Tag Archives: Black music

Music matters – Part II

As my  earlier discussions of Black music have hopefully illustrated, music can also have a significant socio-cultural agency with implications reaching into the realms of politics and ethics. In a way it could be boiled down to the notion of “good music”. We’d all like to think the music we like is “good”, but there are nearly as many definitions – often less than precise – of “good music” as there are listeners.

This affords music an ethical dimension. Sharing musical tastes – musically marked aesthetic spaces – is a way of connecting ourselves with others; or distinguishing from them, i.e. performing our identity through musicking.

There are many factors and agencies shaping this “aesthetic space” in which we form and articulate our ideas of good music. Our musical tastes, much like all our other tastes, have their roots in our up-bringing and socio-cultural environment. They are also subject to changes in our environment and our choices within it, shaping the development of our tastes.

Treme Sidewalk Steppers 2nd line February 6th 2011
Treme Sidewalk Steppers 2ndline February 6th 2011

And unless we consider music to be an “auditory cheesecake” – and I hope you don’t – the choices we make regarding the kinds of music we like and consume, are not irrelevant. They speak volumes about our socio-cultural, and even political, dispositions – albeit often quite ambiguously.

Music and ideas/ideologies

Let’s try and interrogate this proposition with some concrete examples, shall we? In what kinds of situations do musically created aesthetic spaces have en ethical dimension and how does this happen?

I have two premises for this thought experiment: First, music as sound is not capable of carrying meanings unless these sounds are – and they always inevitably are since musicking involves human agency – performed and/or experienced in a socio-cultural context. And second, choices, for the present purposes, are always “choices of” something within our reach.

Associations through musical sounds

I base the first premise on Martin Heidegger’s phenomenology and his notion of “Being-in-the-world”; the idea that we interpret the world around us immediately upon perceiving it. Any abstraction of the perception is an effort to “undo” the already made interpretation in order to “objectively” encounter the world. Heidegger’s example is an object we’ll immediately recognise as a table. Any attempt to perceive this object as e.g. a construction of specific material and particular assemblage requires an active attempt to “forget” that it’s a table in order to abstract it.  He also discusses “sound objects” to demonstrate his theory:

What we ‘first’ hear is never noises or complexes of sounds, but the creaking wagon, the motor-cycle. We hear the column on the march, the north wind, the woodpecker tapping, the fire crackling… It requires a very artificial and complicated frame of mind to ‘hear’ a ‘pure noise’. (Being and Time 34: 207)

This also entails that it’s not so much the physical properties of the sounds of brass and wind instruments as such that raises in us e.g an image of a pastoral landscape or a military band. Rather this comes from the historical use of these instruments in western classical music to depict nature and rural life and the military music tradition. And this again recalls the use of horns as a signal for e.g. approaching postman in rural villages or when hunting and the association we still easily make between flutes and shepherds. Or at least it did when Beethoven wrote his 6th symphony.

Then again the sound of the French horn might not bring forth these kinds of associations for you, but perhaps rather remind of film music as in the theme of Universal Studios or Richard Strauss’ Thus said Zarazusthra (see my earlier discussion of this). In yet other words, it depends on your musical background, including where and when you have lived, etc. – i.e. your socio-cultural background.

Probably needless to say that my examples here are drawn from my own cultural environment of western Europe and should you be e.g. Asian, African or South American you’d probably have different associations for these sounds; or imagine different sonic representations for e.g. nature and rural life.

The bottom line is that the sound itself is arbitrary. Any association(s) a sound may call forth is a result of the “socio-cultural life” of the given sound. This is akin to what the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has discussed pertaining to the “social life of things“. Objects are usually made for a more or less specific purpose and their value depends largely on their scarcity or abundance. As time passes and the world changes all these factors may change; the original purposes may no longer be relevant, objects may become scarce or more abundant due to changes in methods of production and/or the availability of their raw materials.

