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In Search of Politics Itself, or What We Mean When We Say Music (and Music Writing) is “Too Political”

Music has become too political—this is what some observers said about the recent Grammy Awards. Following the broadcast last week, some argued that musicians and celebrities used the event as a platform for their own purposes, detracting from the occasion: celebration of music itself.  Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted:

I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that the daily grind of a U.N. ambassador is filled with routine realities we refer to as “politics”: bureaucracy, budget planning, hectic meetings, and all kinds of disagreements. It makes some sense to me, then, that Haley would demand a realm of life that is untouched by politics—but why music in particular?

The fantasy of a space free from politics resembles other patterns of utopian thought, which often take the form of nostalgia. “There was a time when only a handful of people seemed to write politically about music,” said Chuck Klosterman, a novelist and critic of pop culture, in an interview in June 2017. He continued:

Now everybody does, so it’s never interesting. Now, to see someone only write about the music itself is refreshing. It’s not that I don’t think music writing should have a political aspect to it, but when it just becomes a way that everyone does  something, you see a lot of people forcing ideas upon art that actually detracts [sic] from the appreciation of that art. It’s never been worse than it is now.

He closed his interview by saying: “I do wonder if in 15 years people are going to look back at the art from this specific period and almost discover it in a completely new way because they’ll actually be consuming the content as opposed to figuring out how it could be made into a political idea.” Klosterman almost said it: make criticism great again.

Reminiscing about a time when music writing was free from politics, Klosterman suggests that critics can distinguish between pure content and mere politics—which is to say, whatever is incidental to the music, rather than central to it.  He offers an example, saying, “My appreciation of [Merle Haggard’s] ‘Workin’ Man Blues’ is not really any kind of extension of my life, or my experience, or even my values. […] I can’t describe why I like this song, I just like it.” If Klosterman, an accomplished critic, tried to describe the experiences that lead him to like this particular song, he probably could—but the point is that he doesn’t make explicit the relationship between personal identity and musical taste.

Screen Capture of Merle Haggard singing “Workin’ Man Blues,” Live from Austin, Texas, 1978

The heart of Klosterman’s concern is that critics project too many of their own problems and interests onto musicians. Musician and music writer Greg Tate recently made a similar suggestion: when reviewing Jay-Z’s album 4:44, Tate focuses on how celebrities become attached to public affects. In his July 2017 review, “The Politicization of Jay-Z,” he writes:

In the rudderless free fall of this post-Obama void […] all eyes being on Bey-Z, Kendrick, and Solange makes perfect agitpop sense. All four have become our default stand-ins until the next grassroots groundswell […] Bey-Z in particular have become the ready-made meme targets of everything our online punditry considers positive or abhorrent about Blackfolk in the 21st century.

Jay and Bey perform live in 2013, by Flickr user sashimomura,(CC BY 2.0)

He suggests that critics politicize musicians, turning them into repositories of various projections about the culture-at-large. Although writing from a very different place than Klosterman, Tate shares the sense that most music criticism is not really about music at all. But whereas Klosterman implies that criticism resembles ideological propaganda too much, Tate implies that criticism is a mere “stand-in” for actual politics, written at the expense of actual political organizing. In other words, music criticism is not political enough.

In 1926, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about this problem, the status of art as politics. In his essay “Criteria of Negro Art,” he dissects what he perceives to be the hypocrisy of any demand for pure art, abstracted from politics; he defends art that many others would dismiss as propagandistic—a dismissal revealed to be highly racialized. He writes:

Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for  any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.

Du Bois’s ideas would be engaged extensively by later authors, including Amiri Baraka. In his 1963 essay “Jazz and the White Critic,” he addresses politics in terms of “attitude.” Then-contemporary white critics misunderstood black styles, he argued, because they failed to fully apprehend the attitudes that produced them. They were busy trying, and failing, to appreciate the sound of bebop “itself,” but without considering why bebop was made in the first place.

Dizzy Gillespie, one of BeBop’s key players, in Paris, 1952, Image courtesy of Flickr User Kristen, (CC BY 2.0)

As Baraka presents it, white critics were only able to ignore black musicians’ politics and focus on the music because the white critics’ own attitudes had already been assumed to be superior, and therefore rendered irrelevant. Only because their middle-brow identities had been so thoroughly elevated in history could these middle-brow critics get away with defining the object of their appreciation as “pure” music. Interestingly, as Baraka concludes, it was their ignorance of context that ultimately served to “obfuscate what has been happening with the music itself.” It’s not that the music itself doesn’t matter; it’s that music’s context makes it matter.

In response to morerecent concerns about the politicization of popular music, Robin James has analyzed the case of Beyoncé’s Lemonade. She performs a close reading of two reviews, by Carl Wilson and by Kevin Fallon, both of whom expressly seek the album’s “music itself,” writing against the many critical approaches that politicize it. James suggests that these critics can appeal to “music itself” only because their own identities have been falsely universalized and made invisible. They try to divorce music from politics precisely because this approach, in her words, “lets white men pop critics have authority over black feminist music,” a quest for authority that James considers a form of epistemic violence.

That said, James goes on to conclude that the question these critics ask—“what about the music?”—can also be a helpful starting point, from which we can start to make explicit some types of knowledge that have previously remained latent. The mere presence of the desire for a space free from politics and identity, however problematic, tells us something important.

Our contemporary curiosity about identity—identity being our metonym for “politics” more broadly—extends back at least to the 1990s, when music’s political status was widely debated in terms of it. For example, in a 1991 issue of the queercore zine Outpunk, editor Matt Wobensmith describes what he perceived to be limitations of thinking about music within his scene. He laments what he calls “musical purism,” a simplistic mindset by which “you are what you listen to.” Here, he capitalizes his points of tension:

Suddenly, your taste in music equates you with working class politics and a movement of the disenfranchised. Your IDENTITY is based on how music SOUNDS. How odd that people equate musical chops with how tough or revolutionary you may be! Music is a powerful language of its own. But the music-as-identity idea is a complete fiction. It makes no sense and it defies logic. Will someone please debunk this myth?

Wobensmith suggests that a person’s “musical chops,” their technical skills, have little to do with their personal identity. Working from the intersection of Klosterman and Tate, Wobensmith imagines a scenario in which the abstract language of music transcends the identities of the people who make it. Like them, Wobensmith seems worried that musical judgments too often unfold as critiques of a musician’s personality or character, rather than their work. Critics project themselves onto music, and listeners also get defined by the music they like, which he finds unsettling.

That same year, in an interview published in the 1991 issue of the zine Bikini Kill, musicians Kathleen Hanna and Jean Smith addressed a similar binary as Wobensmith, that of content and technique. But they take a different view: in fact, they emphasize the fallacy of this dualism in the first place. “You just can’t separate it out,” said Hanna, questioning the possibility of distinguishing between content—the “music itself”—and technique on audio recordings.

Female-fronted bands of this era were sometimes criticized for their lack of technique, even as terrible male punk bands were widely admired for their cavalier disregard of musical rules. Further still, disparagement of women’s poor technique often overlooked the reasons why it suffered: many women had been systematically discouraged from musical participation in these scenes. Either way, as Tamra Lucid has argued, it is the enforcement of “specific canons of theory and technique,” inevitably along the lines of identity, that cause harm if left unexamined.

