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Baining Fire Dance

Does anyone know of a cite/source that includes a description/analysis of the rhythms in the Fire Dance of the Baining in Papua New Guinea?


  • Hi Stephen, I'm sure you must have perused the internet as there are many video entries for the Baining Fire Dance.  I know you are looking for a source for description/analysis of the rhythms.  I'm curious what interests you about this music and if you have any ideas from your own listening experience?  I recently saw a performance of the Balinese Monkey Dance (also exclusively performed by a large group of men arranged in a large semi circle).  The rythyms are vocally produced and very assymetrical.  There seems to be leader directing various responses and there is polyphony, call and response, and the complexity of the vocal sounds seems to reflect jungle and animal sounds - I would assume primate monkey calls.  There are also choreographed moves the singers make in opposing sections.  I like the non linear multiplistic aspect of the music and it certainly seems to be ritualistic and tribal - very aggressive in character.

  • Thanks for your personal input, @carsonics, but I'm looking for something much more specific. A couple people have written to me that transferring such rhythms into Western notation is difficult & can be misleading. (Some may call the attempt questionable cultural appropriation, but I haven't run into that charge --  yet.) But I am looking for a connection between one or more Baining rhythms and rhythmic cells in Messiaen's Isle de feu 1 & 2. So I'm looking at this from Messiaen's perspective, making this a bit different than wanting an accurate transcription of traditional rhythms. In his Technique de mon langage musical (Chapter 2 on ametrical music & Hindu rhythms), Messiaen references the tala transcriptions of the 13th century Indian musicologist Sarangadeva. He found these in the 'Tableau des 120 Decî-Tâlas d'apres le système de Çârngadeva' which he discovered in the monumental _Encyclopédie de la musique et dictionnaire du Conservatoire_ (pub. 1913-31). This is precisely the sort of 'transcription' I am looking for, not for Indian Hindu/Carnatic rhythms necessarily, but for rhythms of indigenous peoples of Oceania, specifically Papua New Guinea, and more specifically the Baining tribes because of their ritual fire dance (many videos of this on You Tube - but sound quality is always poor). The puzzle about this is that Messiaen travelled throughout the Indian Subcontinent, but evidently never visited Papua New Guinea -- and yet he dedicated the two Ile de feu piano pieces specifically to 'the people of Papua New Guinea'. It's possible he witnessed a fire dance in a performance of visiting dancers at an exhibition in Paris or elsewhere, but still I think Messiaen, being Messiaen, would have used a more specific compositional connection than a mere attempt to capture the excitement of the dance. (Interesting side note: missionaries were quite successful in the region & today Papua New Guinea is 90% Christian - mostly Catholic & Lutheran. Cultural appropriation is always a two-way street.)



  • Thanks for the information on Messiaen Stephen.  I haven't really explored his work yet aside from college music coursework.  I'm interested in listening to the piece you have referenced.  I know he composed while in Nazi concentration camps.  I have been to Dachau while traveling through Germany and Austria.  

    Regarding the Fire Dance, do you know if that culture has musical notation or is the music learned aurally?  Maybe it would be possible to get a descriptive interpretation if notation does not exist?  I know from ethnomusicology studies that many cultures transmit music traditions directly from musician to musician without notation - Native Americans for example and many others.  

    Anyway good luck on your research and I'm always interested in learning more about Messiaen.  I know he was quite interested in innovative techniques and explorations of rhythm and cycles.  

    At the moment I am in composer mode so I am focusing on my own internal sound realities, but I have to say that SMT theorist members have been recommending new composers and works which I enjoy exploring.  Last night was Bruchner - I liked his orchestration . . . sure glad the French Impressionists came along to rescue us from the late German Romantic symphonists!    

  • As an aside, let me stress that the chapter by Joanny Grosset on India in Lavignac's Encyclopédie (, p. 256 ff.) is considered historically rather doubtful by specialists of Indian music. Grosset was prompt to build systematic "Tableaux", including the famous one of the "72 Carnatic modes" (all the possible 7-note scales with a perfect 5th, 36 with a perfect 4th and the other 36 with a tritone) which greatly influence Messiaen, Jolivet, and others – and also Indian musicians themselves –, and that of the Decî-Tâlas mentioned above. Such systematic tables do not exist in the same form in Indian theory.

