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Saturday, March 05, 2011

The Toltecs Until The Fall of Tula

Map of the Toltec Empire, early 900s to 1160

BOOK REVIEW
The Toltecs: Until the Fall of Tula
by Nigel Davies
Published by University of Oklahoma Press 1977
Civilization of the American Indian Series Volume 144

   This was another rescue book I bought from Wahrenbrock Book House- it's a handsome first edition with a minimalist cover aesthetic that reminds me of a good record jacket.  I like to look at books from a design perspective, in much the same way I consider the physical media that contains popular music.
   The Toltecs is also Volume 144 in the excellent Civilization of the American Indian Series published by the University of Oklahoma Press.  From what I can tell, it's the only series of value the University of Oklahoma Press releases, but it is a doozy.  That series is still going and they are up to volume 265 according to their on-line catalog.
   When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they encountered a diverse linguistic and cultural environment.  Driven by their own cultural peculiarities, they gravitated towards a center of power, the Aztec empire.  After the Aztec empire was conquered by the Spanish, they inherited a perspective that was strongly shaped by the Aztec's themselves. For the first few centuries of the Conquest, little attention was paid in the ways that the Aztecs themselves were shapers of their historic past and in fact great attempts were made to eradicate pre-Aztec writings by the Aztecs themselves, BEFORE the Spanish arrived.
   So when the Spanish showed up, the Aztecs told them that they traced their heritage to the Toltec Empire, but that the Toltec had vanished from the scene several hundred years prior.  It was kind of the same conversation you would have if you asked a classical Roman about Troy or a medieval English aristocrat about King Arthur and his nights of the Round Table.   Mythic overlay aside, the Toltecs were real in the sense that a Toltec empire existed to the north and east of the Aztec empire from about 900 to 1200 AD.  The Empire ended with a poly-ethnic diaspora which sent residents in multiple directions.
   The Aztec account of the Toltec was wrapped up in their main god Quetzalcoatl.  In Aztec times he was the main boss god.  In Toltec times he had reportedly been a man, an actual leader of the Toltecs.  That was the idea, at any rate.  In the centuries after the conquest, some written sources were saved for future historians, additionally western disciplines of archeology and linguistics added to the total sum of knowledge on the area.
   However, the written sources are compromised by the Aztec system of recording dates, where a 52 year cycle was repeated without any century reference (so you can't tell if something happened in 1869 or 1969.) The written sources are further compromised by the trauma of the conquest, so that scribes were sometimes putting together occurrences that had happened hundreds of years apart because they happened on the same year of the 52 year counting cycle.  Also, different communities started their 52 year cycles on different years of the month, so that it might be year 1 for community A and year 2 for community B.
   In fact, much of The Toltecs consists of this kind of explanation about why it is so hard to know anything about the Toltecs, and I think it gets in the way of what is otherwise an interesting story.  When Davies allows himself to speculate about what he thinks might of went down, it's some interesting information.  Even writing in 1977, Davies was quite on top of the most recent advances in the theory of archeology,   throwing in easy references to the seminal work of philologist/archeologist Gordon Childe. Childe was one of the first people to attempt to draw natural history disciplines together with social history disciplines- it's an approach that has to underlie the intelligent study of any pre or semi-historic civilization.
   Ultimately, the Toltecs are revealed as a crucial bridge between the classical  Teotihuacan culture and the Aztecs that the Spanish encountered.  They were a poly-ethnic moderately sized empire centered on the the North East interior of the Aztec region centered on the valley of Mexico.  The main ethnic constituents were Nonalcas, participants in the Classical era civilization who had migrated from the Tabasco region- they likely brought books, legends and religion.  In Tula, the capital city of the Toltec empire, they were joined by the Chichimecs, a nomadic war-like people of less advanced civilization who came from the northern desert wastes of present day Mexico.  It's not hard to imagine that the Chichimecs were the muscle and the Nonalcas were the brains.  The tales of the post-collapse diaspora, seem to describe a combination of Ethnic and Caste conflict between the Nonalca ethnicity priest caste and the Chichimec warrior caste.  Davies effectively illustrates this hypothesis by comparative reference to the Indo-european split that is most traditionally described by the formula of "raj/brahman" in classical Sanskrit.
   During the Toltec Empire, the most sophisticated religious/cultural ideas of the Nonalcas were effectively transmitted to the Chichimecs, lasting well after the collapse of the Empire itself.  In this way they were likely a cultural bridge between the Classic Period and the Late Post Classic Period.  The reader can make out the rough forms of the transition from a gentler, less human-sacrifcey Classic period, to an early Post Classic Period where the need for protection leads to the introduction of a more "muscular" type of religion/society, followed by the late Post Classic Period where the Warrior caste was firmly in control and shaping the earlier religious/cultural traditions to their own needs.
     It's important to recognize that the Aztecs were much more like a Middle Eastern Empire of the 2000 BC variety then a Classical era Roman Empire.  Mesoamerican Civilizations could support large populations through their use of irrigation and agricultural, but transmitting power across long distances was difficult.  Of course, cultural influences were more easily transmitted, but it is simply unclear how deep that sort of adoption went.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Peter Hoslin's "How to get on Pitchfork's Forkcast"

How to Get on Pitchfork's Forkcast: A step-by-step guide to making it in the blogosphere. in San Diego City Beat by Pete Hoslin.