All of these thinkers show that various binaries in circulation—sound and identity, personality and technique, music and politics—are gendered in insidious ways, an observation arrived at by the same logic that led Du Bois to reveal the moniker of “propaganda” to be racialized. As Hanna puts it, too many people assumed that “male artists are gonna place more importance on technique and female artists’ll place more on content.” She insists that these two concepts can’t be separated in order to elevate aspects of experience that had been implicitly degraded as feminine: the expression of righteous anger, or recollection of awkward intimacy.

Bikini Kill at Gilman Street, Berkeley, CA, 1990s, Image by Flickr User John Eikleberry, CC BY-NC 2.0

Punk had never pretended not to be political, making it a powerful site for internal critique. Since the 1970s, punk had been a form in which grievances about systemic problems and social inequality could be openly, overtly aired. The riot grrrls, by politicizing confessional, femme, and deeply private forms of expression within punk, demonstrated that even the purest musical politics resemble art more than is sometimes thought: “politics itself” is necessarily performative, personal, and highly expressive, involving artifice.

Even the act of playing music can be considered a form of political action, regardless of how critics interpret it. In another punk zine from c. 1990, for example, an anonymous author asks:

What impact can music have? You could say that it’s always political, because a really good pop song, even when it hasn’t got political words, is always about how much human beings can do with the little bag of resources, the limited set of playing pieces and moves and words, available […] Greil Marcus calls it ‘the vanity of believing that cheap music is potent enough to take on nothingness,’ and it may be cool in some places to mock him but here he’s dead-on right.

But music is never only political—that is, not in the elections-and-petitions sense of the word. And music is always an action, always something done to listeners, by musicians (singers, songwriters, producers, hissy stereo systems)—but it’s never only that, when it’s any good: no more than you, reader, are the social roles you play.

The author persuades us that music is political, even as they insist that it’s something more. Music as “pure sound,” as a “universal language” seems to have the most potential to be political, but also to transcend politics’ limitations—the trash, the propaganda. Given this potential, some listeners find themselves frustrated with music’s consistent failure to rise to their occasion, to give them what they desire: to be apolitical.

Kelly Clarkson performed at The Chelsea on July 27, 2012, image by Flickr User The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, CC BY-NC 2.0

In an interview during the recent Grammys broadcast, pop singer Kelly Clarkson said, “I’m political when I feel like I need to be.” It’s refreshing to imagine politics this way, like a light we turn on and off–and it’s a sign of political privilege to be able to do so. But politics are, unfortunately, inextricable from our lives and therefore inescapable: the places we go, the exchanges we pursue, the relationships we develop, the ways we can be in the world. Thinking with Robin James, it seems that our collective desire for a world free from all this reveals a deeper knowledge, which music helps make explicit: we wish things were different.

I wonder if those who lament the “contamination” of the Grammys with politics might be concerned that their own politics are unfounded or irrelevant, requiring revision, just as many white people who are allergic to identity politics are, in fact, aware that our own identity has been, and continues to be, unduly elevated. When Chuck Klosterman refuses to describe the reason why he likes “Workin’ Man Blues,” claiming that he “just does,” does he fear, as I sometimes do, not that there is no reason, but that this reason isn’t good enough?

Fortunately, there are many critics today who do the difficult work of examining music’s politics. Take Liz Pelly, for example, whose research about the backend of streaming playlists reminds us of music’s material basis. Or what about the astute criticism of Tim Barker, Judy Berman, Shuja Haider, Max Nelson, and others for whom musical thought and action are so thoroughly intertwined? Finally, I think of many music writers at Tiny Mix Tapes, such as Frank Falisi, Hydroyoga, C Monster, or Cookcook, for whom creation is a way of life—and whose creative practices themselves are potent enough to “take on nothingness.”

“Music is never only political,” as the anonymous ‘zine article author argues above, but it is always political, at least a little bit. As musicians and critics, our endeavor should not be to transcend this fact, but to affirm it with increasing nuance and care. During a recent lecture, Alexander Weheliye challenged us in a lecture given in January 2018 at New York University, when listening, “To really think: what does this art reflect?” Call it music or call it politics: the best of both will change somebody’s mind for real, and for the better.

Featured Image: Screen Capture from Kendrick Lamar’s video for “HUMBLE,” winner of the 2018 Grammy for “Best Music Video.”

Elizabeth Newton is a doctoral candidate in musicology. She has written for The New Inquiry, Tiny Mix Tapes, Real Life Magazine, the Quietus, and Leonardo Music Journal. Her research interests include musico-poetics, fidelity and reproduction, and affective histories of musical media. Her dissertation, in progress, is about “affective fidelity” in audio and print culture of the 1990s.

tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:

SO! Reads: Jace Clayton’s Uproot–Elizabeth Newton

Re: Chuck Klosterman – “Tomorrow Rarely Knows”–Aaron Trammell

This is What It Sounds Like . . . . . . . . On Prince (1958-2016) and Interpretive Freedom–Ben Tausig

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SO! Amplifies: Allison Smartt, Sound Designer of MOM BABY GOD and Mixed-Race Mixtape

SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

Currently on the faculty and the associate technical director of California Institute of the Arts Sharon Lund Disney School of Dance, Allison Smartt worked for several years in Hampshire’s dance program as intern-turned-program assistant. A sound engineer, designer, producer, and educator for theater and dance, she has created designs seen and heard at La MaMa, The Yard, Arts In Odd Places Festival, Barrington Stage Company, the Five College Consortium, and other venues.

Allison Smartt

She is also the owner of Smartt Productions, a production company that develops and tours innovative performances about social justice. Its repertory includes the nationally acclaimed solo-show about reproductive rights, MOM BABY GOD, and the empowering, new hip-hop theatre performance, Mixed-Race Mixtape. Her productions have toured 17 U.S. cities and counting.

Ariel Taub is currently interning at Sounding Out! responsible for assisting with layout, scoping out talent and in the process uncovering articles that may relate to or reflect work being done in the field of Sound Studies. She is a Junior pursuing a degree in English and Sociology from Binghamton University.

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Recently turned on to several of the projects Allison Smartt has been involved in, I became especially fascinated with MOM BABY GOD 3.0, of which Smartt was sound designer and producer. The crew of MOM BABY GOD 3.o sets the stage for what to expect in a performance with the following introduction:

Take a cupcake, put on a name tag, and prepare to be thrown into the world of the Christian Right, where sexual purity workshops and anti-abortion rallies are sandwiched between karaoke sing-alongs, Christian EDM raves and pro-life slumber parties. An immersive dark comedy about American girl culture in the right-wing, written and performed by Madeline Burrows. One is thrown into the world of the Christian Right, where sexual purity workshops and anti-abortion rallies are sandwiched between karaoke sing-alongs, Christian EDM raves and pro-life slumber parties.