All this also applies to music as materials to make certain instruments may become scarce – e.g. big enough trees growing on mountains for making double basses – or instrument-making techniques lost in generations – e.g. the violins of Stradivarious for which the secret was long thought to be in the varnish he used.

Antonio Stradivari (b. 1644) inspecting a violin
Antonio Stradivari (b. 1644) inspecting a violin

As my examples above illustrate the most significant changes impacting music, however, are socio-cultural. The widely different uses of music create various associations with particular compositions/instruments/genres, etc. These associations may again be quite remote from their origins, and impossible to predict as we continue to – not only consume – but make music in ever new ways. New music is made by recycling old musical ideas and old music gets new meanings in new contexts.

Political music

Some rather radical political thinkers conceive of nearly all human actions and undertakings as political; even seemingly apolitical enterprise as e.g. popular music without a political message can be viewed as political as it doesn’t challenge, and therefore implicitly accepts, the status quo.

W.E.B DuBois in 1918
W.E.B DuBois in 1918

One such thinker was W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the leading post-Reconstruction black intellectuals in the United States. He wrote for instance that “a black artist is first of all a black artist” and was strongly of the opinion that the emerging Black American culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries needed to reach, and preferably surpass, the mainstream white culture with any measures; an effort in many ways culminating – albeit by no means concluding with – in the Harlem Renaissance. This view was against the “pragmatic” one of Booker T. Washington and his supporters who thought that the blacks should rather keep to “their place” in the society.

Du Bois’ life is a rewarding study for anyone interested in the history of racial relations in the United States as it stretches from right after the Emancipation to just before the declaration of Civil Rights Act.

But then again, even music not taking any political stance could be said to be political by it’s very act of celebrating life itself, sometimes against the odds. As I’ve discussed before pertaining to Black music, the social aesthetic of the music centres around the people and their lives, not on the actual music.

There’s a lot more to be said about the topics I’ve touched on here. Anyhow, I’ll stop here for now and come back with some further thoughts soon.

Fences

I’ve written about music and film a couple of times before and although Denzel Washington’s latest film Fences is not about music and in fact has very little music in it, walking out of the cinema I thought it was an experience I’d like to share. Music has a role in the film as well, but it was the experience of watching this film in a sold out hall that I’d like to focus on here. This is also why I’ve included this post in the Gigs category.

One of the scenes, that for me came closest to an experience I usually have in concerts, didn’t have music playing at all. The film, however, is a good example of effective use of music in ways that serve the story – or are a part of it. But most of all I was reminded that watching a film in cinema is a social event, however little social interaction there might be – which is often preferable.

Fences is a story of a working class African American family trying to get by the best they can in a 1950’s post second World War but pre-Civil Rights Era suburban town. The main character is a man played by Denzel Washington who’s taking his role as the head of his family very seriously but, although he loves his family, he thinks it’s enough – or doesn’t know better than – to show it by providing them with material well-being to the best of his abilities.

Music first enters the story as the main character Troy’s eldest son walks in the house to borrow money. The son is trying to make a living as a musician and his father doesn’t approve. Although, as discussed before, music has provided professional opportunities to many African Americans, it’s been an uncertain bread bringer at bes and not a much more respected profession African Americans than it has in the mainstream society.

Watching together – Silence

As said, most of the film doesn’t have music at all. The “musical” experience I mentioned above was a moment in the scene, a part of which you can see in the trailer above, in which Troy is telling some very unpleasant news to his wife (I don’t want to spoil this for those who haven’t seen the film yet). Once he’s spilled out the words there’s a long silences as the words sink in, as much for the wife hearing the news, Troy waiting for her reaction and the audience watching the drama.

This intense moment of silence reminded me of my favourite moments in concerts; the endings of a performance where the whole hall – or whatever performance space – in intense stillness hangs on the last sounds as they fade away. In such moments one can kind of feel time. Every passing second, as the sounds fade, we come to terms with the performance we’ve witnessed and (hopefully) appreciate the efforts the artists have made to create it for us. In the scene of Fences I described above, the tension of between the characters was palpable as the sold out hall of around 100 people were sitting in silence and living the moment with the characters on the screen.

