FIGURE 5 (left). Painter, from Hans Sachs’ 1568 Ständebuch (illustrated by Jost Amman). FIGURE 6 (right). Drummer and fife-player, from Hans Sachs’ 1568 Ständebuch (illustrated by Jost Amman).
FIGURE 7. Three measures from “Sones Mariachi”, by Carlos Chávez, from page 14 of Herbert Weinstock’s Mexican music; notes for concerts arranged by Carlos Chávez as part of the exhibition Twenty centuries of Mexican Art. The Museum of Modern Art, May, 1940 (New York: W. E. Rudge’s Sons for the Museum of Modern Art, 1940).
FIGURE 8. Three measures from “Sones Mariachi” compared with pages 24-30 of the Codex Nuttall.
FIGURE 9. Left: Musical triplet. Right: Three deities, from page 25 of the Codex Vienna.
FIGURE 10. The Dominican monastery of Cuilapan in the Valley of Oaxaca. June 2007. Photo by Byron Hamann.
FIGURE 11. Front cover of the 1607 edition of Fray Gregorio Garcia’s Origen de los Indios de el Nuevo Mundo e Indias Occidentales. Image from the copy in the library of the Universidad Complutense, Madrid, Spain; courtesy of Google Books.
FIGURE 12. Detail from page 513 of the 1607 edition of Fray Gregorio Garcia’s Origen de los Indios de el Nuevo Mundo e Indias Occidentales. Image from the copy in the library of the Universidad Complutense, Madrid, Spain; courtesy of Google Books.
FIGURE 13. Detail from page 513 of the 1607 edition of Fray Gregorio Garcia’s Origen de los Indios de el Nuevo Mundo e Indias Occidentales. Image from the copy in the library of the Universidad Complutense, Madrid, Spain; courtesy of Google Books.
In Western aesthetics, “composition” has a number of connotations. In music, composition involves the planning of a thing that will be heard. In painting, composition involves the planning of a thing that will be seen (Figure 5). In prose and poetry, composition involves the planning of a thing that will be read. At one level, then, “composition” can involve any number of unrelated processes, depending on the medium in which the artist is working. The act of composing a sonnet is quite different from composing a sonata, and both of these are quite different from planning the composition of a painting.
All of these types of composition are unified, however, in that they traditionally involve visual and spatial processes. All are concerned with placing marks in an intentional order on a blank surface. For the musician, composition involves placing circles, lines, and dots onto a grid of horizontal and vertical lines (Figure 6). For the writer, composition involves stringing together letters into words, which themselves form blocks of ordered phrases. For the painter, composition involves ordering colored marks onto a (traditionally) rectangular surface.
The Ñudzavui scribes who wrote the codices were also engaged in an act of spatial and visual composition. But unlike artistic production in the West—where music, prose and poetry, and painting are traditionally recorded in very different formats—Ñudzavui pictorial composition was used to create documents that were meant to be read and heard and seen. The codices are documents that are like paintings, poems, and musical scores all at the same time.8
The possibility of hearing a painting, of painting the lyrics to a song may seem unusual, so consider this analogy between codical composition and Western composition (an analogy based on the ideas of screenfold scholar Mark King). Compare the multicolored imagery of a screenfold and the black and white lines and circles of a traditional Western musical score. Functionally, both serve a similar purpose: they record “music.” Although visually the two forms of recording music seem completely unrelated, in fact their formal structures (fortuitously) are surprisingly similar.
The Western composer begins his or her act of composition with a sheet of paper marked with a series of horizontal and musical lines: the staff. Into this grid, the composer places notes, all of which are based on a standard oval form. The careful spatial arrangement of these notes (what line is a note on or between, how is it linked to the notes around it?) and ornamentation of these notes (some are filled in, some have lines attached to them, some are accompanied by dots, some are marked with symbols indicating sharps and flats) allows the composer to record music on paper (Figure 7). The Ñudzavui composer was also working within a grid of lines. Unlike the Western composer, these lines were colored red, and instead of creating a “cage” into which notes were placed these lines created a maze-like path into which were painted the figures of men, women, places, and dates (Figure 8).