It’s 2018 and the anti-abortion movement has a new sense of urgency. Teens 4 Life is video-blogging live from the Students for Life of America Conference, and right-wing teenagers are vying for popularity while preparing for political battle. Our tour guide is fourteen-year-old Destinee Grace Ramsey, ascending to prominence as the new It-Girl of the Christian Right while struggling to contain her crush on John Paul, a flirtatious Christian boy with blossoming Youtube stardom and a purity ring.

MOM BABY GOD toured nationally to sold-out houses from 2013-2015 and was the subject of a national right-wing smear campaign. In a newly expanded and updated version premiering at Forum Theatre and Single Carrot Theatre in March 2017, MOM BABY GOD takes us inside the right-wing’s youth training ground at a more urgent time than ever.

I reached out to Smartt about these endeavors with some sound-specific questions.  What follows is our April 2017 email exchange [edited for length].

Ariel Taub (AT): What do you think of the voices Madeline Burrows [the writer and solo actor of MOM BABY GOD]  uses in the piece? How important is the role of sound in creating the characters?

Allison Smartt (AS): I want to accurately represent Burrows’s use of voice in the show. For those who haven’t seen it, she’s not an impersonator or impressionist conjuring up voices for solely comedy’s sake. Since she is a woman portraying a wide range of ages and genders on stage and voice is a tool in a toolbox she uses to indicate a character shift. Madeline has a great sense of people’s natural speaking rhythms and an ability to incorporate bits of others’ unique vocal elements into the characters she portrays. Physicality is another tool. Sound cues are yet another…lighting, costume, staging, and so on.

I do think there’s something subversive about a queer woman voicing ideology and portraying people that inherently aim to repress her existence/identity/reproductive rights.

Many times, when actors are learning accents they have a cue line that helps them jump into that accent. Something that they can’t help but say in a southern, or Irish, or Canadian accent. In MOM BABY GOD, I think of my sound design in a similar way. The “I’m a Pro-Life Teen” theme is the most obvious example. It’s short and sweet, with a homemade flair and most importantly: it’s catchy. The audience learns to immediately associate that riff with Destinee (the host of “I’m a Pro-Life Teen”), so much so that I stop playing the full theme almost immediately, yet it still commands the laugh and upbeat response from the audience.

AT: Does [the impersonation and transformation of people on the opposite side of a controversial issues into] characters [mark them as] inherently mockable? (I asked Smartt about this specifically because of the reaction the show elicited from some people in the Pro-Life group.) 

AS: Definitely not. I think the context and intention of the show really humanizes the people and movement that Madeline portrays. The show isn’t cruel or demeaning towards the people or movement – if anything, our audience has a lot of fun. But it is essential that Madeline portray the type of leaders in the movement (in any movement really) in a realistic, yet theatrical way. It’s a difficult needle to thread and think she does it really well. A preacher has a certain cadence – it’s mesmerizing, it’s uplifting. A certain type of teen girl is bubbly, dynamic. How does a gruff (some may say manly), galvanizing leader speak? It’s important the audience feel the unique draw of each character – and their voices are a large part of that draw.

Madeline Burrows in character in MOM BABY GOD (National Tour 2013-2015). Photos by Jessica Neria

AT: What sounds [and sound production] were used to help carry the performance [of MOM BABY GOD]? What role does sound have in making plays [and any performance] cohesive? 

AS: Sound designing for theatre is a mix of many elements, from pre-show music, sound effects and original music to reinforcement, writing cues, and sound system design. For a lot of projects, I’m also my own sound engineer so I also implement the system designs and make sure everything functions and sounds tip top.

Each design process is a little different. If it’s a new work in development, like MOM BABY GOD and Mixed-Race Mixtape, I am involved in a different way than if I’m designing for a completed work (and designing for dance is a whole other thing). There are constants, however. I’m always asking myself, “Are my ideas supporting the work and its intentions?” I always try to be cognizant of self-indulgence. I may make something really, really cool but that ultimately, after hearing it in context and conversations with the other artistic team members, is obviously doing too much more than supporting the work. A music journalism professor I had used to say, “You have to shoot that puppy.” Meaning, cut the cue you really love for the benefit of the overall piece.

I like to set myself limitations to work within when starting a design. I find that narrowing my focus to say…music only performed on harmonica or sound effects generated only from modes of transportation, help get my creative juices flowing (Sidenote: why is that a phrase? It give me the creeps)[. . .]I may relinquish these limitations later after they’ve helped me launch into creating a sonic character that feels complex, interesting, and fun.

AT: The show is described as being comprised of, “karaoke sing-alongs, Christian EDM raves and pro-life slumber parties,” each of these has its own distinct associations, how do “sing alongs” and  “raves” and our connotations with those things add to the pieces?

Madeline Burrows in character in MOM BABY GOD (National Tour 2013-2015). Photos by Jessica Neria

AS: Since sound is subjective, the associations that you make with karaoke sing-alongs are probably slightly different from what I associated with karaoke sing-alongs. You may think karaoke sing-along = a group of drunk BFFs belting Mariah Carey after a long day of work. I may think karaoke sing-alongs = middle aged men and women shoulder to shoulder in a dive bar singing “Friends In Low Places” while clinking their glasses of whiskey and draft beer. The similarity in those two scenarios is people singing along to something, but the character and feeling of each image is very different. You bring that context with you as you read the description of the show and given the challenging themes of the show, this is a real draw for people usually resistant to solo and/or political theatre. The way the description is written and what it highlights intentionally invites the audience to feel invited, excited, and maybe strangely upbeat about going to see a show about reproductive rights.

As a sound designer and theatre artist, one of my favorite moments is when the audience collectively readjusts their idea of a karaoke sing-along to the experience we create for them in the show. I feel everyone silently say, “Oh, this is not what I expected, but I love it,” or “This is exactly what I imagined!” or “I am so uncomfortable but I’m going with it.” I think the marketing of the show does a great job creating excited curiosity, and the show itself harnesses that and morphs it into confused excitement and surprise (reviewers articulate this phenomenon much better that I could).

AT: In this video the intentionally black screen feels like deep space. What sounds [and techniques] are being used? Are we on a train, a space ship, in a Church? What can you [tell us] about this piece?

AS: There are so many different elements in this cue…it’s one of my favorites. This cue is lead in and background to Destinee’s first experience with sexual pleasure. Not to give too much away: She falls asleep and has a sex dream about Justin Bieber. I compiled a bunch of sounds that are anticipatory: a rocket launch, a train pulling into a station, a remix/slowed down version of a Bieber track. These lead into sounds that feel more harsh: alarm clocks, crumpling paper…I also wanted to translate the feeling of being woken up abruptly from a really pleasant dream…like you were being ripped out of heaven or something. It was important to reassociate for Destinee and the audience, sounds that had previously brought joy with this very confusing and painful moment, so it ends with heartbeats and church bells.

I shoved the entire arc of the show into this one sound cue. And Madeline and Kathleen let me and I love them for that.

AT: What do individuals bring of themselves when they listen to music? How is music a way of entering conversations otherwise avoided? 

AS: The answer to this question is deeper than I can articulate but I’ll try.