Like all performances, such moments are unique. Although this film is exactly the same every time it’s projected, the audiences are different. I’ve noticed it lately to be quite rare that audiences have the patience to keep quite in such moments. This can be also heard in the clip below (at 5’20”) where after the solo performance of Lars Danielsson starts to clap while the last notes are still ringing.

Music in storytelling

In Fences, music proper only enters the story after the above described scene; after the story takes a turn in the Golden Cut.  We see Troy in blue thoughts at the bar while Dinah Washington sings You Don’t Know What Love Is (“until you’ve learned the meaning of the Blues”) in the background. Washington’s bluesy interpretations is a great choice, but also realistic as a contemporary of the story.

This scene also introduces Troy singing an old folk song Old Blue to himself, which helps bring closure to his relation to his youngest son in the end of the film. Again, I don’t want to disclose too much of the story not to spoil it for the “uninitiated” 😉

Troy sings Old Blue as an unaccompanied Blues, whereas all the versions I could find of it are in more country or American folk style. In Troy’s Blues rendition the dog of the story seems to be himself, which in the end his youngest son also realises helping him to make peace with his father.

Thus, in Fences we have music being part of the story – as it is part of life – in good and in (perceived) bad as well as accompanying life. Most impressive for me, however, was the performative similarity of the experience of that intense silence in the cinema. It takes a strong performance to capture an audience in a way that it stays silent for longer than 5 seconds and Fences, at least last night, it worked.

With various streaming services gaining popularity among music and film lovers alike, I find it good to keep in mind that there’s more to listening to music and watching films together as part of an audience, than individual pleasure of listening and watching art being performed. But more about this another time. While I think music will always be performed, with films it’s a bit different and we’ll have to see how things develop.

Meanwhile, go to movies! 😀

Multimediality

Approaching arts – and human experience in general – from the perspective of multimediality can be fruitful in opening different ways of understanding these experiences. We perceive the world first through our bodily senses and then construct various understandings and experiences of this sensory data through complex cognitive processes. While much of these experiences are non-conceptual I will here discuss mostly the ways in which music is conceptualised by using terminology from other artistic media. I. e we understand – or communicate our understandings of – music using words originally, or more often, used to describe other artistic media or realms of human experience.

Multimediality in music begins with one of the oldest ways of music-making; singing.  Although, as discussed before, singing may actually have preceded language and been a sort of “protolanguage”, singing as we usually think of it includes text, lyrics.

Performance of music is always multimedial.
Performance of music is always multimedial.

Intermediality and intertextuality

Multimediality cannot really be discussed without also addressing some neighbouring terms. Intertextuality became hip in the academic discussions of arts since at least in 1980s. It’s a helpful tool in analysing and understanding the ways in which meanings are created in multifaceted ways by various techniques such as quotation or some sort of reference. As discussed before, these techniques have been central to black American music-making since the times of slavery to the contemporary hip-hop.

Intertextuality tends to fall short when applied to performing arts. While there are certain benefits in reducing everything to “texts”, two dimensional layers of meaning, this comes with a cost when studying music as a performative phenomenon, e.g. through Christopher Small’s “musicking”. Multimedality is a more helpful concept in helping us study and understand how different artistic media are used, and can be used, to reflect and create rich human experiences by drawing from the tools and strengths of the different media in our disposal.

Multimediality in music

Multimediality in music is an old idea as music has always been a part of some “extramusical” performance or context such as a ritual. In fact “pure” music is one of those 19th century Romantic ideas still to some extent holding our experience of music captive. But more about that another time.

The gesamtkunstwerk of Richard Wagner‘s opera remain perhaps the most iconic examples of effort to bring all the art forms together. Whereas Wagner’s operatic works might stand as the ultimate artistic expression of modernity, the 21st century post-modern artists produce more fragmented works.

