EOL 2: Russian panpipe playing (Velitchkina)


Russian panpipe distribution map
Figure 1
Pan-flute distribution map
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Theoretical premises

The physical aspects of musical performance, the importance of which was pointed out earlier by Hornbostel (1928:49) or Merriam (1964:103-105), became an object of ethnomusicological research starting with the works of John Blacking (e.g., 1955a,b, 1961, 1977). Later important contributions to this topic were made by Gerhard Kubik (1979, 1985) and John Baily (1985, 1990, etc.). Recent studies from diverse geographical regions and cultural settings (for example, Kawaguchi 1982, Yung 1984, Stone 1994) suggest that the relationship between music and movements is pronounced in many cultures, and often reflected in native terminology, conceptual thought and learning practices.

Blacking discusses the biology of music making from two related standpoints: the role of movement, seen as one of fundamental non-verbal types of human expressive behavior in the music-making process and the issue of structural relationships between the music and players' body movements. The quality of human feelings, which is a primary object of study for the anthropology of the body, is not usually communicated verbally, but rather experienced as somatic states shared by the members of a community. A musical performance is a perfect example of such an experience: "music-making is most exciting when performers and instruments are one, and being played; and this is something that is infectious and felt by audiences" (Blacking 1977:7). This observation leads us to the most fundamental justification for approaching music from the perspective of body movements: it provides a new insight into the nature of music and its effects on both performers and listeners.

The issue of the structural relationship between motor and sound patterns calls for an approach similar to that of structural linguistics.(1) Blacking, for example, identifies the movements involved in musical production as some sort of 'deep structure' that underlies various surface sound structures, although he does not use linguistic terminology (1955a,b, 1961). In his description of Nsenga Kalimba music he points out that "the most significant common factors of the Kalimba tunes are not their melodic structures, but the recurring patterns of 'fingering' which, combined with different patterns of polyrhythm between the two thumbs, produce a variety of melodies." He concludes that the tunes are "variations on a theme, but the theme is physical and not purely musical" (1961:29).

The grammar approach emphasises the process of music-making, rather than simply studies the music which results from it. Since generating musical sequences in performance is not limited to sound structures, but has important physical aspects, it also reveals itself in body movements. The physical dimension of the music-making process can be analysed in parallel with the sound dimension, and certain structural features of the music can be explained by the underlying motor movements. The results of this analysis are formulated in terms of panpipe "motor grammar," i.e. vocabulary of movements and rules for their sequencing, which determine "the way movements are put together, as simultaneous combinations and as movement sequences, and which can generate novel sequences of movement, and hence of music" (Baily 1990:202). The performance can be described from the perspective of body movements as a "sequential retrieval of motor programs which together constitute a vocabulary of patterns"(1985:211).

Analysis of the performance process can also benefite from the use of probability moderls. Statistical methods and the construction of probability matrices (Markov chain) offered in Wim van Zanten's analysis of Malawian pango music (1983) provide an insight in Russian panpipe music as well.

Russian panpipe music seems to be particularly appropriate for examination from analytical perspectives formulated by Baily and van Zanten. The musical repertoire of this tradition, the structure of the pieces, and the morphology of the instrument itself are relatively simple, while the panpipe player's movements are clearly visible, making construction of a "motor grammar" feasible. The players' own view (expressed in local terminology and metaphors) confirms the importance of movements and their connections with dance and work movements, suggesting that the movements on the instrument can be a part of broader "movement vocabulary" of the local tradition as a whole (cf. Lomax 1968:171, 224). On the other hand, some of panpipe movement patterns are determined by the basic properties of this instrument, so that breathing and movement skills must be similar for panpipes around the world, while the spatial arrangements of the instrument may vary. Studying panpipe music from the perspective of the movement and breathing patterns involved, we can, following the terminology proposed by Baily, describe the instrument as a transformer device, or a "translator" of human body movements into patterns of musical syntax.

The movements are understood here as body "gestures": the breathing, head movements with respect to the pipes (choice of a pipe at a given point in time) and vocal sound production (quasi-verbal gestures). These basic motor movements will be discussed in the present paper using examples of panpipe playing from the villages of the south part of Kursk province (especially, the village of Plekhovo of the Sudzha district), one of the places where the Russian panpipe tradition is preserved. Since the phenomena of panpipe playing in Russia is practically unknown to non-Russian readers, the following section will provide a short description of this tradition and its place among other panpipe traditions of the world.

Ethnography of the Russian panpipe tradition

Pan-flute music in Russia is found only in small groups of villages in two non-contiguous localities, one on the border between present-day Briansk and Kaluga provinces, the other in South Kursk province, roughly 200 to 350 miles south-west of Moscow. Although the two local versions of this tradition have many similarities, the historical relationship between them and the path of the instrument's transmission remain problematic due to the lack of documentary evidence of panpipe existence in Russia before the 19th century.(2) The map in figure 1 shows the approximate geographical borders of this phenomenon as it existed about half a century ago. This map is based on archival sources and interviews with elderly people who remember panpipe being played previously in their villages. Today this tradition is extinct in all but a few villages.

Figure 1: Map shows panpipe distribution in Russia. Two panpipe zones are located South-West of Moscow, near the borders with Ukraine. The nearest towns are Briansk and Kursk.

panpipe ensemble w/close-ups
Video 1
panpipe ensemble
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video 1 thumbnail

Compared with panpipe musics around the world, the Russian tradition cannot claim to have a particularly rich and complex repertoire. Despite its apparent simplicity, however, it has attracted the attention of several prominent scholars in Russia, among them Kliment Kvitka and Anna Rudneva.(3) In their opinion, this apparently old and even archaic musical practice has many unusual features not present for any other instrument in the Russian tradition. Pan-flute playing is an exclusively female domain of musical activity, with each member of the group having a limited number of untied pipes and playing her part in a complementary rhythmic relationship with the others. In addition, one or more players in the group produces vocal sounds in counterpoint with the playing of her pipes.