Talking about bias, race, class, even in MOM BABY GOD introducing a pro-life video blog – broaching these topics are made easier and more interesting through music. Why? I think it’s because you are giving the listener multiple threads from which to sew their own tapestry…their own understanding of the thing. The changing emotions in a score, multiplicity of lyrical meaning, tempo, stage presence, on and on. If you were to just present a lecture on any one of those topics, the messages feel too stark, too heavy to be absorbed (especially to be absorbed by people who don’t already agree with the lecture or are approaching that idea for the first time). Put them to music and suddenly you open up people’s hearts.

Post- Mixed-Race Mixtape love, William Paterson University, 2016 Photo credit: Allison Smartt

As a sound designer, I have to be conscious of what people bring to their listening experience, but can’t let this rule my every decision. The most obvious example is when faced with the request to use popular music. Take maybe one of the most overused classics of the 20th century, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. If you felt an urge just now to stop reading this interview because you really love that song and how dare I naysay “Hallelujah” – my point has been made. Songs can evoke strong reactions. If you heard “Hallelujah” for the first time while seeing the Northern Lights (which would arguably be pretty epic), then you associate that memory and those emotions with that song. When a designer uses popular music in their design, this is a reality you have to think hard about.

Cassette By David Millan on Flickr.

It’s similar with sound effects. For Mixed-Race Mixtape, Fig wanted to start the show with the sound of a cassette tape being loaded into a deck and played. While I understood why he wanted that sound cue, I had to disagree. Our target demographic are of an age where they may have never seen or used a cassette tape before – and using this sound effect wouldn’t elicit the nostalgic reaction he was hoping for.

Regarding how deeply the show moves people, I give all the credit to Fig’s lyrics and the entire casts’ performance, as well as the construction of the songs by the musicians and composers. As well as to Jorrell, our director, who has focused the intention of all these elements to coalesce very effectively. The cast puts a lot of emotion and energy into their performances and when people are genuine and earnest on stage, audiences can sense that and are deeply engaged.

I do a lot of work in the dance world and have come to understand how essential music and movement are to the human experience. We’ve always made music and moved our bodies and there is something deeply grounding and joining about collective listening and movement – even if it’s just tapping your fingers and toes.

AT: How did you and the other artists involved come up with the name/ idea for Mixed-Race Mixtape? How did the Mixed-Race Mixtape come about?

AS: Mixed-Race Mixtape is the brainchild of writer/performer Andrew “Fig” Figueroa. I’ll let him tell the story.

Andrew “Fig” Figueroa, Hip-Hop artist, theatre maker, and arts educator from Southern California

A mixtape is a collection of music from various artists and genres on one tape, CD or playlist. In Hip-Hop, a mixtape is a rapper’s first attempt to show the world there skills and who they are, more often than not, performing original lyrics over sampled/borrowed instrumentals that compliment their style and vision. The show is about “mixed” identity and I mean, I’m a rapper so thank God “Mixed-Race” rhymed with “Mixtape.”

The show grew from my desire to tell my story/help myself make sense of growing up in a confusing, ambiguous, and colorful culture. I began writing a series of raps and monologues about my family, community and youth and slowly it formed into something cohesive.

AT: I love the quote, “the conversation about race in America is one sided and missing discussions of how class and race are connected and how multiple identities can exist in one person,” how does Mixed-Race Mixtape fill in these gaps?

AS: Mixed-Race Mixtape is an alternative narrative that is complex, personal, and authentic. In America, our ideas about race largely oscillate between White and Black. MRMT is alternative because it tells the story of someone who sits in the grey area of Americans’ concept of race and dispels the racist subtext that middle class America belongs to White people. Because these grey areas are illuminated, I believe a wide variety of people are able to find connections with the story.

AT: In this video people discuss the connection they [felt to the music and performance] even if they weren’t expecting to. What do you think is responsible for sound connecting and moving people from different backgrounds? Why are there the assumptions about the event that there are, that they wouldn’t connect to the Hip Hop or that there would be “good vibes.”

AS: Some people do feel uncertain that they’d be able to connect with the show because it’s a “hip-hop” show. When they see it though, it’s obvious that it extends beyond the bounds of what they imagine a hip-hop show to be. And while I’ve never had someone say they were disappointed or unmoved by the show, I have had people say they couldn’t understand the words. And a lot of times they want to blame that on the reinforcement.

I’d argue that the people who don’t understand the lyrics of MRMT are often the same ones who were trepidatious to begin with, because I think hip-hop is not a genre they have practice listening to. I had to practice really actively listening to rap to train my brain to process words, word play, metaphor, etc. as fast as rap can transmit them. Fig, an experienced hip-hop listener and artist amazes me with how fast he can understand lyrics on the first listen. I’m still learning. And the fact is, it’s not a one and done thing. You have to listen to rap more than once to get all the nuances the artists wrote in. And this extends to hip-hop music, sans lyrics. I miss so many really clever, artful remixes, samples, and references on the first listen. This is one of the reasons we released an EP of some of the songs from the show (and are in the process of recording a full album). 

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The theatre experience obviously provides a tremendously moving experience for the audience, but there’s more to be extracted from the music and lyrics than can be transmitted in one live performance.

AT: What future plans do you have for projects? You mentioned utilizing sounds from protests?  How is sound important in protest? What stands out to you about what you recorded?

AS: I have only the vaguest idea of a future project. I participate in a lot of rallies and marches for causes across the spectrum of human rights. At a really basic level, it feels really good to get together with like minded people and shout your frustrations, hopes, and fears into the world for others to hear. I’m interested in translating this catharsis to people who are wary of protests/hate them/don’t understand them. So I’ve started with my iPhone. I record clever chants I’ve never heard, or try to capture the inevitable moment in a large crowd when the front changes the chant and it works its way to the back.

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I record marching through different spaces…how does it sound when we’re in a tunnel versus in a park or inside a building? I’m not sure where these recordings will lead me, but I felt it was important to take them.

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Moonlight’s Orchestral Manoeuvers: A duet by Shakira Holt and Christopher Chien

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Riot Grrrl, Punk and the Tyranny of Technique

PUNKSOUND

Image of Alice Bag used with her permission (thank you!)

For full intro and part one of the series click here. For part two, click here.

Our Punk Sound series implicitly argues that sound studies methodologies are better suited to understanding how punk works sonically than existing journalistic and academic conversations about musical genre, chord progressions, and/or genealogies of bands.  Alexandra Vasquez’s sound-oriented work on Cuban music, for example, in Listening in Detail (2014) opens up necessary conversations about the “flashes, moments, sounds” in music that bear its meanings and its colonial, raced, classed, and gendered histories in material ways people can hear and feel.  While retaining the specificity of Vasquez’s argument and the specific sonic archive bringing it forth, we too insist on “an ethical and intellectual obligation to the question: what do the musicians sound like” (12) and  how do folks identifying with and through these musical sounds hear them?

