This is a poster for Fences (film). The poster art copyright is believed to belong to the distributor of the film, the publisher of the film or the graphic artist.

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 interpretation 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 while sitting on the coach at home and/or with headphones on. 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! 😀

Black music – Part I

Congo Square

After a summer break I’ll try and resume posting again. I’ll start with some ruminations about the genre of music closest to me.

As mentioned before, most of my musical activities have revolved around musical genres which can be grouped under a general category of something called “Black music”. While Black music is a common nomination for musical cultures with roots in Africa, the notion does raise some questions, some of which I’d like to discuss here.

In addition, to have been involved with Black music for most of my musical career, there was one particular incident that got me thinking of this notion more broadly and deeply. This happened at a university in Germany where I was presenting my idea for a Master’s thesis about the brass bands in New Orleans. The most discussed topic after my presentation was the notion of Black music and whether it was a racist, discriminating, and/or politically correct term.

In my studies, I have largely relied on North American literature about the music. My interests began with the history of jazz and from there to Black music in a more general sense. The choice of literature has also been affected by my language skills, as well as the institutional preferences at the Musicology department of the University of Amsterdam.

The academic discourse about Black music has gone more or less hand-in-hand with the general discourse in terms of terminology. One of the most significant publications in the field, Black Music Research Journal started in 1980. In the largest online repository of academic publications, JSTOR this journal is listed under the topic of African American Studies. Among others, the list of journals there include Journal of African American History, Black Perspective in Music, and the Journal of Negro Education. It’s notable that the first of these was originally called Journal of Negro History (1916-2001) but the last is still in publication using the original name (since 1932).

Thus, it seems that the academic community – at least on that side of the bond – is rather heterogeneous in their terminology in this regard. But let’s turn back to music and what this terminology implies in terms of music and musical practices.

Can music be black? – Some musical markers

The notion of “Black music” would seem to indicate that there’s something specific in the music – as a “sound object” – that makes it “black” as opposed to some other colour, i.e. it points at an ethnicity or a race. What could such musical elements be? With the risk of simplifying and essentialising matters, I’m going to use a bit of comparative methodology here.

Revealing my cultural background and point of view, I’ll take – rather stereotypically – as a point of comparison the western classical music. The most striking difference between western classical music and most Black music genres is the use of rhythm. The most distinct feature of such contemporary genres as jazz, blues, R&B, reggae, samba, salsa, etc. is their rhythmic character; swing, groove, tumbao, whatever it’s called in a particular genre. One could also argue that the frequent use of pentatonic scales with some unstable “blue notes” is distinct to Black music genres. Harmony has for so long been in the centre of western classical music that it has for a long time been difficult, if not impossible, to do anything new on that area. It could, however, be argued that harmonising the above-mentioned scales and fixing those unstable inflections into chords corresponds with the (Black) aesthetic of the music and results in harmonies – while nothing new on paper – are characteristic to these genres. Blues is a prime example of this as the use of a dominant chord on all degrees (I, IV, V) undermine the conventional function of this chord, resulting in a distinct “blues tonality”.

Each genre also tends to have its characteristic instrumentation; violin strongly implies classical music – although violin or similar instruments have always been used in popular music as well – saxophone or trumpet are often used to signify jazz in e.g. festival posters and album covers, electric guitar and drums refer to pop/rock, and so on and so forth. Performance venues are also markers for genres, albeit broad ones. You don’t have a symphony orchestra playing in a bar or a heavy metal band in a concert hall. Only due to the acoustics of these venues such performances would not be successful, but also in other ways the music would mostly likely seem to be quite “out of place”, in a very literal sense.

I’ll come back to these aspects later when I take the discussion to a more concrete level with some more specific examples.

Music as discourse

So there are some musical and physical, or extra-musical, markers suggestive of a musical genre. But what do these have to do with any sort of racial or ethnic label or claim on music? Quite a lot, in fact. Music, like any other art form, is used to express, communicate, share and live various, more or less specific, socio-cultural experiences. As such, these artistic processes are part of the ever-continuing discourse about the human condition.

Music has also the benefit, and challenge, of being the most abstract of the art forms. Referentiality or any kind of “meaning” in instrumental music is a very complicated notion and highly malleable depending on various contextual factors. Shortly, it’s quite difficult, if not impossible, to put a finger on the references or “meanings” of a piece of instrumental music. In most cases, there are several semantic layers and various possible interpretations.

To call some music “Black” – or any other such label or category – then is to claim that it has some specific relation to a specific group of people. We are, thus, dealing with a discourse about identity with various cultural, social, political, etc. dimensions. And this is essentially a musical discourse; while a lot has been – and will be – said about music in this regard, the really meaningful discourse takes place in the music itself; the ways in which people make and use music. To give this a Heideggerian twist, we cannot perceive/experience music as a “sound object” without our subjective interpretation colouring the experience with connotations and meanings, i.e. there’s no Music (with a capital M) without extra-musical elements and dimensions (begging the question whether “extra-musical” is a valid notion).

I’ll leave it at this for now. Next time I’ll take a more concrete approach to the matter and discuss jazz as Black music and the discourse around the topic. I’ll bring along some other, more renowned, commentators on the matter and also discuss an aspect I haven’t touched yet: What does the “Black” in Black music actually stand for?

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