Just as the round musical note can be arranged (in groups of two, three, four or more, joined on a single vertical line or on a curved diagonal line) and ornamented (left empty or colored in, augmented with bars and dots) to convey the sounds and rhythms of the music it represents, so too can the bodies and places depicted in a screenfold be “ornamented” (with costume, with toponymic “qualifiers” and arranged (in groups of two, three, or according to size) to convey the outlines of Ñudzavui poetry and song. Both the pages of a screenfold and the bars of a musical score record “music” through the patterning and ornamentation of symbolic elements. As discussed below, the relationship between the musical triplet in Figure 9 (shown to the left) and the visual triplet of figures in a screenfold (shown to the right) is surprisingly close.9
Ñudzavui poetry—indeed Mesoamerican poetry in general—is not based on rhyme and meter. Instead, it depends on conceptual relationships between the meanings of successive phrases.10 As an introduction to the structuring of Ñudzavui poetry, consider the following excerpt from a Ñudzavui origin narrative. It was recorded in 1607 by a Dominican friar named Gregorio García. While visiting the monastery of Cuilapan in the Valley of Oaxaca (Figure 10), he saw a Ñudzavui screenfold that was kept by the vicar there. An alphabetic “translation” of this screenfold was published by García in his Origen de los Indios de el Nuevo Mundo in 1607 (Figure 11). Visually, this typeset text was presented in even rectangles of prose, each new sentence appearing a few spaces after the end of the previous one.11
In 1969, Miguel León-Portilla published an English translation of this origin narrative. He rearranged García’s text, breaking its paragraph-based structure into a “poetic” format of paired couplets. León-Portilla argued that the poetic qualities inherent in García’s text suggested that the “translation” of the now lost screenfold was based on interpretations provided by Ñudzavui collaborators, collaborators who understood the story and who knew how to read its lyrics. If León-Portilla is correct, then the García origin narrative is our only alphabetic record of indigenous Ñudzavui song.12 However, by limiting his rearrangement of García’s prose to couplets, León- Portilla did not make full use of the range of Ñudzavui poetic structures. In the selection from the García narrative included below, the verse division proposed by León-Portilla has been preserved, but the grouping of those lines is no longer limited to couplets. In accordance with contemporary Ñudzavui prayermaking, couplets, broken couplets, triplets, and single lines have all been used…
|In the year and in the day
|__Of obscurity and utter darkness
|Before there were years and days
|__The world being in deep obscurity
|when all was chaos and confusion,
|the earth was covered with water,
|there was only slime upon the surface of the earth (Figure 12)
|At this time, the Indians say, there became visible
|a god who had as a name 1 Deer
|and for a nickname Lion Serpent
|and a goddess, very pretty and beautiful, whose name was also 1 Deer
|and for a nickname Jaguar Serpent (Figure 13)13
Three poetic structures are preserved in the Cuilapan text: triplets, couplets, and phrases. Each of these structures (and their pictorial equivalents) will be discussed in the pages that follow. This exploration of Ñudzavui poetics is drawn from three sources. One is contemporary, the second contact-period, and the third prehispanic. The first is from ethnographer John Monaghan’s work with contemporary Ñudzavui prayers.14 The second source is the Cuilapan poem you have just read. The third source, the Codex Vienna, illustrates how the composition of images in a screenfold reflect the conventions of verbal art still found in the Mixteca today. Four basic poetic structures will be identified and discussed: couplets, triplets, lists, and prose.
8 King (1990, 1994) proposed the “musical score” analogy for the codices, and the following discussion is based on his ideas.
9 John Monaghan’s 1990 “Performance and the Structure of the Mixtec Codices” is the primary source for all of the discussions in the paragraphs that follow.
10 Monaghan 1990, 134.
11 García 1981 , 327-329.
12 León-Portilla 1969, 55.
13 This translation is based on those published by León-Portilla 1969, 55-58 and Furst 1978, 56. A third translation of Garcia’s text, by Scott Mahler, is found in Markman and Markman 1992, 149-150.
14 Monaghan 1990.