Sunday, October 08, 2006

Kalimba-bel's Canon?

Add yet another item to my already-bursting-at-the-seams List of Things So Obvious You'd Think I'd Have Realized Them a Long, Long Time Ago:

NPR has an occasional series called What's In a Song?, and on today's edition a fellow is interviewed about his rather strange lyrical exploration of Pachelbel's "Canon in D." Early in the interview, he comments that the kalimba, the West African "thumb-piano," is pitched in such a way (to descend the scale, the player starts with the right thumb then alternates between right and left thumbs) as to render precisely the initial, familiar note progression of the "Canon in D."

He goes on to say that he's of the opinion that the "Canon in D" serves as a melodic underpinning for a wide range of popular music, which his song also explores. But no, not me: I of course get stuck on the fascinating implications of the fact that, centuries and cultures apart from each other, a Baroque composer composed a melody for which the collective collaboration of untold numbers of West Africans had built an instrument to play that melody.

Jung's theory of archetypes is extraordinarily powerful, but it's employed, as you know, chiefly in discussions of certain narratives and visual images. I've just checked my copy of The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, and the word "music" isn't even listed in the index. A Google search yielded, mostly, New-Age-y discussions, though there is this brilliant discussion of, simultaneously, the ubiquity of certain chord progressions in (Western) popular music and a denial of the archetype of venturing-and-returning as corresponding to whatever Real Life is. Be that as it may, I cannot help but be seduced, at least for this morning, by the fancy that a non-Western culture built an instrument designed specifically to play one of the most-recognizable Western melodies ever composed--or ever likely to be composed.

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3 comments:

Winston said...

Excellent post, pulling together diverse symbols to support a common central thesis.

One simple example of it's influence that always comes to mind when I hear Pachebel's Canon is the childrens' song "School Days".

John B. said...

Winston,
Thanks for stopping by and commenting, first of all.
One other curious thing about the Canon's ubiquity: I read long ago that Western melodies tend to move up the scale--that is, from lower to higher pitches (by contrast, music made by Arab peoples tends to move down the scale). The Canon in D, though, also moves down the scale. Maybe that has something to do with why it has taken such firm root in our collective consciousness

Camille said...

hey, I heard that NPR broadcast too! I was cruising the streets of Bear Town. That guy was such a kick! I also had a deep encounter with The Canon when I was 12 and I composed about a dozen variations of my own.