Today, we think about music and community. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Pathologist Lewis Thomas
talks about the Ik. The Ik do not sing. The Ik were
nomad hunters in Northern Uganda. The government
made their hunting grounds into a national park and
relocated them. They had to take up farming.
In 1972 anthropologist C.M. Turnbull wrote about
the Ik in their new life. They laugh only at one
another's misfortunes. They teach their children to
steal food from the old. They are solitary and
ill-humored. "They breed without love," says
Thomas, and "they defecate on one another's
The social roles of the Ik have been unthreaded.
And with that, they've lost all sense of community.
Each Ik is now an isolated one-man tribe unto
himself. Interdependency is gone; and the Ik no
So Thomas turns his attention to animal and insect
music-making. What does he find? He finds that
music always accompanies community. At first we
hear only babble. It takes patience to sift out
syntax and sense. But syntax and sense is there.
Termites constantly rap their heads against the
floor. It sounds random and senseless. Yet when
biologists record the sound, and study it, they
find pattern, variety, even phrasing.
Ask yourself how an alien might react to a Bartok
quartet. I can answer that one. I was alien to
string quartets the first time I heard one. I
didn't hear music. I heard only the cacophony of
termites banging their heads.
Bartok became clear to me in 1952 when I made a
strange experiment. I covered my ears for a moment
and only watched the four players. Suddenly I saw
conversation. I saw a ballet. I saw the players
trading ideas. After that the music made sense.
I've loved Bartok ever since.
Now I know what I'd really seen in that instant.
I'd seen what we all crave -- what we cannot live
without. I'd seen community. For the next 40 years
I constantly involved myself in music. Choirs,
chamber groups, opera -- always finding community
in the intimacy of music-making
Thomas takes a term from physics, the musical term
ensemble. An ensemble is a group of atoms whose
individual action seems chaotic, but whose
aggregate action displays order and sense.
That's what the Ik have lost. They have no
ensemble. Their old roles in one another's lives
are gone. The threads of community have been pulled
out. Each Ik is what you or I might become if we
let ourselves be stripped of community.
And the surest sign of that isolation is almost too
terrifying to think about. It is that the Ik no
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Thomas, L, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a
Biology Watcher. New York: Bantam Books, 1975,
pp. 22-28, 126-129
Turnbull, C.M., The Mountain People.
New York: Simon and Shuster, 1972.
Tien, C.L., and Lienhard, J.H., Statistical
Thermodynamics. New York: Hemisphere Pub.
Corp., 1979 (see especially, Chapter 8, Statistical
Trumbull's 1972 characterization if the Ik was made
during their darkest hour, and it may have been
overstated as well. No people will dwell very long
in that kind of darkness and, while the picture
does not fit the Ik today, Trumbull's images
unfortunately linger on. I wrote this episode in
1993. For a more balanced picture of a more
resilient people, see the following website which
describes the Ik of 1999:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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