On the Two Types of War / Joshua Alan Sturgill
I often think about the nature of music. Almost no day passes without my listening to music somewhere—at home, in a shop, at work. I have friends who are passionate about this or that genre or band or singer, and can discuss details of the lives of musicians for hours without losing their enthusiasm. But in the course of these conversations, we almost never discuss the two most basic kinds or modes of music: monophonic and polyphonic.
When I was studying music history in college, one of our reading assignments concerned the ‘development’ of music from monophonic “one voice” to polyphonic “many voices.” The writer assumed the superiority of polyphony, and declared the pre-modern (and nearly universal) use of monophony as primitive and immature. Monophonic music was, for that author, the music of unenlightened cultures.
At the time, I accepted this position. Renaissance history—and we are children of the Renaissance—states emphatically that polyphony was invented by Europeans and grew out of simple monastic chants and folk tunes. This idea is not quite true (the ancient Georgians had polyphony), but is the accepted understanding of what we now call Classical music.
Since my history of music days, I have had to revise my opinion that polyphony and monophony are later and earlier stages on a trajectory of increasing complexity. To put it simply, my current belief is that while polyphonic music harmonizes with itself (and can do so with extraordinary brilliance), monophonic music harmonizes with nature.
This change in my understanding came about gradually, but I can describe two particular moments. First, I was reading The Tale of Genji, with its lush and full-bodied descriptions of Japanese court life. The clothes, the ceremonies, the gardens—all were clearly part of a whole, single expression of cosmology. Part of this whole was the presence of monophonic music, either the music of a woodwind instrument which plays notes singly, or of a stringed instrument like a harp played unaccompanied.
Second, I began to re-consider vocal music from traditional cultures. Byzantine chant, for example, can have two parts sung simultaneously, but one part is likely an “ison”—a vocal part of one note that underlies and supports the movement of the melody. This style of singing is meant to elevate the words being sung, rather than enhance the beauty of the music as such.
The two modes, monophony and polyphony, are not incompatible, but their aims are distinct. Polyphony, to reach its full potential, requires a shutting out of other sight and sound, as these distract the listener from concentrating on the inner harmonies of the music. It is music best heard in a concert hall, seated, indoors. Monophony, on the other hand, invites the listener to hear, see, smell, and imagine. Monophony brings sky and earth into the art. Monophonic music is meant to refer not only to itself, but to the poetry, dance or ceremony around it. In short, it is meant to compliment and adorn its environment.
Though I appreciate the extraordinary achievements of the great European composers, I find that monophonic music expresses something more transcendent: a kind of selflessness—a selfless response to the amazement invoked by the beauty of the world and a wish not to distract, but to participate in this beauty.