  Hey while we are on the subject:  What is up with Seth Combs?  Here there was a new project in the works.  Brand new project.

Pitchfork Rising Dirty Beaches Feature

Pitchfork: Rising: Dirty Beaches

  The Dirty Beaches Badlands LP is being released March 29th on San Diego's own Zoo Music (owned by Dee Dee from the Dum Dum Girls and Brandon from Crocodiles), but if you buy the exclusive pre-order over at Insound, you will likely get before then, because they are going to have their records next week, I've been told.  I've heard the record, it sounds great.

 Congratulations to Brandon and Dee Dee- it looks like they might have a hit record on their hands!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Themes In 19th-Century American Popular Song

BOOK REVIEW

The Voices That Are Gone:
Themes in 19th-Century American Popular Song
by Jon W. Finson
p. 1994
Oxford University Press

    The history of American Popular Song is pretty clear over the past one hundred years:  Tin Pan Alley, succeeded by the Brill Building, succeeded by the Beatles and the Summer of Love, drawing on and recombining with separate but related traditions emanating out of rural White (Country/Hillbilly) and Black (Blues) culture.  But what of the period before?  A twenty first century student of popular song might be forgiven for his or her utter ignorance of the popular song tradition in America in the first half of the 19th century.  Between the politically incorrect tradition of minstelry and the largely irrelevant English inspired fascination with the otherness and exoticism of Scotland and Ireland,  it's a tradition which can be profitably ignored.

   However, as I learned in The Voices That Are Gone, there is much to recommend this period to the student of popular music.  When Voices That Are Gone picks up, we are the very early stages of the 19th century, and American Popular Song is largely, if not entirely, derivative of British culture.  At that time British culture was in love with the Scottish exoticism and poetry of Walter Scott and his ilk, and this is reflected in song themes that reflect the ever present specter of death and the realities of lovers separated by long distances.  This older style was supplanted in the middle of the century by a stylistically similar song writing that instead focused on the "close proximity and physical contact." of young lovers.

  These newer songs about courtship begin to take on the shape of what would later be associated with Tin Pany Alley songwriting.  Specifically: short phrases, narrow melodic range and repeated note choruses.  By the 1860s and 1870s, courtship songs begin to share characteristics that fully presage popular song in the Tin Pan Alley era: terse melodic periods, an intermixture of lyrical and declamatory vocal writing, a relatively narrow range, and frequent syncopation imitating the natural rhythms of speech.

   These changes in audience taste were accompanied (or perhaps precipitated) by advances in technology: transit by rail and communication with telegraph.  These two technological advances not only affected audience concerns, they also allowed the formation of the modern publishing industry, which would burst into full flower during the Tin Pan Alley period (and forever after.)  Using modern forms of communication, businessmen in New York City could sell sheet music promoted by traveling musicians.

   With the development of the modern music publishing industry in the post Civil War Period, popular song writing received a new level of attention from artists, businessmen and audiences.  Once formed, the music publishing business continued to be impacted by outside trends.  A significant early influencer was the fast paced German developed waltz.  The waltz sped up the tempo, and it's speed mirrored the increase in speed allowed by technological innovations.  The above description takes you through Part I of this book.  Unfortunately Part II devolves into a tired analysis of the influence of minstelry before and after the Civil War and two bad chapters on the treatment of Native Americans and Western European Ethnicity.  It is almost like Finson wrote half of an amazing book and then ran out of steam.

   The one interesting observation about minstelry that Finson makes is how pre-Civil War minstelry was often a combination of African American themes with older themes and song structures derived from the Anglo/Irish/Scottish continuum.   Finson notes a change in tone between the pre-Civil War minstrels, where claims to "authenticity" were a sly mask for poking fun at the established order, vs. after, when increased proximity between African American's and northern whites let to a situation where claims to "authenticity" were there own justification.   There are some interesting ways to relate this distinction to modern musical genres with their own guidelines about artist authenticity claims: Nashville country or American Indie, for example.  But I will leave that for another time.

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