In this series, we invite you to amplify varied historicized “details” of punk sound–its chunk-chunk-chunk skapunk riffs, screams, growls, group chants, driving rhythms, honking saxophones–hearing/feeling/touching these sounds in richly varied locations, times, places, and perspectives: as a pulsing bead of condensation dripping down the wall of The Smell in Downtown LA (#savethesmell), a drummer making her own time on tour, a drunk sitting too near the amp at a backyard party, a queer teenager in their bedroom being yelled at to “turn it down” and “act like a lady[or a man]”. . .and on and on.  Today’s essay is by Tamra Lucid. Here, Tamra offers her thoughts on how both technique and expression reinforce a gendered understanding of music. When punk sound plays with extremes, how can artists who feel trapped by these polemics resist?

SOUND!

NO, SOUND!

–Aaron SO! (Sounding Out!) + Jenny SO! (Sounding Out!)

“Don’t touch that!” a virtuoso guitarist had once told me when as a kid I reached for his guitar.  The same phrase would later be delivered by a punk guitarist at a gig where I offered to replace a string broken during his performance.  As noted in the book Girls Rock , women are often told not to touch these sacred instruments (18).  I remember thinking that guitar was as complex as a car engine and as dangerous as a circular saw. Technique and theory are meant to liberate musicians (so that their dexterity can follow wherever imagination and inspiration may lead), but when experiencing gender discrimination from instructors and fellow instrumentalists, technique and theory can seem antagonistic. In this essay I show how the elite and virtuoso focus on technique and theory has catalyzed punk musicians to cultivate the raw, expressive, qualities of punk sound. Yet, paradoxically, I point out how movements toward a raw and visceral sound constitute a cage of their own, alienating an equally radical and virtuoso community of women in the punk scene. How do these sonic contours in the 1990s riot grrrl scene tell a story about injustice and community building through sound?

Iconic guitarist Eddie Van Halen, shredding. Technique can be a form of gendered gatekeeping. Image by K. Todd Storch @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

Iconic guitarist Eddie Van Halen, shredding. Technique can be a form of gendered gatekeeping. Image by K. Todd Storch @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

Theory and technique become a cage when they are used by sexist cliques, such as the heavy metal scene, which sought to maintain hegemony over local scenes and resources.  For the gatekeepers, there are many benefits to this form of discrimination–women are encouraged to act as doting fans rather than joining bands. As a teenager I saw many young women told by male musicians that their only permissible roles were those of sex object or fan. Early in my musical career when I put out an ad searching for band mates some male musicians would call just to laugh at me.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s when canons of punk tone and composition ironically became defined by an athletics-like dedication to speed, precision and endurance, riot grrrl bands were criticized for their primitive skills.  However, by removing the barriers to self-expression that this emphasis on technique and theory created, many people, not only female or female identified, were empowered to create music similar to performance art.  As Liam S. Ruin of the Columbia, South Carolina hardcore band Shirley Temple of Doom (1993-1996) said in an interview I conducted with them for this essay: “I still think emphasis on technique is gross and ableist and boring and obvious.”

In this time of sonic reform, some scenes came to prize sincerity over skill. Here, a new canon of theory and technique evolved–another cage.  Some related to the riot grrrl scene found themselves accepted by their community while receiving praise for abandoning a commitment to simplicity.  For example Associated Newspapers News North West previewed a gig by Sleater Kinney in Manchester, UK by describing them as “too musically competent to be a Riot Grrrl band.” Likewise, the female hardcore bands Girl Jesus and Free Verse (though politically aligned with riot grrrl) found little support in a scene that viewed them as a threat. It was as if the language of technique and theory was the language of oppressors, and using it implied submission to the status quo.  The directness of purpose which had liberated so many artists, became a new kind of cage for others.

Shot of Girl Jesus from 1995. Image used with permission by the author.

Shot of Girl Jesus from 1995. Image used with permission by the author.

As a roadie for Girl Jesus, I witnessed the immediate dismissal (including groans of disappointment) they suffered when confronting male bands at gigs many times.  Despite these jeers I also saw the way their ferocious music and performance, anchored by guitarist Gina Rush’s use of middle eastern scales, Shell Davina’s unique and unusual drumming style, and Grit Maldonado’s flamenco-like bass lines, reduced many male bands to discouraged silence and listless performances.  I remember thinking that riot grrrl, or what was left of it in 1993, would welcome such a powerful example of female creativity.  The feeling of competence I felt as Girl Jesus approached each gig with confidence in their music and technology helped me to reinvent myself, encouraging me to graduate quickly from roadie to musician.

Gina Rush carefully chose her amps and had them modded by an expert.  Shell used a vintage drum-kit that would make any collector drool.  But these distinctions were rejected by the riot grrrl audience who found them elitist and classist.  Though Girl Jesus was a band of working class lesbians they were treated the same way as male bands in the scene.  As Shell reported in an article entitled “Queercore: Ready to Face the Market” by Brent Atwood in the May 6, 1995 issue of Billboard Magazine: “As a female band, we expected a strong network of women in music to stick together.  Instead we found a lot of competition.”  She also pointed out: “We’ve had more club owners be sexist to us than homophobic.”  Despite their embrace of technology and technique, two domains that code as masculine, Girl Jesus nurtured into existence two of the more popular riot grrrl bands in mid-90’s Los Angeles, Patsy and my own band Lucid Nation, which began by rehearsing in Girl Jesus’s garage using their equipment.  The name of Girl Jesus’s first cassette demo succinctly captured the problem: “Afraid of Our Own.”

The cover of Free Verse's "Access Denied" album. Image used with permission by the author.

The cover of Free Verse’s “Access Denied” album. Image used with permission by the author.

A similar trajectory was found by the all female hardcore band Free Verse, whose first record “Access Denied” was released by the indie label Brain Floss Records.  Free Verse began in Lawrence, Kansas in 1995 and in 1998 relocated to Seattle.  Lucid Nation toured nationally with  Free Verse in the summer of 1998.  The experience was similar to what I observed as a roadie for Girl Jesus.  Male bands who looked down upon female musicians with disdain were stunned by their display of skill and ferocity.  However, when we played in Olympia, Washington, the riot grrrl community cowered against the back wall, clearly uncomfortable.  On the road we smiled ruefully over the irony of masculinist male bands becoming fans while female fans who shared our politics turned their backs.  This created a conundrum for Free Verse.  Although they were able to deliver a feminist message to scenes and individuals who were hostile to feminism, they could not enjoy the community of like minded women who identified as riot grrrl.

Over time, Free Verse earned enough respect that they were able to open for leading bands from a variety of scenes.  From Hardcore bands like The Blood Brothers to indie stars like Sleater Kinney.  From queer core bands like The Need and The Butchies to riot grrrl supergroup The Cold Cold Hearts.  Though Free Verse were chosen to participate in the Northwest Coalition For Human Dignity’s anti-racism tour October 2002, a tour sponsored by Ms. magazine and featured in ROCKRGRL magazine, the band was never able to achieve the following or recognition of the bands they shared bills with, information about them is hard to find on the internet today.

