Performance Style Research

World Regions

In 1961, Alan Lomax, anthropologist Conrad Arensberg, and an interdisciplinary team began a series of comparative studies of human communication in relation to culture. Their hypothesis was that every performance tradition incorporates behavior patterns that are important for human continuity and play a fundamental role in the transmission of culture. They looked for qualities of sung, danced, and spoken communication that are both commonly observable and universally present, and applied them to the analysis of recordings and film.

Their first finding was that, in the majority of performances in a culture, the same features reoccur in a characteristic pattern, regardless of content or message. These familiar elements and combinations constitute the "style" of performance, and are what people unconsciously expect and respond to as culture members. They concluded moreover that as such phenomena tend to be stable and strictly patterned, they must have arisen it in connection with old modes of human adaptation.

In one culture, distinctive ways of handling organization, energy, force, space, timing, sequence, dominance, and gender in diverse contexts link behaviors of different classes (e.g., movement and music). Style analysis is thus a method of operationalizing theorized connections between the artistic and the social, and between one expressive system and another.

This model treats performance as a structured flow of communication that symbolizes shared domains of behavior and interaction within a culture–the unconscious organization of ordinary public behavior. It is a synthesis of Lomax's own observations with scientific research into the reflexive, "instinctive" manifestations of culture, in particular Arensberg's interaction theory, Raymond Birdwhistell's kinesics, and George Trager and H. L. Smith's paralinguistics.

From 1961 to 1995, several related studies were carried out at Columbia University and then at Hunter College. These were Cantometrics, Choreometrics and Parlametrics (parallel studies of song, dance, and speech style); Instruments and orchestration; Phonotactics (the combinations of phonemes in singing); Minutage (timing in singing); Voice Qualities; Folk Song Texts; and Popular Music.

The raw data were samples of recordings and films of music, dance, and speech collected from the main regions of the world. Lomax, Arensberg and their team of specialists developed systems of measurement for each of their datasets, then pairs of judges coded the examples. The codings were statistically analyzed, and factor analysis was applied to each dataset–singing, instrumentation, dance, etc. The resulting geographic and style factors were then cross-correlated between datasets. The data was also tested against a framework of sociocultural variables adapted from George P. Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas and other cross-cultural studies, resulting in a number of significant and thought-provoking correlations.

To date, the overall finding of the research is that the main variations in expressive traditions trace the limits imposed by environment and society and attest to historic and prehistoric migrations and meetings between peoples. Statistical analysis yields geo-classifications and clusters of cultural traditions; hypotheses linking performance factors and culture; and an evolutionary taxonomy of culture according to performance style. Cantometrics has been tested against genetic data to confirm links between peoples in Sub-Saharan Africa and in Taiwan and Polynesia. Alan Lomax had predicted such outcomes in the mid-1950s when he began thinking about song style.

Distinguished anthropologist Conrad Arensberg co-directed the project for over twenty-five years. Other team members included musicologist Victor Grauer; movement analysts Irmgard Bartenieff and Forrestine Paulay; linguists Edith Trager Johnson, Fred C. Peng, and Norman Markel; anthropologists Barbara Ayres and Edwin E. Erikson; programmer and statistician Norman Berkowitz; musician Roswell Rudd; programmer Michael del Rio; and multi-media producer Gideon D'Arcangelo. Other contributors included ethnomusicologists Robert Garfias, Jeff Titon, and Andrew Kaye; dance analyst Mary Lobel; anthropologists Monika Vizedom, Joan Halifax, and Stephanie Krebs; editor Carol Kulig; and folklorists Bess Lomax Hawes and Ethel Raim.

The research was administered by Columbia University and Hunter College and supported by the National Institutes of Mental Health, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Science Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Apple Corporation, and numerous other private foundations and corporations.






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