Whereas black American music has got from the cotton fields to White House (see below), western Classical music is now performed by native orchestras and singers all over the world – here also conducted by a woman, something which in Wagner’s time was quite unthinkable. Multimediality here includes also video projections and TV production.

Earlier I discussed how Jacob Collier presents his multifaceted talent in his YouTube videos and how Janelle Monáe implies multiple – or perhaps fragmented – identities in her performances of the song Tightrope with means of music production, the “music itself” (e.g. melody, harmony, groove), lyrics, video, live performance, etc. The Dutch group Tin Men and the Telephone is also a very interesting example of musical art that draws from multiple media in a very interactive way on and off stage.

Janelle Monáe’s performance in the White House by Barak Obama’s invitation has various multimedial layers. As discussed earlier, her performance style is rich in references to other black American artists, perhaps most notably in the James Brown steps in her dance moves. In this performance the “Funkiest horn section of Metropolis” becomes that of White House, opening up a myriad of interpretations.

Here’s Jacob Collier embracing the social medium of music making in a contemporary digital manner enabling music-making together across temporal and spacial boundaries.

Tin Men and the Telephone do various things with different media from “musicalising” recorded speech and other sounds to typing with the piano keyboard and collaboration with their audience through a special app.

Music in literature – Toni Morrrison’s Jazz

One interesting form of multimediality is that of music in literature; the use of description of music in literature and use of musical techniques in writing. Describing music in words requires quite an effort from the writer and reader alike to convey and share an artistic experience across the media. To describe art of one medium with the means of another requires sharing cultural understanding on a deep level and the ability to imagine, in this case, music described with words.

When I first tried to read Toni Morrison’s Jazz, in the age of around 15 or soI  expected it to be “about jazz”. I didn’t understand much about it and quickly gave up.

Jazz by Toni Morrison, 1st edition cover

Recently I picked up the book again and was better able to appreciate the ways in which Morrison took jazz as a metaphor and method and used its compositional and performative techniques to tell the story of her book.

Like a jazz performance the book has a main theme, a story it wants to tell. However, the main characters are also given “solo spots” to elaborate on their personal stories giving depth to the main story and enabling the reader to approach – perhaps even experience – the story from the individual perspectives of the characters; much like in jazz performance the “tune” is approached differently by each of the soloists.

Jazz in Morrison’s book is also a metaphor for the black American struggle and experience. As briefly discussed before, jazz has come a long way from an unappreciated folk music symbolising the worst of human kind – even among some black Americans – to be heralded as the “American Classical music”. Whereas Amiri Baraka in his Blues People elaborated on the idea of “music as the history of black Americans”, Morrison gives the bones of this history the flesh of her characters.

Amiri Baraka’s Blues People elaborates on the idea of music as the history of black Americans.

At the time I’m typing this the first black American president has just stepped aside to make space for another yet white male, one whose rhetoric and first deeds clearly show how the struggle for human rights is far from over. Morrison’s story takes place in a period prior to the Civil Rights era when many – as some of the characters in the book – still had vivid personal memories of the Jim Crow treatment of blacks.

Music and visual arts

The painting on top of this article is the Garden of Earthly Pleasures by Hieronymus Bosch from 1500.  As sound is difficult to picture music in visual arts is mainly pictured through instruments and musical acts such as dancing and singing. Bosch’s painting is a classic one portraying music as a sinful – or at least not respectable – activity through placing some instruments of the time together with people busy with Earthly orgies.

The pianist Bill Evans wrote liner notes for the 1959 Miles Davis quintet album Kind of Blue, I’ve also discussed earlier. In his text Evans makes an analogy between the Japanese calligraphy shodō and jazz improvisation. He stresses the temporal nature of both media; just as the stroke of a brush leaves its mark on the paper and cannot be undone or altered, a musical sound cannot be taken back. Further challenge in jazz improvisation is the group setting in which it most often happens; there are in fact many “brushes” making strokes simultaneously to the “canvas” of temporal framework set, in this case, by Miles Davis.