Monophonic Texture

Monophonic chant is an almost universal phenomenon. It appears in a great many cultures throughout the world and across historical epochs, and not only in the Middle Ages. TheEagle Dance, part of an ancient Native American rain ceremony, is always accompanied by chant. This chapter’s recording captures the sounds of the dance as performed by the San Ildefonso Indians of New Mexico.

Learning Objectives

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2.1Discuss the universality of chant in world cultures.

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2.2Describe the use of monophony in Native American chant.

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2.3Describe patterning in North American Indian chant melodies.

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2.4Define vocables.

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2.5Explain what a powwow is and how it uses music.

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2.6Listen for the ABA form of the Eagle Dance.

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2.7Listen for the terraced downward contour of each melodic phrase in San Ildefonso Indians of New Mexico: Eagle Dance.

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Monophonic chant has long been—and remains—essential to sacred rituals throughout the world. Many Christians and Jews still incorporate chant in their religious services. The Hindu Vedas, Tibetan chants, Thai and Vietnamese Buddhist chants, as well as Confucian, Buddhist, Taoist, and shamanic chants in China, Korea, and Japan still play an important role in worship.

Chant is the predominant form of music in Native North American Indian culture. Where it has not died out from the effects of the nineteenth-century wars with Euro-American settlers, it survives on reservations. Native American chanting can be heard today primarily at powwows, intertribal gatherings where Native Americans of mixed tribes express their mutual bond and identity.

Each powwow begins with a “Grand Entry,” a procession of all the participants into the arena where the event is to be held. After all have entered, flags are brought into the arena, including various tribal flags and the U.S. flag, carried by military veterans. Next to enter are the tribal elders and honored guests, followed by the dancers, men first, then women. A round dance usually ends the opening ceremonies. Various groups then perform dances that range from war dances to religious and ceremonial dances. Each group competes for the best performance. Singers perform the traditional songs to accompany these dances, along with other musicians, primarily drummers. Some of the traditional dances performed include the gourd dance, grass dance, and jingle dance, and the fancy feather or eagle dance.

The Eagle Dance portrays the life cycle of the eagle, a creature regarded as the connecting link between heaven and earth. Two men in eagle feathers dance movements that imitate eagles turning, flapping, and swaying in the air. The eagle’s feathers bear prayers and are not allowed to touch the ground.

Eagle Dancers from the San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico

 

 

 

Exploring Eagle Dance

First, listen to the Eagle Dance performed by the San Ildefonso Indians of New Mexico, using the following prompts as a guide. Then read the discussion of how the elements of music operate in this chant.

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Texture: Notice that all voices sing in unison, singing one melodic line together throughout.

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Rhythm: Listen for the change from free rhythm at the beginning to duple meter later on.

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Melody: Listen for the consistently downward contour of each melodic unit.

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Form: Listen for the repetition of large-scale sections of the chant.

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♫ Listen to This First

San Ildefonso Indians of New Mexico, Eagle Dance

Texture: Monophony

Like the other forms of chant we have heard, the Eagle Dance consists of a single melodic line. It is sung by male voices in unison. Even the percussion instruments are conceived as “singing” the chant: Their sounds punctuate the rhythm of the chant rather than furnish a contrasting and independent rhythmic line. Nearly all Native American music is monophonic, and most often it is accompanied by percussion. In this performance, the drumming is done with a single drumstick. If a larger drum is used, several players strike the rhythm together.

Free versus Metered Rhythm

The opening section of this chant is in free rhythm: The voices move fluidly over a rapid pulsation of even drumbeats, and we hear no pattern of strong or weak beats. The bulk of the chant, however, is in duple meter, with a strong accent on the first beat of two- or four-beat units (1-2 | 1-2 | 1-2 or 1-2-3-4 | 1-2-3-4). The occasional change in tempo—the speed of the music—does not alter the underlying rhythm.

Melodic Contour

The melodic units of this chant move consistently downward. Each phrase begins on a relatively high note and moves to lower and lower pitches and eventually cadence on a low note. This pattern is typical of North American Indian chant melodies.

There are no “words” to this melody. In Native American culture, songs are believed to come from the spirit world. A song is transmitted through a person who hears it in a dream or revelation and then teaches it to others. Because songs are not about worldly matters, the words of humans have no place. Native American chant thus makes use of vocables—meaningless sung syllables, the sound of which is like a melodic instrument. Some syllables are more accented than others, and all syllables are sung as prescribed, for they are part of the song. This requires careful memorization.

Form: ABA

The chant for the Eagle Dance is in three sections, ABA, with a brief introduction. Each section has its own melody, built of smaller, repeating units. Varied vocable order at the end of each melody group creates contrast within each section.

The A melody consists of two phrases with identical vocables:

This melody occurs three times, on slightly different pitches, but with the same downward terraced contour. This means that the same basic melodic unit begins on a slightly lower note each time it is repeated. After the third time, vocables are sung in a varied order, creating a tapered ending for the A section.

The essential B melody consists of the shorter vocable set “Hey le ya,” likewise sung twice:

This melodic phrase is repeated. The third time, it varies slightly at the end and concludes with different vocables (hey ya ay):

This is followed by a compressed version of what has been sung so far:

Varied syllables bring this set of phrases to a close, and the music slows briefly. Then the entire pattern repeats, once again tapering off with a succession of varied syllables that bring the entire B section to a close.

Expand, Connect, and Review: Eagle Dance

Expand Your Playlist

Native American Music

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Creation’s Journey: Native American Music. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings SFW40410.

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Anthology of North American Indian and Eskimo Music. Folkways Records FW04541.

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Cry from the Earth: Music of the North American Indians. Folkways Records FW37777. These are all good anthologies that give an overview of Native American musical styles.

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Hopi Sunshield Singers, Pow-Wow Songs Live!  Canyon CR-6180. Intertribal powwow songs recorded live.

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An Historical Album of Blackfoot Indian Music. Folkways Records FW34001.These historic recordings are from cylinder recordings made in the 1920s and 1930s; while the sound quality is not the best, the performances are rare and interesting.

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Blackfire, One Nation Under.  Canyon CR-7049. Blackfire is a group of Native American siblings who play what they describe as “fire-ball alternative punk.” Joey Ramone makes a guest appearance on this disc. Political lyrics comment on the plight of Native Americans.

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Connect Your Playlist

Vocables

Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” (1988). Pop/jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin has made a career out of his amazing vocal abilities. In this song, a number-one pop hit, McFerrin uses vocables to imitate the sound of a funky bass and a synthesizer, among other instruments.