The Evolution of Hocketing

Eli Zeger on the origins of a complex and conversational vocal technique, from its use by African Pygmies to appearance in modern contexts

The musical technique known as hocketing has been shaping creative processes for centuries, appearing in forms ranging from medieval classical music to contemporary indie rock and EDM. Hocketing either involves instruments taking turns playing discrete portions of a single melody, normally at a rapid tempo and in fluid succession, or two instruments playing in a call-and-response. A guitar, for instance, plays do-re-mi; a saxophone plays fa-so-la; piano finishes with ti-do and the cycle of instruments repeats. Whether listening to hocketing in headphones or hearing it played by musicians positioned at different points around a stage, the technique can make you feel like you’re inside the melody. Compared to counterpoint, which involves layering different melodies on top of each other, hocketing is essentially a fraction of the work, with the goal being singularity rather than plurality. It’s a device based on dialogue: If counterpoint is multiple voices talking over each other, then hocketing is conversational.

Although widely believed to have originated in medieval classical music, hocketing actually dates back to African music from over 80,000 years ago. It began as a solely vocal tradition, practiced by the Central African Pygmies in tropical forests and the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, according to musicologist Dr. Victor Grauer in his “Echoes Of Our Forgotten Ancestors.” Just as medieval composers evidently never interacted with hocketing peoples in Africa, to the point of presuming they invented the form, the Pygmies and Bushmen evidently never interacted with each other. Yet both African peoples hocketed specifically in their vocal ensembles and for the same symbolic purpose, in Grauer’s words, of “echoing forgotten ancestors.” Early hocketing eventually translated to instruments. Ghanaian flutes, called atentebens, didn’t have a definitive model – they were made of different materials and varied in shape and size – but were each confined to a single octave range. In atenteben ensembles, whether or not limited octave ranges were deliberate, they were compensated for by the timbral variety of hocketing with multiple flutes.

Guillaume de Machaut - Hoquetus David

Hocketing was first transcribed in formal compositions from the 13th and 14th centuries, appearing in pieces such as “Manere,” written by the composer Anonymous of St. Emmeram, and in “Hoquetus David,” by the French composer Guillaume de Machaut. Whether performed as a capellas or with traditional medieval instruments, both pieces demonstrate the technique specifically in their upper-voice parts, intertwining varied patterns of whole notes, half notes and rests in order to achieve the fractured sonic effect. It’s this transcription that has led to the assertion that the form came first from these classical styles, and not Africa. In addition to sheet music, not only was the term “hocket” first recorded in European archives (albeit in a slightly alternate spelling), but the general maintenance of exhaustive institutional documentation written in Latin is what legitimized the European composers over the African ones. Anonymous of St. Emmeram first described hocketing in a treatise from 1279, now preserved as a manuscript, that was published by the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. In Africa, though, hocketing was not documented in text, but in the live performance traditions that had already existed for hundreds of centuries prior to Anonymous and his ecclesiastical ilk.

How did separate musical cultures, thousands of miles and hundreds of years apart, with no record of direct interaction, manage to develop such a similar-sounding technique? It’s likely to do with a shared, innate desire for practicality. “It seems to me that hocketing is a natural solution to the problem of how to arrange melodies among multiple vocal parts, so my guess would be that it was invented independently,” Dr. Patrick Savage, a musicologist at the Keio University Shonan Fujisawa Campus, writes over email. “If so, then medieval Europeans could be excused for thinking that they originated hocketing, since they might not have known about African hocketing. It is less excusable for modern scholars to make this claim, since they should be aware of African hocketing, but unfortunately there is still much Eurocentrism among musicologists.”