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Monday, November 3, 2008

The Music of Independence


Dr. Lester CN Simon

Shakespeare was wrong. Music is not the food of love. Music is the food of life. Since music is the universal language, we can learn a lot about life and people by understanding some of the basic tools that are used in music composition.

There are many tools available to the composer of music but when we regard the basic ones used for two instruments or two voices, these tools fall into easily definable categories. The relationship between the two instruments or voices of a duo is conceptually similar to the way two persons or groups of people communicate. With the diverse groups of nationalities in Antigua and Barbuda, we might learn something from understanding the basic tools deployed in composing music for a duo.

Imitation is one of the primary devices composers use to blend two voices. A theme or motif is stated in one voice and it is repeated by the second voice. This requires space and time. It is as if a master and an apprentice are at work. The apprentice has to carefully observe the master and be prepared to repeat the master’s theme in the right space and at the appropriate time. Whilst the repeat is taking place, the master may be waiting by playing a prolonged note or simple phrase or he may create a new, more complex theme that the apprentice will have to repeat as well. Many visitors imitate what they see the natives do. We have to be careful that we are not wrongly blaming non-nationals when they are simply imitating us.

Another way in which two voices can merge is by parallel motion. In this method, the voices move in the same direction. The primary voice is higher than the secondary one and both voices are separated by the same interval throughout the theme. This is similar to the realization by non-nationals that the primary focus is on the national, at least until they, the non-national, have become equipped to carry the primary melody.

The third way to write music for two voices is to use contrary motion. In contrary motion, the two voices are moving in opposite direction and the degree of separation is variable. At this stage, the secondary voice is striving to be unique but this uniqueness must be predicated on the ability to master the imitation and parallel modes of expression first, before stepping out on the more difficult contrary motion.

The fourth way is called oblique motion. In oblique motion, one voice stays on the same level or pitch while the other voice moves up or down. This is a testing period in which the primary voice can remain on the same pitch to allow the secondary voice to show its motion. It is the most crucial stage in preparation for the fifth and most complex form of composition or interrelationship between two instruments, voices or groups of people.

Finally, we come to counterpoint. This is the most complex form of composition for two voices because each voice is carrying an independent melody and yet when both melodies are put together, they ring out a beautiful and wholesome harmony that constitutes the oneness of the music. Diversity, yes; but separation and oneness, at one and the same time, must attend a single song.

We are familiar with many songs that use these compositional tools. We recall singing a musical form called the round in school in which everyone sings the same melody but we start singing at different times. There are many serious types of music that use this compositional tool but the tunes most familiar to us include: Row, Row, Row Your Boat; London’s Burning; Three Blind Mice. Some may initially classify these rounds as imitations but since different parts are being sung at the same time, the independent effect and the overall oneness are essentially the defining fundamentals of counterpoint.

If the different voices must attend to a single, national tune, why on the sacred earth on my native land must my tax dollars pay for the news on our national television station being read in Spanish? Why do patients at Holberton hospital need a Spanish dictionary to understand not just what the Cuban doctors and nurses are saying but also to comprehend what our own Antiguan and Barbudan doctors who were trained in Cuba are quixotically encouraging?

And why, in 2008, just a few days shy of the commemoration of twenty seven years of independence, do I have to gesticulate by pointing to a moving vehicle and to my stranded garbage bags in my vehicle to ask a Spanish cleaning woman emptying the garbage from the bins at the corner of St. Mary’s and Cross Streets, if the garbage truck has passed by already? Because she does not understand English. Rubbish. Because she watches the television news in Spanish and she has been to Holberton, without a dictionary. More rubbish. Remember the time when some unfaithful national went up his fundament and precipitated my exit by conducting part of our independence service in Spanish? And why, just to give the Spanish a break, do I hear more Jamaican music than our own music in Antigua and Barbuda?

We have to determine what defines us as Antiguans and Barbudans. It seems to me that we are known for two things: welcoming people and migrating. Not only must non-nationals be taught and be exposed to the history and culture of Antigua and Barbuda, we must know our own history and culture first. We must foster links between us and our overseas, estranged and prodigal Antiguan and Barbudan brethren.

When myriad voices of nationalities sing the independence of counterpoint without a defining, wholesome song, music becomes noise, the food of nothingness. Shakespeare would have been dead wrong and bitterly disappointed.

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