4aMUa2. Vocal timbre and meaning: An ethnomusicological approach.

Session: Thursday Morning, December 5

Time: 8:20

Author: C. Kati Szego
Location: School of Music, Memorial Univ., St. John's, NF A1C 5S7, Canada


This paper is based on results of research undertaken at the Kamehameha Schools, Hawaii's only private school for native Hawaiians. The Kamehameha Schools are renowned for their Hawaiian-language choral singing tradition and their unique choral timbre, which is often described as ``dark'' and ``sensual.'' The first part of the paper addresses features of the Hawaiian language that may contribute to this choral sound and the symbolic significance of Kamehameha students singing in their ancestral language. The second part addresses how Kamehameha students apprehend music. They prefer vocal music to purely instrumental music, and focus much of their attention on timbre. In addition to describing vocal timbre with adjectives like ``warm'' or ``harsh,'' they interpret timbre socially, i.e., they impute personal attributes to singers on the basis of their sound quality. This phenomenon parallels other kinds of Hawaiian communicative practice, where individuals interpret expressive cues to determine others' commitment to them [Howard, 1974]. These cues are considered reliable indicators for developing and maintaining harmonious relations---a cornerstone of the Hawaiian social ethos. Listening to vocal music is treated with all the delicacy of a social encounter: Listeners read vocal timbre with a view of assessing singers intersubjectively.

ASA 132nd meeting - Hawaii, December 1996