Liam S. Ruin, now one of the guiding lights of the new Riot Grrrl Intersectional movement, provides a more intimate look at how the pressures of technique and theory influenced Shirley Temple of Doom: “Not really any RG [riot grrrl] activity in Columbia SC.  Um, Slant 6 played there once.   Our scene was extremely nuclear. We played with our friend’s bands, The Trema, Erector Set, Guyana Punch Line.  We were pretty much all in each other’s bands or dating each other or whatever. Making it up as we went along.  Jessica saw me in the halls at school wearing a Pearl Jam shirt and told me ‘you’re way too cool to be listening to shitty bands.’ She made me a mix cd that was mostly D.C. Emo and Hardcore but it had Bratmobile, Bikini Kill and L7, too. Then she lent me her bass.  I practiced with Joy Division and Heavens To Betsy covers till I could play along.  We started a band with her boyfriend. Half of our band were really into Straight Edge H/C and the other half were into Huggy Bear, Fugazi, NOU, etc.”

Donita Sparks of L7. Image by Dena Flows CC BY-NC-ND.

Donita Sparks of L7. Image by Dena Flows CC BY-NC-ND.

Shirley Temple of Doom, despite reflecting a riot grrrl like platform in their lyrics received little attention from the riot grrrl community.  Eventually the band collapsed due to internal tensions regarding technique–as if the rhetoric of extremes around technique and expression had become an expertly baited, misogynist trap.  As Liam informed me: “The guys in the band were very technical and pushed me to play more technical bass lines but honestly, I get bored with proficiency. I’ve heard what guitars are supposed to sound like. I wanna hear what they’re not supposed to sound like. We split because of ideological differences. I got really into visceral bass-feels and wanted to sound like a disaster, and they wanted to be on Victory Records.”

How did the cage of technique and expression, evolve in a style of music that advanced freedom as its guiding praxis?  Early on, rock musicians were considered unskilled when compared to classical, jazz and country musicians. Later, virtuosity became central to rock music as bands like Yes, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd, sought radical sounds to accommodate an aesthetic cultivated by Cannabis and LSD.  As What’s That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and It’s History puts it: “Rock musicians now had a responsibility to create sophisticated music using whatever means were available.” Soon after this turn to virtuosity, guitarists like Eddie Van Halen became the Paganinis of their time, displaying jaw-dropping finger speed and impressive knowledge of scales and musical theory.

Later, punk rock crashed the party.  First in the hands of the MC5 and The Stooges, and then the New York Dolls, The Ramones, the Sex Pistols and many other bands, rock music turned again towards primitive and cathartic sincerity.  Musical virtuosity was literally spit upon.  The Ramones famously told The Clash that they needn’t worry about improving their musicianship before playing live because “as you’ll see tonight, we suck.”  Ferocity replaced dexterity.  Nihilistic and cathartic lyrics displaced idealistic flights of fancy. Punk quickly developed its own criteria to indicate mastery of the genre.  Bands like Fugazi and F.Y.P. typified a performance style that required frenetic motion while preserving the lockstep rhythm and hand speed, if not the musical knowledge and experimentation, of the earlier virtuosos.  Then riot grrrl arrived, freeing a generation of punk women who were uncomfortable with the athletic performance style of these bands.  For example, one of L.A.’s favorite riot grrrl bands Crown for Athena would perform at times with one member of the band sitting on the stage singing while clinging to the pant leg of another who stood immobile and emotionless.  Frenetic performance and blazing chord speed was no longer a requirement for legitimacy on the punk stage.

Flier advertising an International Woman's Day celebration featuring Lucid Nation. Image used with permission by the author.

Flier advertising an International Woman’s Day celebration featuring Lucid Nation. Image used with permission by the author.

Riot grrrl liberated me from the odious trial of confronting sexist music teachers, store clerks, booking agents, and record companies.  I learned from the movement that I could get by with simple barre chords. I could use cheap and borrowed gear and I didn’t have to worry about great tone. One of the bands I admired, Foxfire, a band of female high school students from Los Angeles, used an oven pan instead of a snare drum. Riot grrrl bands emphasized community by booking shows with each other and with activist groups like Food Not Bombs.  We made our own labels to distribute each other’s records.  When Lucid Nation opened for Bikini Kill at Terraza Jamay in Montebello, Kathleen Hanna took tickets at the door.

As my musical skills developed I found myself feeling restricted by the aesthetics of riot grrrl.  Beginning with Lucid Nation’s DNA record (2000) we began exploring cliches of what we called “butt rock,” now more popularly known as classic rock.  While we attempted to master the techniques of classic rock our intent was to deconstruct them by introducing unexpected twists of sound (like chaotic analog synth and noise pedals) and lyrics containing feminist perspectives.  At this point, we had moved on to other scenes, for example, the melange of Peace Punks, Black Panthers, and riot grrrls at Koo’s Cafe in Santa Ana, CA.  We played hemp rallies and non-riot grrrl political events like fundraisers for Big Mountain and other Native American causes.

1997 Image of the author with her "surrealist assemblage." Image used with permission by the author.

1997 Image of the author with her “surrealist assemblage.” Image used with permission by the author.

Eventually I developed a fascination with improvisation inspired by freestyle rap and augmented by the writing of Gertrude Stein and the recordings of Jack Kerouac. By the time our most successful album was released, the improvised Tacoma Ballet (2002), I prized musicianship and encouraged experienced collaborators, like Patty Schemel of Hole on drums and Greta Brinkman of Moby’s live band on bass, to bring to bear the breadth and depth of their musical knowledge.  I was delighted that Rick King of Guitar Maniacs in Tacoma allowed us to use his highly valuable collectible gear such as a 1967 Gibson Flying V and an array of legendary vintage pedals when we recorded the album.  I was proud when Patty said in an interview about Tacoma Ballet: “…there are always ideas that I have–interesting beats and such–that I could never incorporate into Hole or any other project.  In Lucid Nation I got to incorporate all my weirdness.” Though Tacoma Ballet made it to #1 on the New Music Weekly Chart of College and Secondary Market Radio Stations in December 2002 it received very little attention in riot grrrl circles. I found myself silenced again, not by advocates of technique, but by a community who valued raw expression.

Of course, in 2002 riot grrrl was less popular than it had been a decade before–it mostly consisted of isolated zine writers and bands.  Still, those who remained in the scene ignored Tacoma Ballet despite its success. When I asked them why, they explained that although they admired our work and the songs spoke to their experience, our band just wasn’t riot grrrl.  I was told that the skills and awareness of musical history displayed on the record were too self conscious, that I had become ambitious, or as more than one zine writer said, I had sold out.  Since I made no money on that record despite the attention it got, and we couldn’t tour behind it since the music was improvised, I found it hard to understand how such a purely artistic lark could be viewed as selling out.  I didn’t sell out, my increased respect for theory and technique just felt wrong when viewed from the perspective of the riot grrrl canon.

EDM and the new politics of punk sound. Image by Patrick Savalle CC BY-SA.

EDM and the new politics of punk sound. Image by Patrick Savalle CC BY-SA.

While new music hardware and software have helped level the field in ways that were not possible in the 90’s, the cage of expression and technique continues to govern a new world of highly individuated scenes.  EDM continues to fetishize the drop. Live performers need no longer be concerned about vocal pitch or knowledge of vocal harmony. Hardware like the Digitech VLFX, available on Amazon for under $200, corrects pitch and provides easy and automatic harmony vocals.  In this device, music’s ability to create unexpectedly cathartic experiences has been diminished, while the simple mimicry of technique has been elevated.

