repeated over and over again during the per­formance of the act or figure of the dance to which it is appropriate. The sounds represented by each line of the couplets, as here attempted to be expressed in writing, increase somewhat in strength towards the end of the line, but finally die completely away in the prolongation of the terminal syllable which, in type, is indicated by a repetition of the vowel followed by a dash. Indeed whatever charm these monotonous chants possess, and they are by no means devoid of euphony, is due to the gentle and even way in which the voices, naturally melodious, fade away to absolute stillness. The

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two set rules which he must not transgress in his singing. Firstly, he must adhere to the traditional tonal pattern proper to the song he is singing;9and secondly, he must begin his song on a high note in his tonal pattern and gradually reach the lowest note in this tonal pattern. If he repeats the verse six or seven times, he often starts up a few notes higher during the repetition so as not to reach his lowest note too soon. When the lowest note of the tonal pattern has been reached, the voice of the singer dies away in intensity and becomes a soft drone. Finally, the voice itself fades away into a whisper, and the chanting is concluded at this point, even if the singer is still in the middle of one of his repeats.

Chanting of this type is not necessarily singing in our sense of the word, nor does it seek to be. I feel that many critics have unnecessarily condemned native songs as being poor musical compositions, It seems unfair for us to give the same label to intoned poetry that we give to our ordinary musical songs, and then to criticize this intoned poetry severely for not equa1ling in musical value compositions of our own which have been designed purely in terms of musical sounds.

In point of music our native songs should be regarded rather as "chants". They are, however, an entirely different genre from our own church chants. At first sight there are many points of similarity between the two types. Both are built up largely out of verses composed as couplets. Each couplet expresses an idea or voices a statement complete in itself: the couplets are independent of one another in meaning. In both forms the majority of the syllables are intoned on the same note. Both types are associated with religious performances, Here the comparison ends. In native songs the strong hammer beat of a clear rhythmic measure reshapes the words of each poem into new forms, whereas in the European church chants the varying length of the couplets alters and disarranges the musical pattern in order to adapt it to the measured flow of the words contained in each line.

A brief summary of the main features of European church chanting may be introduced here in order that the vital differences which separate our own chants from Australian "sung verse" may be fully emphasized, The Roman Catholic Church has its Gregorian Chants, which are sung in unison and which are devoid of harmonic ornamentation. They lack regular subdivision into bars and know nothing of such mensural divisions as those indicated by our normal time signatures (e.g. 2/4, 4/4, 6/8, etc.). At the same time they have a free rhythmical flow, and their individual parts are arranged in balanced proportion.

1n the Anglican Church Chant an attempt has been made to introduce stricter musical rules without changing the order of the words in the psalms and other sacred texts on which they are based. Like most compromises, the end result, sometimes fails to please either the musician or the lover of literature. The difficulties of this type of chanting are well set out in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1932 edition). Grove remarks that in the English Church the chant, which had originally been "a formula of melody in which only pitch relationships were defined" (i.e. Gregorian Chant or plain-song), was eventually turned into "a composition complete in its own rhythm reinforced by harmonic progressions and held as nearly as possible to strict time by being written in notes of time value measured out with bar lines". After giving an actual example, he notes that

the practical effect is to begin the chant in strict time with a strong accent, when all that part of each half-verse which cannot be squeezed into it has been disposed of in short notes, and this is the method of chanting which earned in the 19th century the derisive epithet of the 'Anglican thump'.

The evil was recognized only too clearly by most critics, and in order to offset the "thump" various "pointed" psalters were published in which the words of all the psalms were printed with "accents, asterisks, syllables in heavy type and sometimes bar lines, all tending to mark off the recitation from a strict time singing of the chant". According to Grove, the editors failed because they had not understood the real function of chanting:

Composers had treated the chant as a musical composition to which words had to be fitted, instead of as a piece of music which must bend to fit every verbal rhythm of which the English language is capable, and editors of Psalters were powerless to counteract the composers' views.

I have italicized the phrase which summarizes Grove's categoric theory of the function of a chant, because, as we shall see shortly, the native Australian chants unreservedly refuse to accept speech accent into their strong rhythmical verse patterns: the aboriginal practice is the direct opposite of the method advocated by Dr. Grove. Musical critics in general are, of course, in accord with Grove's views; and Dr. Robert Bridges, a poet who was greatly interested in the subject of rhythms, has set forth certain essential principles of English chanting in The Prayer Book Dictionary of 1912. In this work the following two generalizations are of particular interest to students of early chants. The first is that the rhythmic form of the chant is merely a norm which must be varied in detail to accommodate the verbal rhythm of each half-verse. The second is that a series of devices can be formulated "which will make the chant-rhythm give way to the words without destroying the rhythmical unity or the harmonic structure", and that these devices can, be expressed approximately in musical notation, using syncopations, triplets and "lesser minims". The above theory of the function of chanting is a natural corollary to the modern European principle that verse rhythm must not destroy the normal accentuation (in English) or the spoken rhythm (in French) that the individual words out of which each phrase is composed would bear in prose or in everyday speech. Professor Saintsbury's works on rhythm in English verse and prose constantly elaborate this point, and it would take too long to quote para­graphs from his books in illustration. This theory of English verse is well summed up in two excerpts from Rhythmic Verse by John Hubert Scott,10 who was one of Professor Saintsbury's students:

1. Page ix.
2. Some poems survived only because old manuscripts were often used in the binding of new volumes.
3. The Hildebrandslied
4. Page vii
5. Pages xiii-xv
6. Dr. E. C, Stirling. C.M.G.. M.A., M.D., F.R.C.S., F,R.S.. C.M.Z.s., was at the lime Lecturer in Physiology in the University or Adelaide nnd Director or the South Austrnlilln Museum.
7. Report on the Work of the Horn Scientific Expedition, Part IV. page 73.
9, See below,, pages 32-56. Note there also the comment on Pitjantjara chanting which differs from Aranda chanting in certain particulars.
10. In University of Iowa Humanistic Studies, vol. III. No. 2, of 1925-7. Again the italics are my own.