3.1. The fundamentals of the music style of the Nenets

The following outlines some of the main parameters through which it is possible to define further the special features of the Nenets singing style. All these dimensions concern mainly the traditional style, which is undergoing changes connected with the processes of westernization and folklorization, and also, connected to these, revitalization.

1) Vocality. The Nenets musical style is based on singing, the human voice. The musical instruments, like instant aerophones or idiophones, are marginal, and they are not used to accompany singing. This is also the case with the shaman drum (pyenzyer’), which was used as a ritual instrument, functioning as a symbolic medium in the ritual and an instrumental aid in the shaman’s trance technique, and not at all as an accompanying rhythmic instrument. However, nowadays, as a result of revitalization and folklorization of the musical traditions, newly made drums are sometimes used in stage performances as rhythmic instruments.

2) Solo singing. The singing is individual solo singing. There are no musically coordinated group performances. There are some mentions and interpretations of audience participation in the ritual singing (cf. Gáldi 1978, 132, commented in Niemi 1995, 145), but they are of quite dubious reliability or they are not strictly connected to the Nenets.

3) Tonal substance. The ranges of the melodies are narrow, consisting usually of few tones. Occasionally, however, the borderlines of the melodic segments can be emphasized with interval leaps exceeding the average tonal range of the song. The big interval leaps are more common in the regional styles of the Western Nenets. First, the interval organization can be described as anhemitonic. This definition does not, however, fully reflect the expressive and tonally transforming musical performance and intonation. And in addition to that, there are numerous melodies, the few tones of which undulate constantly in the interval range of about a whole-step. Second, they can be described as oligotonic (see: Aizenshtadt & Sheykin (1990, 90), citing Kvitka (1971, 274)1), to emphasize the minimal number (1-4) of the tones in a melody and their small interval distances. This is also not a comprehensive way of characterizing the tonal system, because of the aforementioned interval leaps. Third, the interval organization can be described as khazmatonic (cf. Wiora 1956, 195), if emphasizing the predominance of the few leaping intervals in a melody.

However, the size of the intervals tends to change during the performance: because of the solistic, unaccompanied and uncoordinated nature of the songs, the interval structures can be processual: the exact size of the intervals in similar places in a melodic curve may change notably during the performance. Therefore the tonal structure in the Nenets songs can be desribed as processual anhemitonic, with oligotonic and khazmatonic features. The melodic line is essentially undulating and horizontal, which means that it is quite common for the melody to circulate around the fundamental tone during the whole performance. True, in longer performances, the pitch of the fundamental tone tends to rise notably, which eventually results in breaks in the singing and a start of the new melodic passage from lower level.

As such, this kind of melodic type is quite common in the Arctic, and especially in the Western Siberia, compared, for example, to the Southwest Siberian Turkic regions, where the melodic movement is descending. As an illustrative example of this, the Selkup Samoyeds have a variety of singing styles, owing to their being scattered among different areas of the Western Siberian river systems. In the North, along the river Taz, the melodic movement tends to be undulating-horizontal, whereas in South, at the rivers Tym and Ket, the melodic movement is clearly descending (in the range of an octave). (cf. Niemi 1994, 115-116)

4) The existence of the pulse. The stress pattern of the syllables in a text line has perhaps a more important effect on the melodic rhythm, than any other factor in rhythmic coordination. This and the soloistic, unaccompanied character of performance result in highly processual and varying melodic rhythm. However, it is not correct to consider the melody as unmetric, because of the principles of isometric structures in the text and melodic lines. Furthermore because the isometric lines tend to iterate from the beginning of a song to its end, also the rhythmic shape of the melodic lines tend to be of the same type. The durations of the pitches are thus highly proportional, so that for example interpreting the durations as fixed combinations (with time signatures in transcription) adds very little to the analysis, because it suggests the existence of an underlying even pulse in the melody.

Ultimately, it would be most effective to describe a rhythm of a melodic line through the opposition of durational proportions, i.e. with short and long durations. This idea is already presented and applied by Lippus in her monography (1995, 28), an important study for insights of the structural features in non-European and especially native music. As regards this presentation, however, there are some regularities in the rhythmic manifestations in some of the Nenets songs, that have tempted me to apply - although somewhat contradictorily - a bit more detailed rhythmic interpretation, in order to see, whether there are some more subtle manifestations of rhythmic proportions.

5) The basic structure of the songs. The most important structural principle in the Nenets songs is that the text and melodic lines are isometric. The fixed, either hexa- or octosyllabic metre defines the range of the melodic line also, and all the lines in most of the songs are structurally identical with each other. It must be stated, however, that the manifestation of a text line can be very complex, because of the various prosodic means to produce sung language from spoken language (in more detail, see Niemi 1997b).

