Instability and Control

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The concept of liminality was first formulated by ethnographer Arnold van Gennep in 1908. Victor Turner fleshed out the theory in the 1960s. Both men were intrigued by the various ways small-scale societies identify, confront and resolve times of flux and uncertainty, known as liminal periods. Almost without exception, these changes—which occur in the human life cycle and in the cycle of time—are met with rituals designed to ease the precarious movement from separation to transition to incorporation. In large-scale societies, rites of passage and rites of time can be informal, as with birthday and holiday parties, or formal, as with wedding ceremonies and time-specific prayer services. At the root of all these activities is the desire to conquer the “betwixt and between” of liminality and reenter a state of relative equanimity.

Not surprisingly, music tends to play a major role in these formal and informal rituals. The order implicit in most types of music infuses transitional periods with a measure of assurance and stability. The structure of music—especially music that is familiar and that has been used at similar events—injects a steady presence into an unsteady time. Consciously or unconsciously, the music provides an undercurrent of consolation for the actor or actors in transition.

Two cases drawn from the anthropological literature help illustrate this point. The first is an eight-day puberty ceremony enacted for girls of the Mescalero Apache tribe. During the rite, the girls take on the persona of the female deity and are celebrated into womanhood. Physical changes are translated into a spiritual transformation. Time-structuring elements of song—pulse, modulation, repetition, silence, etc.—are carefully arranged to give the ritual a sense of flow and logical progression. The imprecise and seemingly haphazard events of the first day gradually resolve into coordinated actions through the rhythm of rattles and the jingles of dresses. As the days move along, formulaic songs, chant-like verses and contoured refrains are performed to mark and enhance sections of the ceremony. On the eighth and final morning, the music comes to an end, the tipis are dismantled, food and sweets are passed around and ordinary time resumes. Liminality is overcome and the actors assume their new social standing as adults.

The second example involves lullabies sung by Iraqi Jewish mothers. In contrast to a formal rite of passage, the setting of this ritual is informal, private, domestic and daily. Yet it, too, confronts a liminal period: the disquieting shift from day to night and wake to sleep. The mother’s songs are more than just solace for the child; they are opportunities for her to address her fears, worries and emotional pain. The anxiety of evening brings life’s uncertainties to the surface, and the mother sings herself (and her child) into reassurance. A typical lullaby contains these lyrics: “And when I am depressed you will cheer me, and when I am troubled you will come to me . . . and you are safe, precious ones, so you will be my help.”

Our species is keenly aware of thresholds in life and time, and instinctively greets them with ritual behaviors, whether religious, civic or personal. At moments that challenge the normal pattern of existence and evoke palpable uncertainty, we long for and manufacture a means of control. And because music projects order and stability, it frequently assumes a prominent role in the process.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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