Video 1: Four women playing pipes in the ensemble, with close-ups of each.

  On first listening, this music seems closer to African forms (for example, to the Ba-Benzele pygmy music) than to any European folk instrument traditions. Yet panpipe musical practices similar in many respects to those of Russia are found across Europe on limited territories of Serbia, Romania, Komi Republic (North Russia, Ugro-Finnish population) and Lithuania.(4) These panpipe traditions, including the Russian one, although not necessarily the closest in terms of geographical or ethnic proximity, share one or more typical features. Important for the following discussion is the fact that panpipe performance in the above-mentioned traditions can be described as essentially motor, in contrast with another style of panpipe playing, exemplified by the Romanian nai and Ukrainian svyril. The latter instruments have a greater number of pipes (up to 17 pipes for the Ukrainian and even more for the Romanian panpipes) and playing is more oriented toward production of melody by a solo musician. When the panpipe is used as an ensemble instrument (as is the case in Russia) with each player having very limited number of pipes, the music-making is centred around the task of group co-ordination and synchronization of movements rather than production of individual melodies.

There is no single commonly accepted name for panpipe in Russia. In every locality where the instrument existed it was referred to differently (dudki, kuvikly, vikushki, etc.). In the villages in the south of Kursk province whose panpipe performance practice is analyzed here, the name of the instrument is kugikly . This word is dialect and not used in literary Russian; its origin is most likely onomatopoetic. The villagers themselves sometimes explain it as an imitation of birds' calls or the vocal sounds produced by the players (cf. Rudneva 1975: 141).

Traditionally, a group of panpipe players in the villages of South Kursk region would perform in an ensemble with other instruments played exclusively by men. This ensemble included, along with the panpipes, two wooden flutes (dudka and pyzhatka), a reed instrument (rozhok), string instruments - a fiddle, and a balalaika, and recently also an accordion. The music was played to accompany round dances, called karagod (dialect form of common Russian khorovod) held on major religious holidays. Performances of ensembles consisting of only panpipe players (most commonly 3-4 women) were not uncommon on lesser occasions, such as women going to and from the work in the fields, while watching the gardens, or gathering in the evenings on village streets. Solo panpipe playing, although possible in some contexts, - for example, while doing house work alone or herding geese (a typical occupation for teen-age girls in the past) - was considered as a learning experience rather than a full-fledged musical performance. The repertoire of pieces was the same for all these occasions, and common for all the above-mentioned instruments. For each village, the repertoire consisted of several dance tunes. They were referred to by the first lines of the verses frequently sung with this melody.(5) The repertoires of neighboring villages usually overlapped. The total number of dance pieces known in the region of panpipe dissemination was about 15, although the number of titles for them is three times greater. Most of them, however, fell out of usage half-century ago, and today's panpipe repertoire includes only 3 or 4 pieces.

Today, with old-time village life undergoing radical changes, typical traditional contexts for playing panpipes are disappearing. In some (but not all) South Kursk villages, the situation developed in such a way that local musicians, including kugikly (panpipe) players, became involved in stage performances with some opportunity to tour locally and internationally (the ensemble of the village of Plekhovo, for example, frequently performed at ethnographic concerts in Moscow and other Russian cities, and even participated in the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in 1991). Outside of the stage context, the tradition of kugikly playing today is largely discontinued. However, elderly women, such as those whom I met during my fieldwork, remember well the old practices and were keen to explain, show and teach at my request. Most of them do not participate in any kind of public displays or stage performances, but do play with me during our meetings and music-making sessions.

When I first attempted to play kugikly in the village of Plekhovo, one of the main sites of my fieldwork, I tried to learn to reproduce the music exactly. This did not yield any success, however: I could neither play for a long time myself, nor maintain the required co-ordination with the other players in the group. Even after the initial hyperventilation problem common to all panpipe novices disappeared, the experience of playing, notwithstanding its sound results, seemed tiring, hectic and unpleasant, while notably lacking the "groove", and that made me wonder how my elderly teachers could play much longer than I and enjoy it without showing any sign of fatigue or gasping for breath. My mistake was, as I realized later, that with my previous musical experience I was concentrating my efforts on the musical structure, without first trying to analyze and imitate the physical movements of the players. This initial practical challenge of playing provided an impulse that shaped my interest in the motor behavior which I sensed was behind this music and to a certain extent governed its structure.

This problem is familiar to any ethnomusicologist who makes learning to play an instrument part of his research methodology. From practical experience we know that the movement may account for correct articulation of sounds, which is often seen as an important part of a tune's identity by the performers themselves. The ease and regularity of the movement can also explain certain turns of the melody and even important aspects of the musical structure of a tune. Indeed, as Baily, Kubik and many other fieldworkers have observed, in order to reproduce the music correctly, one has to learn to move in the right way on the instrument (Baily 1985: 241, also in Kubik 1979: 229, and 1985: 57-58). Beyond correct reproduction of sound, experience with movement on the instrument is crucial for this research. Through mastering an instrument, a researcher achieves the quality that cognitive and experimental psychologists call a skilled motor performance. It is characterized by being faster and more fluent, expressive and creative, than in the unskilled versions of the same activity (Shaffer 1981: 326). It is in this way, as Blacking contemplates, "the observer's body may serve as a diagnostic tool" for anthropologists, whose task is "to experience others' bodies through our own bodies and to learn more about some of the somatic states that we can understand but about which we know little beyond the inadequate verbal descriptions of our society."(1977:6).

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