“The Spectral Image of Dreamtime”

At 9 o’clock in the morning on Saturday, April 2, 2011, I found myself sitting in a conference room on the top floor of the BU Photonics Center building, pen and paper in hand, ready to start a day full of ethnomusicology. If you read my earlier entry, you’ll remember that I attended a NECSEM conference: the Northeast Chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology. Broken down into half hour lectures, I attended a good number of talks about various and diverse subjects.

Having gotten a copy of the schedule prior to the conference day, I had actually decided to listen to the other talk being given at 9am; not the one entitled “The Spectral Image of Dreamtime”. That lecture was going to be on “A Music Analytic Perspective on Locality in Malaysian-Tamil Hip-Hop”. However, I accidentally went to the wrong room. I happen to think that this accident was fate, though, because the moment that Scott Borg of the New England Conservatory started speaking about his research, I knew I was in for a treat. “Dreaming is sacred to the Aboriginal people of Australia,” Mr. Borg began. (We totally just finished studying the Aboriginal culture of Australia in class last week!) Mr. Borg focused his talk on the didgeridoo, an instrument native to Australia and its inhabitants of over roughly 68,000 years. I’ll give you a brief outline of what we learned in class, and then I’ll speak about Mr. Borg’s talk.

Australian Aboriginal music speaks directly to certain areas of land and other locations. The culture referenced in their songs has been their way of claiming territory for many centuries. However, the political significance of their songs has only recently come into play due to the tensions created by the introduction of the Europeans and the European mindset around 1788. Unfamiliar with and seemingly unwilling to adjust to the native system and culture, these Europeans took over the land without much consideration of the preexisting system of ownership. Aboriginal rights to the lands, originally linked to the clans with which the people were associated, were essentially forgotten when the Europeans arrived.

The songs of the Aboriginal people have always been a significant part of their culture. Within so many of the songs, links between the spiritual and physical realities can be found. The texts of the songs can connect people with places of their homeland. The “yothu-yindi” lands, or lands of each clan, embody male and female aspects of their society. Yothu-yindi lands bordering one another are connected by waters that represent the spiritual essence of each clan’s identity. With this understanding of the Aboriginal people and their culture, we see that this system of culture and song is one of the strongest cases of song and music connected to the physical land of a culture. This makes the case that music can create a place, a physical identity. (More on this another time.)

So, not knowing exactly what I was getting myself into, I listened to Mr. Borg talk about the didgeridoo and its effects on the dreams of the Aboriginal people. First of all, you might be asking yourself, “what is a didgeridoo?!?!” Perhaps the video below will help you to better understand what the instrument looks like as well as what it sounds like.

Mr. Borg asserts that the vibrations made by the instrument while being played are fundamental to the dream state. These vibrations, created by the quick and controlled movement of the diaphragm and the controlled movement of the lips, create a story map with the different percussive sounds and drone-like sounds that are commonly associated with certain mental images. For example, here is an example of what a kangaroo “sounds like”:

… or a bird…

For some other animal sounds, watch the following video. It’s actually pretty cool, but towards the end, they start having fun with it :D

So, Mr. Borg connects the geographical mapping of the didgeridoo’s song to the mapping of dreams. He provided us with spectral imagery of the didgeridoo’s sound, and he connected the story being told through the music of the didgeridoo with the sound patterns on the image. Furthermore, Mr. Borg claimed that the didgeridoo is a “pathway into dreaming.” I wish I had an example of one of these images to show you, but I can’t find one.

In any case, I found it to be a very difficult concept to understand completely, and I still have many questions. However, the basic premise is an interesting one. It opens up many questions about Western music for me such as “When people listen to music to fall asleep, does the music affect their dreams?” and “How does listening to classical music as you go to sleep affect your dreams? And how is listening to rap or hip-hop, jazz or oldies any different?” Perhaps you all have some ideas…

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