Monday, June 17, 2013

Audiences and Tradition

ἔσπετε νῦν μοι Μοῦσαι Ὀλύμπια δώματ᾽ ἔχουσαι:
ὑμεῖς γὰρ θεαί ἐστε πάρεστέ τε ἴστέ τε πάντα,
ἡμεῖς δὲ κλέος οἶον ἀκούομεν οὐδέ τι ἴδμεν
(Iliad 2.484-486)

Tell me now, Muses, you who have Olympian abodes,
since you are goddesses and you are present for all that happens and you know everything,
while we only hear the kleos and we know nothing

Nikola: All right, but when you've learned my song, would... you sing it exactly as I do?
Sulejman: I would.
N: You wouldn't add anything... nor leave anything out?
S: I wouldn't... by Allah I would sing it just as I heard it. ...It isn't good to change or to add.
(Lord, The Singer of Tales, 27)

The notion of “innovation” is one of the most difficult ones that we grapple with when we, as members of a highly literate culture that prizes creativity and the concept of “genius,” encounter an oral tradition that explicitly claims not to prize it. Just as the South Slavic singers that Milman Parry and Albert Lord interviewed with the help of Nikola Vujnović claimed to always sing their songs the same way every time, so too the Homeric narrator claims to repeat exactly what he has heard from the Muses, because he himself “knows nothing.” In such a tradition, the poet claims that his song is the truth, and as such it must be unchanging. In reality, we as outside observers of the tradition, can demonstrate that in fact the songs do change from performance to performance and tradition, far from being fixed and static, dynamically evolves over time. But for the singers on the inside of the tradition, the song remains notionally unchanging.

What, then, is “genius” in an oral tradition? What distinguishes one poet from another? We should first acknowledge that in even asking this question we are revealing our own bias. But as Milman Parry himself put it [Parry 1932, 12-14 (= Parry 1971, 334-35)]: “One oral poet is better than another not because he has by himself found a more striking way of expressing his own thought but because he has been better able to make use of the tradition. . . . The fame of a singer comes not from quitting the tradition but from putting it to the best use.”

I have explored the history of our modern Western struggle with separating genius from innovation when it comes to Homer in a lengthy essay called “The Invention of Ossian” (available here). In this post I would like to approach the question a little differently by considering the role of performance and audience in the shaping of tradition.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a concert by Fleetwood Mac, a band that reached its peak of album sales and popularity in the mid-to-late 1970s. All the members of the band are much older now and their vocal abilities are no longer what they once were, and yet the giant arena in Houston (the Toyota Center) was sold out, and the band gave an outstanding three hour performance that thrilled the crowd. Why did we all pay so much money to attend this performance, when we could have listened to a technically superior version of all the songs on CD or mp3? There is something primal, it seems to me, in our desire to gather together as a community to hear music. Even today in 2013, in the fourth biggest city of the United States, in a giant basketball arena full of strangers, we still seek to experience music with other people. As disparate from each other as we all were, we were united through our shared love of the music for the duration of the performance. That experience, I would argue, is one that we can share however distantly with the traditional audiences of the Homeric or South Slavic epic traditions, whose members would have been united by their deep familiarity with and love of the poetry of their traditional culture. Because such poetry was experienced only in performance, I would argue that there would have been an even more important bond between the experience of performance and the connection between audience members generated by the performance.

Another aspect of the concert had me thinking about Homer. As much as we appreciate live performance today for its communal aspects, and for the interaction it creates between performer(s) and audience, there is inevitably a certain pull that we feel towards the “traditional” way of doing the song - that is the version that we know from our ipods and CDs, the version we have heard countless times. At this particular concert, as thrilled as I was to hear the legendary Stevie Nicks singing live, I was disappointed that many songs had been rearranged to better suit her now more limited vocal range. I'm sure we all would have preferred the arrangements with which we were all very familiar. Moroever, there were times during the concert when the band performed some new material. The energy in the room substantially dropped; people sat down, went to the concession stand, or the bathroom. This got me thinking: what other form of entertainment or art is like this? If your favorite tv show comes out with a new episode, or your favorite novelist comes out with a new novel, you are delighted and race to view it/read it. Yet here we all were disappointed that the band was singing a new song. I don't think this is only the case for bands like Fleetwood Mac who were popular 35 years ago. I can remember going to an R.E.M. concert when I was young and experiencing the same sensation. I can't remember what the new songs were that R.E.M. performed that night. For all I know they may have been their next number 1 hits, but in that moment of performance, I wanted what I already knew - and so did the rest of the audience.

Unlike a modern band, the traditional singers of the South Slavic or Homeric traditions did not need to sell new albums. There were of course no albums to sell or equipment on which to play them. The singers made their living performing live what audiences wanted to hear, and it seems that what they wanted to hear were the songs that they all knew and loved. It is hard for us to get our heads around the fact that the best singers would not have been the ones thrilling their audiences with a new song or a new way of telling the story. But perhaps it can help us to understand this process better if we realize that this kind of poetry was only experienced in performance, which is to say, before an audience who knows the song already and has to be pleased.

There is something about live performance that creates community and thereby reinforces tradition. “Newness” is not what is wanted or called for in that moment. And yet newness does happen. The songs at the Fleetwood Mac concert were sung a bit differently (though still, ultimately, they were “the same”) and new songs were performed. Audience interaction contributed to and shaped what transpired. The tradition was perpetuated, but was also evolving, through performance.

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