    It should also be remembered that Western rhythmic notation is proportional (rhythmic units are proportional to each other in simple proportions, say 3/2, 2, 4/3, 3, etc.). Non proportional rhythms (as those of Baroque unmeasured preludes, or aksak, or jazz swing, etc.) cannot properly be notated in Western notation.




  • Thanks, @Nicolas. As I indicated, I am trying to come at a possible connection from Messiaen's perspective as a composer. I think there's a larger composition-theoretic point underlying this for the analyst.

    If we consider that Messiaen never visited PNG and assume he never witnessed the Baining fire dance, that leaves a puzzle (for me, at any rate) about (a) why he dedicated the pieces to the Papuan people, whom he never met and (b) why he decided on the title 'Île de feu' for both pieces: PNG has many active volcanos so the fire reference may be just poetically suggestive, or it may be a structural clue. I understand  the latter is not really that likely – although something in Messiaen's Nachlass might have been overlooked, I know of no source that suggests that a hard connection might be the case. The reason I'm grasping at this straw is due to two passages, mm25-34 in Idf1 & mm92-131 in Idf2. I want to call these passages 'Fire Dance' for reference, but I can't do that since it would lead a reader to believe that I am asserting a connection that, at this point, I can't confirm.

    It's not simply the possibility of an inspirational connection of these passages to Baining fire dance rhythms. By themselves they present an analytical puzzle. I can account for virtually every note in both pieces with the exception of these measures. And even there I can relate some of the passage work as transformations of other snippets in the works. I could throw up my hands and just say, well, these measures are just through-composed. But I know in my analytical bones that's not the case. Pierre Boulez had exactly this conundrum in mind when he wrote of his teacher:

    'The idea of the series was engaging [Messiaen's] maximum attention during these years, and it was probably the influence of this fact that caused him to reflect on the possible strict, and strictly calculated, relationships on which his music might depend; there are many instances in these works of a clear conflict between spontaneity and organization, the one unwilling to abdicate and the other determined to become all powerful. This conflict, or antinomy, is reflected even in the titles of the different pieces written between 1949 and 1951 – Les Yeux dans les rouesLes Mains de l'abímeIle de feu.'

    And how does one relieve this antinomy in analysis without yielding to the analyst's cop out, 'Oh, it's just durchkomponiert' or 'these 50 measures just popped into his head' or some other version of Brahms' 'a good theme is a gift of God'. We may find that such problems are actually soluble if we look for different architectonic levels. For example (in this Messiaen case) I too often look for symmetry in the usual places. 'Broken symmetry', now commonly recognized in physics, can be responsible for discovering symmetries at other levels of complication. There may be a bit of 21st century Schenker in this idea.

    'A symmetry can be exact, approximate, or broken. Exact means unconditionally valid; approximate means valid under certain conditions; broken can mean different things, depending on the object considered and its context. ... Generally, the breaking of a certain symmetry does not imply that no symmetry is present, but rather that the situation where this symmetry is broken is characterized by a lower symmetry than the original one.'  – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


    'The main fallacy [of] the reductionist hypothesis [is that it] does not by any means imply a “constructionist” one: The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe. ... The constructionist hypothesis breaks down when confronted with the twin difficulties of scale and complexity. ... [A]t each level of complexity entirely new properties appear. ... [T]he whole becomes not only more than the sum of but very different from the sum of the parts. ... [T]he new symmetry – now called broken symmetry because the original symmetry is no longer evident – may be an entirely unexpected kind and extremely difficult to visualize. ... [T]he whole becomes not only more than but very different from the sum of its parts. ... At some point we have to stop talking about decreasing symmetry and start calling it increasing complication.' – P.W. Anderson

    So I'll keep searching :-)

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