Learning through Oral History and Morphogenetic Family Fields
In one of our first classes, Warren taught us the first verse of a traditional Indian song. He began the class with a drone and had us repeat vocal warm-ups in order to acquaint ourselves with the intervals in the scale. These fragments were then, piece by piece, combined to form a small melody. At this point, he broke away from the melody to have us repeat 5 or 6 spoken syllables. He then sang the completed piece with the full text and had us sing along when we heard the syllables that we had just learned. Now we had a somewhat ‘fleshy’ skeleton of the piece that we were able to fill out with the missing syllables. After about 10 or 15 minutes the class had successfully learned the verse.)
In our session this week, three of us recollected the song to Krishna that we had learned a few weeks ago while the other five members tried to learn it. This time, though, it only took about 4 or 5 minutes for the class to be able to recite it (as opposed to the 10 or 15 minutes the time before).
This reminded me of Rupert Sheldrake’s studies with morphogenetic family fields. Stated in a question to anthropologist Terence McKenna, a morphogenetic field is “a non-material organizing collective memory field that affects all biological systems. The field can be envisioned as a hyper-spatial information reservoir that brims and spills over into a much larger region of influence when critical mass is reached – a point referred to as morphic resonance.” Basically, one can understand it as a collective memory bank where a species, through adaptation and evolution, stores knowledge that is passed on through future generations of that species. Sheldrake elaborates that
each individual both draws upon and contributes to the collective memory of the species. This means that new patterns of behaviour can spread more rapidly than would otherwise be possible. For example, if rats of a particular breed learn a new trick in Harvard, then rats of that same breed should be able to learn the same trick faster all over the world, say in Edinburgh and Melbourne. There is already evidence from laboratory experiments that this actually happens.
In this case, knowledge is not limited to growth by future generations, but in fact is immediate.
This seems to be evident in our classroom. It took half the time for the class to learn the song when there were members present who had already learned it than it did when none of us knew it. In relation to this, Sheldrake determines that “animals inherit the successful habits of their species as instincts. We inherit bodily, emotional, mental and cultural habits, including the habits of our languages.” This could also go to explaining the pattern of oral history and tradition that makes our species unique. Warren mentioned in class that oral tradition was learning based upon the human love of imitation. I agree with this, but I also believe that, on a similar scale, oral tradition exists because of our innate capability of memory. Sheldrake in fact proposes that memory is inherent in nature. In this way I see oral learning and history as divided into these two factors; imitation and remembrance.
I watched a series of video clips this week on YouTube of Warren and his teacher, S. G. Devasthali, in a lesson (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4qibmXtTN0). The way in which he learned the ragas was similar to the way in which he taught pieces to our class. There was a call and response throughout the lesson, where his teacher would sing a fragment of the melody which Warren would repeat. The fragments were eventually compiled and through this repetition, he remembered them. This is the basis of oral tradition; imitation and memory. Repetition may also be listed as a component of oral tradition, perhaps as a subset of imitation.
It is interesting that, while he worked with our class, the song was essentially shattered in numerous fragments (phrases, pitches, syllables, physical expressions of the mouth, etc.) which we pieced together in a variety of different ways. I could almost envision a matrix of possible combinations, which after a number of these combinations had been tested, an image of the piece as a whole became more clear. It seems to me that this method is effective in that a deeper understanding of the material is achieved, where one not only learns the song front to back, but now knows its inner workings and could perhaps sing it back to front, or even from middle outwards. This also relates to a matrix, lets say in 12 tone music, where all possible combinations are visible at once (all of the inversions, retrogrades, and retrograde inversions for each transposition of the prime series).
Later in the class, we began to learn the second part of the Krishna lullaby. I was reminded of a piece by Milton Babbitt for soprano and piano (or tape) where, in addition to his systems of 12 tone and duration rows, he devised a system where each pitch was assigned a syllable. In this way, the text of the piece emerged from the music or from the system, rather than the music emerging from a set text. For me, this was similar in that learning this Indian song (where my knowledge of the language is next to none), each pitch or melodic fragment was assigned a syllable or, in a sense, a syllabic motif. It is interesting that in this case, in both pieces, there is a supreme unity to the sound. One piece (the one from class) the music emerged from the text, and the other (the Babbitt piece) the text emerged from the music. Either way, both utilizing a language unintelligible to my ears, both pieces felt solid and complete.