For such reasons, the Nenets song text structures remained somewhat unclear to the linguists until the end of 1980’s, when a Russian linguist Eugen Helimski published his innovative articles about the constancy of the hexa- and octosyllabic structures in Nenets song texts (1988, 1989). Some of the former researchers had already implied these kind of structures (Lotz 1954, Hajdú 1978), but Helimski indicated the invariability of these for the first time. The difference was that Helimski examined for the first time the deep levels of the syllabic structures. His further hypothesis was that the hexasyllabic line prevails in every song type, except in shamanistic songs, which tend to have a norm of octosyllabic text line. Thus it seems that there is a sharp division between shamanistic songs and other songs not only on musical, but especially on the textual level.

Usually there are two different melodic lines (sometimes only one, more seldom three or four). If there are two melodic lines, they tend to be grouped regularly, as for example AB AB AB...; AAB AAB AAB... etc. Thus, the verse form text is the fundamental for its transformation into a song. The word stress in Nenets is the most important factor determining the melody rhythm in a song (see: Niemi 1997, 205). While the word stress falls quite predictably on the initial syllable (or first syllable of any lexical segment of two syllables), it tends to produce some fundamental manifestations in the melody rhythm. As already mentioned (Niemi 1997a 205; 1997b XXX), the hexasyllabic text line structures are predominated by two fundamental syllabic groups, resulting in words containing different amount of syllables. The first can be called as a category of syllable groups organized on the principle of even amount of word-forming syllables (for example SS+SSSS, SS+SS+SS, SSSSSS or SSSS+SS). The second is a category of syllable groups organized on the principle of uneven amount of word-forming syllables (SSS+SSS and its derivatives). When this notion is combined with the stress pattern of the language, its manifestations in a melody rhythm and the principle of isometricity, it can be concluded, that these word-border categories tend to produce their own manifestations in the melodic rhythm.

The differences in the melodic rhythm (and also positions of the syllables) are manifested thorugh the predictability of the stress patterns between the spoken and sung language. The stressed syllables of the spoken language tend to remain unchanged while transformed into the sung language and the unstressed syllables of the spoken language tend to change into specific sung syllables in the process of their transformation into the sung language. The transformation of the unstressed syllables in the sung language increases their metric importance: they become more emphasized and some of them are located in the crucial final segments in the melodic line.

Schematized, this situation can be compared followingly.

1) Stressed syllables "S" of the spoken language in the two main types of the six-syllable strings (text lines, forming mainly these two-word combinations):

S      +      S             S      +      S      +      (S)      +      S
S      +      S      +      S             S      +       S       +      S

2) Stressed syllables "S" of the sung language in the two main types of the six-syllable strings (text lines):

S      +      S             S      +      (S)      +      S      +      S
S      +      S      +      S              S       +      S      +      S

3) Result, when these syllabic positions are synchronized according to their rhythm, given that the stressed syllables of the sung language have to coincide in the isometric framework:

S      +                     S               S      +      (S)      +      S      +      S

S      +      S      +      S               S      +       S       +      S     (+      FSS)

The main point here is, that there has to be some kind of rhythmic synchronization, when text lines belonging to the different word-border categories appear in a song and its rhythmic scheme. This happens quite often by densification of the time values of the SSS+SSS text line so, that the first stressed sung syllable coincides with the SS+SSSS text line. In the end of the line, however, the situation is different, due to the amount of the available syllables. It is quite common, that in the SSS+SSS type the final syllable is a (final) supplementary syllable, although not necessarily. A typical example of this is an individual song performed by Lyubov’ Nenyang. The basic metric scheme here (for the SS+SSSS-type) is based on three iambic foot (lines 2.-4. and 6.-8.). However, in the SSS+SSS type the syllables produce a scheme of anapest+iamb+long (line 9.)

Example 12. (Audio example not available.) Yadko Yadarta yabye’ sho. The adult individual song of Y.Y. (Mikhail Antonovich Kayarin).
Performance, recording, transcription of the text and its translation into Russian by Lyubov Prokop’yevna Nenyang, Dudinka 3/1995.
Transcription of the song, further transcription of the text and its translation into English by J.Niemi.


6) The sound production. Both the men and women tend to sing with slight laryngalisation, i.e they tend to produce the singing voice in the back of the throat. In individual songs the laryngalization is weaker, almost absent, and in the sung narrations it may be somewhat stronger (especially with men). The internal nature of the personal songs is often reflected in frustratingly reduced pronounciation of the song text. Deciphering the mumbled words of these kind of songs can be sometimes beyond the powers of other Nenets too.

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1 Kvitka, K. V. 1971. Izbrannïye trudï (v 2 tomakh; 1. tom). Moskva.