Perhaps new regimes of data are to blame.  Specific canons of theory and technique function as points of data that help define marketing audiences.  After all, bands often succeed by conforming to the sonic norms of their given scene.  For this reason, there is a tension between conservation and innovation.  An artist must conserve as much of their scene’s identity as possible while finding subtle ways to innovate.  Today, anyone can share their music on the internet regardless of traditional criteria. Despite this, a desire for acceptance and success continues to pressure musicians into accepting limitations to their creativity like technique and expression.

Cover image is of Tamra Lucid and by TheInfinite314 @Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA.

Tamra Lucid is an executive producer of Viva Cuba Libre: Rap is War the award winning documentary about Cuban hip hop legends Los Aldeanos, a producer of Edward James Olmos Presents Exile Nation: The Plastic People, and associate producer of The Gits documentaryWriting from her riot grrrl zines was reprinted in A Girl’s Guide To Taking Over The World: The Zine Revolution by Karen Green and Tristan Taormino,and in Hilary Carlip and Francesca Lia Block’s Zine Scene. Tamra blogs for Exterminating Angel Press and for Reality Sandwich where her most recent project has been a series of interviews with water protectors and filmmakers at Standing Rock.  She’s a founding member and primary singer of Lucid Nation.

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Coconut Clops and Motorcycle Fanfare: What Sounds Medieval?

series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

Series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

Until the nineteenth century, very little medieval music had been rediscovered, and what little was known was known mainly to specialists.  However, the nineteenth-century fascination with the Middle Ages, the Gothic Revival in art and literature, inspired composers to write symphonic works and operas using medieval stories and themes.  By the time twentieth-century musicologists began decoding and publishing music from the medieval past, a general consensus as to “what sounds medieval” had already been established in the minds of educated listeners familiar with European art music (see Annette Kreuziger-Herr’s 2005 article “Imagining Medieval Music:  A Short History”). Ideas of the medieval constructed in the 19th century via medievalist works of art persisted well into the twentieth, and eventually the imagined medieval sound of Romantic music turned out to be incompatible with the newly discovered historical record.

While Early Music performers in the 1970s and 1980s based their performance styles on historical research, their artistic work was inevitably conceived in relation to existing concert repertoires and standards of performance, as well as ideas about the Middle Ages known by them and by their audiences.  A general goal was to create performances that audiences could feel were convincingly accurate to how the music would have sounded in the past.  But a sense of authenticity depends not just on the performers’ historical accuracy, but on a complex interaction of experiences and expectations on the part of the audience.

Screen Capture by SO!

Screen Capture from Monty Python by SO!

Two films, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Knightriders, play directly with the clash between romantic interpretation of the Middle Ages and historically informed performances of music, for comedic effect.  In Music in Films on the Middle Ages:  Authenticity vs. FantasyJohn Haines examines six tropes of music in medievalist films:  bells, horn calls and trumpet fanfares, court and dance music, minstrels, chant, and warriors on horseback.  Haines mentions Monty Python and the Holy Grail several times, but does not discuss any of its music; he does not discuss Knightriders, likely because of its modern setting.

This essay examines the way these two films used music to highlight issues of the real, the historical, and the existence of competing medievalisms central to the understanding of medieval music in modern times.  In the director’s commentary for the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), writer/performer/director Terry Jones had this to say about the film’s music:

Neil Innes had originally written the music for the entire film, and when we showed it, it didn’t really seem to work… we’d all agreed that Neil should go for a very authentic sound, and authentic instruments.  The trouble is, it sounded quaint, and when we went to do the read-up I realized that actually you needed kind of mock-heroic music.  But of course at that stage, we couldn’t afford to go and record some more music, so the only thing I could do was to go to a music library – I went to DeWolfe’s [a music library that licenses stock music] in London, and spent sort of weeks going through their discs, and sorting out bits of music to put on to it, to give it that sort of … it was just that we realized that if you had sort of music that sounded slightly quaint, because it was on original instruments, and you had all these silly goings-on, it looked comic, the music, instead of actually looking, um, real….

They wanted an “authentic sound,” but what they got didn’t seem real:  here is the problem of conflicting expectations in a nutshell.  Jones likely meant that the newly composed music, including the sounds of pre-modern instruments, was consciously reminiscent of older music as it was beginning to be known. The song sung by Sir Robin’s minstrels is likely a survival of Innes’ “authentic” score.  The singer – Innes himself – sings a minor-mode melody reminiscent of a Tudor-era tune (think “Greensleeves”), accompanied by recorders, some reed instrument, and drum beats.  The terms “original instruments” or “authentic instruments” don’t just refer to antique instruments (or copies of antique instruments), they were code for a particular approach to the performance of old music, an approach that was becoming very popular in 1970s Britain (for more on the British Early Music revival, see  The Art of Re-Enchantment:  Making Early Music in the Modern Age by Nick Wilson).

Jones characterized the pre-existing stock music chosen at De Wolfe’s as “mock Heroic,” but there’s really nothing mock about it per se— it’s genuinely heroic-sounding orchestral music, in the romantic post-Wagnerian style of Hollywood film scores, probably written in the 1950s or 1960s.  There are brass fanfares when the company sights Camelot in the distance, angelic choirs for the vision of God who speaks to Arthur from the clouds, and especially, there is the wonderful music used when the company is galloping with coconuts.  Here they are, approaching the castle of Gui de Lombard

The music for the galloping horses is heard several times during the film, and the contrast between its epic majesty and the sight of King Arthur and his knights not riding horses but rather banging two halves of coconuts together to simulate the sound of hoofbeats enhances the sight gag.  The melody consists of four repetitions of the same melody, a strong rhythmic fanfare.  The melody itself is made up of two almost identical phrases that each rise and then return down.  The rhythm both emphasizes the steady pace and, through its mixture of long and short durations (a so-called “dotted rhythm”), suggests the gait of galloping horses.  First we hear percussion, the high-frequency snare drums and lower booming tympani, then the low brass play the melody, harmonized.  Higher trumpets join in for the second repeat, with flutes doubling the melody at a higher octave for added brilliance.  That combination plays the third repeat, with strings joining for the fourth repeat.  The tympani play faster, approaching the fanfare’s final cadence, but it becomes an anti-climax as Patsy, played by Terry Gilliam, can’t really play his long herald’s trumpet.  A very knowing joke, as onscreen Hollywood heralds are frequently accompanied by the sound of modern valved trumpets playing chromatic phrases impossible to play on the visible long trumpets.

[The whole piece can be heard here; the part heard repeatedly in the film begins at 1:27:]

 

In its instrumentation, especially the use of brass and percussion, and the dotted rhythms (long, short, long, short, etc.) suggesting hoofbeats, this fanfare draws on a long tradition of music written to suggest galloping horses, whether ridden by medieval knights or other hunters or warriors.  The most famous example is probably the finale to the “William Tell” Overture by Gioachino Rossini (1839).  That galloping music influenced many film scores featuring knights on horseback, and it is likely that Terry Jones recognized the style from films he could have seen since the 1950s, such as MGM’s Knights of the Round Table (1953), starring Mel Ferrer as King Arthur and the very wooden Robert Taylor as Sir Lancelot which features music by Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995), who wrote similar music for both medieval knights and Roman charioteers, including trumpets to suggest fanfares and uneven rhythms to suggest hoofbeats.

