Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics
IDEA lectures with Wulf Schiefenhoevel
Elements of Universal Aesthetics: The Quest for Beauty and the Use of Metaphors in the Lyrics of Papuan Peoples
Prof. Dr. Wulf Schiefenhoevel ist currently Head of the Reserach Group "Human Ethology Group" at the Max Planck Institute for Ornitology.
Abstract: The ancestors of the Papuan peoples arrived at the shores of New Guinea about 50,000 years ago. With receding glaciation they moved into the rugged, mountainous interior of the large island which then became separated from Australia and the Indonesian Islands by the Pacific Ocean rising about 120 m. About 8,000 years ago the Papuans started to domesticate a number of important plants, among them sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum). About 4,000 years ago a new wave of immigrants, the Austronesians, arrived by sailing canoes. Their influence was basically restricted to the coastal areas. This means that the numerous and diverse Papuan cultures in the highlands and lowlands of New Guinea were very isolated over very long periods of their history.
Their verbal art, their metaphors, other symbolism and the underlying emotions expressed in lyrics and speech, however, are very easy to be grasped by members of other cultures. When the authors of songs of grief express their deep sorrow and inner devastation they use verbal images, which are also moving us. The same is true for the poetic expression, also usually in songs, of romantic love: another trans-cultural universal unifying humankind. Some of these lyrics are filled with dense meaning and metaphors, including ones for the sexual act and for the powerful wish to be with the other person. The verbal symbolism used in these pieces of New Guinean art is thus surprisingly similar to that utilised in other cultural traditions of completely different origin; Sapir-Whorfian arguments for strict cultural relativism are thus blunted.
Perhaps even more striking than the similarity of poetic verbal imagery is the fact that obviously humans in all societies (albeit not necessarily every individual in every society) have the urge to express powerful, volcanic emotions generated in the archaic cores of our brain in poetry, not in prose. I will argue that this may be an evolved trait as well. Examples will be given of lyrics and pieces of musical performance collected during my own fieldwork in New Guinea, especially among the Eipo in the highlands of the Province of Papua, Indonesia.
The IDEA Lectures (Interdisciplinary Debates on the Empirical Aesthetics of Music) aim at bringing together internationally well-known researchers who discuss questions that relate to the production and reception of music from various perspectives.
Musicologists from all branches of their discipline take part as do musicians, psychologists, cognitive scientists, sociologists, philosophers and ethnologists.
This talk will be held in English. External guests are welcome. Please call for registration 069 8300 479-201.