The music in my second example deals directly with the clash between then and now.  The 1981 film Knightriders was written and directed by George A. Romero, better known for his horror films (he invented the modern zombie film with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead).  Knightriders follows the adventures of a traveling Renaissance-faire troupe of actors who stage jousting tournaments while riding motorcycles; the interactions between the actors come to parallel Arthurian stories.  The film revolves around the conflict between modern reality and the desire to live one’s life according to (a modern understanding of) medieval chivalric virtues.  This scene shows the troupe’s act:  the action is straightforward, but the music is complicated, with the score by Donald Rubenstein using five distinct kinds of music in a theoretically sophisticated manner.  In order, we hear:  live music played on-screen by visible performers, recorded music played onscreen, and then three musically distinct flavors of underscore music.  Watch for a yet another knowing gag about the technical capabilities of heralds blowing straight trumpets, as well as a cameo appearance by the writer Stephen King as a scornful man eating a sandwich.

The music performed on-screen functions as part of the scene.  The painfully amateur band of minstrels plays a tune from Handel’s oratorio “Judas Maccabeus” (1746), probably known to the squeaky violinist from its use as a Suzuki teaching piece.  We can imagine that these musicians are playing the oldest piece of music they know, and in response the audience—both onscreen and offscreen—is led to believe that the rest of the show will be similarly amateurish.  The professionally recorded trumpet fanfare demonstrates again how their (and our) musical associations for medieval scenes, especially tournaments, come so strongly from Hollywood.  The actors can’t begin to play their instruments, but everyone knows that the heralds and their fanfares are crucial for the scene they’re trying to set.

Screen Capture from Knightriders (1981) by SO!

Screen Capture from Knightriders (1981) by SO!

When King William and Linet take their thrones, we hear underscore music—guitar and fiddle—for the first time; the shift from source music to underscore is done with great subtlety.  This music has the informal flavor of folk music, which connects it to the little onscreen band, but now played professionally.  The cue is extremely short, but serves as a transition from the real world of the tacky Ren-fest to the imagined world of chivalry and knighthood in some mythical past enacted by the modern-day warriors.  The spectacular motorcycle stunts are underscored by more folk-sounding music:  again fiddle and guitar, this time playing a fast jig.  This music is exciting, as befits the action, but the specific sounds, reminiscent of Irish folk music, do more than just underscore excitement:  they begin to move us backwards in time.  Folk music reads as traditional, as old, but not ancient.  The folk music sounds inhabit an intermediate place, a remembered past between the present and the imagined distant past of the middle ages.

When the individual jousts begin, the underscore music changes again, first to the heroic type of “Hollywood Knights” music, prompting the audience to equate the “real” riders onscreen with their fictional (and filmic) knightly counterparts.  This kind of orchestral music, with prominent strings, is used throughout the film for moments of almost magical transformation, suggesting that for believers, such transformation is indeed possible.  For the second and third jousts the underscore changes one last time, to trombones playing very archaic-sounding music.  Here at last in 1980 is the sound of “authentic instruments” that Terry Jones eschewed back in 1974, and it doesn’t sound quaint at all here, it sounds real.  These riders aren’t (just) carnival performers, they are knights at a tournament, risking bodily injury in their quest for personal excellence.

Screen Capture from Knightriders (1981) by SO!

Screen Capture from Knightriders (1981) by SO!

The music in this sequence plays with a basic distinction in film music and film music scholarship: is the music diegetic, that is, part of the film’s story, or nondiegetic, that is, as Robynn J. Stilwell describes in “The Fantastical Gap between Diegetic and Nondiegetic,” in Beyond the Soundtrack, “an element of the cinematic apparatus that represents that world?” (184).  The terms were first used by Claudia Gorbman in her pioneering study, Unheard Melodies:  Narrative Film Music (1987), and have been a major focus of film music scholarship ever since.

In this sequence, the amateur musicians and the taped fanfare, count as diegetic music, while everything else is nondiegetic.  Stilwell points out that border crossings between these two categories are common, but meaningful; she coined the term “fantastical gap,” the gap between what we see and hear and what we hear without seeing, to discuss the liminal (conceptual) space between the two (185-187).  Stilwell describes movement from diegetic to nondiegetic as a “trajectory [that] takes on great narrative and experiential import.  These moments do not take place randomly; they are important moments of revelation, of symbolism, and of emotional engagement within the film and without” (200). The Knightriders tournament sequence, already liminal as a “play within the play” of the film, traverses the fantastical gap in a way that dramatizes a central question for the performance of Early Music:  what happens when modern performances are historically informed, but emotionally unsatisfying?  For George Romero, as for Terry Jones, the answer is to give priority to the emotional, drawing on their and their audiences’ expectation for “Hollywood Knights” soundtrack music.  Early Music performers in the 1980s made similar choices, merging familiarity and unfamiliarity in exciting ways that unfortunately left them open to criticism that their performances were “inauthentic,” an advertising claim they found themselves defending.

recorder

Recorded fanfare in Knightriders, Screen Capture by SO!

The modern performance of surviving pieces of medieval music, recorded in notation, will always enact a kind of medievalism, involving the creative use of material survival from the past.  But to understand the goal for the performance of medieval music as historical accuracy alone is to miss an important point.  Medievalisms, the creative use of historical material, create meanings for modern audiences, meanings that then help to shape further understanding of the historical past.

The decades since these two films were made and released saw great growth in both artistic approaches to Early Music, and in the skill of performers in playing old instruments and singing in newer, non-Classical styles.  Professional recordings enjoyed real commercial success as a sub-genre in Classical music starting in the 1980s, accelerating audiences’ familiarity with the novel sounds of old music re-vivified.  The 1990s saw “new age” music and Celtic folk-music sounds added to the mix, while performers in the 2000s have drawn inspiration from Greek Orthodox chant, and continental folk musics.  “What sounds medieval” will always be conditioned by what modern performers and listeners imagine “the medieval” to be, and how “the medieval” is understood to be different from later times.  As those imaginings are themselves constantly changing, so will their representations in music.

Featured Image: “Monty Python Coconuts” by Flickr User Mark Turnauckus

Elizabeth Randell Upton is Associate Professor of Musicology at UCLA and the author of Music and Performance in the Later Middle Ages (“The New Middle Ages” series, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), which examines late fourteenth and early fifteenth century vocal music to discover evidence for the experiences of performers and listeners in the medieval past, recorded in surviving musical notation. Her next book will explore mid-twentieth century Early Music revivals in the UK and US, moving beyond the usual focus on musicological scholarship and classical music traditions to examine Early Music’s interactions with both folk music revivals and popular music. 

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Sounding Out! Podcast #54: The Sound of Magic-K.A. Laity

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EPISODE LI: Creating New Words from Old Sounds–Marcella Ernest, Candace Gala, Leslie Harper, and Daryn McKenny

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