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The Theremin’s Voice: Amplifying the Inaudibility of Whiteness through an Early Interracial Electronic Music Collaboration

On an October evening in 1934, Clara Rockmore made her debut performance with the theremin, a then-new electronic instrument played without touch, in New York City’s historic Town Hall. Attended by critics from every major newspaper in the city, the performance not only marked the beginning of Rockmore’s illustrious career as a thereminist, it also featured the first known interracial collaboration in electronic music history. A sextet of Black male vocalists from the famous Hall Johnson choir performed a group of spirituals arranged by Johnson with Rockmore, whom the press—apparently unaware of her Jewish heritage—considered white. The collaboration was an anomaly: no other record exists of Black musicians performing with Rockmore (she toured with Paul Robeson in the 1940s, but no evidence has surfaced showing the two ever on stage together).

Though the Johnson Sextet’s performance with Rockmore is of intense interest to me as a historian, at the time the white press mostly ignored the collaboration. This is surprising given Johnson’s fame: his choir and work were critically acclaimed in productions including the 1930 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play The Green Pastures and the 1933 musical Run Little Chillun’. The Sextet’s spirituals were prominently featured in Rockmore’s debut, with four songs closing the program (“Stan’ Still Jordan,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Water Boy,” and “O Lord Have Mercy On Me”) and “Old Man River” likely serving as an encore. Yet only two writers—one Black, one white—discussed the spirituals in any detail. Though brief, these two reviews can help us understand why most critics ignored the spirituals at Rockmore’s debut, and illuminate the role that race played in the reception of Rockmore’s career, the theremin, and electronic musical sound.

One of these reviews was by an anonymous critic writing for the New York Amsterdam News, the city’s highly influential weekly African-American newspaper. Though unidentified, the author was likely Black, given the source. The critic described Rockmore and the Sextet’s rendition of the song “Water Boy” as “particularly effective,” ascribing the theremin’s expressive power to its sonority: “the deep ’cello tone of the instrument was more than faintly reminiscent of the throaty humming of a Negro singer.” The white critic who wrote about the collaboration—Paul Harrison, in his syndicated column, “In New York,” that ran in several newspapers across New York State—seemed to corroborate the Amsterdam reviewer’s hearing, writing that the theremin had been “improved so that it now can be made to sound like the choral humming of a hundred Negro voices.” Remarkably, Harrison made the comparison without so much as mentioning the presence of the Johnson Sextet or the spirituals, erasing the very real presence of Black musicians in the performance.

These reviewers agreed that the theremin sounded like a Black voice during the spirituals. Yet Harrison used the comparison to disparage. His use of the word “improved” was clearly ironic, and the overall tone of his review was mocking (he described twenty-three-year-old Rockmore as “a lovely and graceful girl, but too serious about her new art”). The Amsterdam critic, meanwhile, compared the theremin’s tone to that of a Black voice to communicate the instrument’s expressivity—its beauty, emotion, and humanity. They validated their own hearing of the powerful performance by noting that the capacity crowd “hailed Miss Rockmore’s mastery of the theremin and demanded several encores.” Despite the contrasts, these pieces share something absent from nearly every contemporary theremin review: an explicit discussion of race and the theremin’s timbre. These seemingly anomalous takes, when understood in the context of the theremin’s broader contemporary reception history among (mostly white, mostly male) critics, can amplify what Jennifer Stoever identified in The Sonic Color Line as the “inaudibility of whiteness” in the history of the theremin and electronic musical sound (12).

Clara Rockmore playing the theremin, publicity shot c. 1930s

When Rockmore performed as a soloist, critics tended to describe the theremin’s timbre in the context of western art music sonorities, making comparisons to the cello, violin, and classical voices. Reviewers frequently remarked on the instrument’s expressive powers, describing its tone as warm and rich, and writing of its “vivid expressiveness” and “clear, singing, almost mournful” tone. Many attributed the instrument’s expressivity to Rockmore’s skill as a trained classical performer, praising her repertory choices, musicianship, and technique.

Close-Up of “Figure 1109,” Image by Flickr User Theremin Player

Alongside celebrations of the theremin’s emotionally charged sonority was an opposing rhetoric of noisiness, one that critics employed to mark the theremin as sonically obnoxious. Early critics often complained about the “excessive” use of vibrato and portamento employed by thereminists, most of whom, like Rockmore, were (at least perceived as) white women. There is a practical explanation for this: if you’ve ever played a theremin, you know that without the use of these techniques, it is nearly impossible to locate pitches, or create even the impression of accurate intonation. Critics turned to identity politics to signal their displeasure with the instrument’s slippery chromaticism, taking a cue from the long history of linking copious chromaticism with bodies deemed sexually, racially, or otherwise aberrant. They compared the theremin’s timbre variously to that of a “feline whine,” a fictional Wagnerian soprano one critic dubbed “Mme. Wobble-eena” and “fifty mothers all singing lullabies to their children at the same time.” Such reviews used bodies and instruments assumed to be white and female as points of comparison: sopranos, violins, mothers (who were racially unmarked and thus by default white). To critics, the theremin was objectionable, was “other,” in a specifically white, specifically feminine way.

Critics were especially concerned with the theremin’s timbre, projecting onto it their hopes and anxieties about the potential impact of technology on their musical world. Since the theremin’s 1929 arrival in New York, critics had been assessing the instrument’s potential, treating it as a bellwether for technology’s impact on the future of music. Rockmore stoked this interest by claiming that her debut would “prove that the [theremin] may be a medium for musical expression.” Critics centered their hopes and anxieties about the promise and threat of electronic music in analyses of the theremin’s timbre, where the instrument could either be exposed as a fraud—a poor substitute for “authentic” “living” music—or celebrated as a breakthrough.

Paul Robeson and Clara Rockmore

Discussions among New York’s white critics about the theremin’s musical promise unfolded specifically and exclusively with regard to the white western classical tradition. Just as Toni Morrison noted in her book Playing in the Dark that “the readers of virtually all American fiction have been positioned as white,” whiteness was the default for writers and readers of music criticism on the theremin (xii). Though most white critics at Rockmore’s debut never mentioned race, their tacit dismissal of the spirituals she performed with the Johnson Sextet reveals that race was a central organizing force in their assessments of the instrument. The brief reception history of the spirituals Johnson arranged for voice and theremin, wherein writers—listening to the instrument perform with Black voices—clearly heard the theremin’s tone as Black, is the exception that proves the rule: white critics, by and large, heard the instrument as sounding white.

Just as Morrison asked: “how is ‘literary whiteness’ and ‘literary blackness’ made, and what is the consequence of that construction,” we must explore the ramifications of the assumptions we’ve made about whiteness and electronic musical sound (xii). For it is not only critics of the 1930s who heard the theremin’s sound as white: most current histories continue to focus on and reify a predominantly white academic and avant-garde electronic music history canon. The Amsterdam critic’s hearing opens new possibilities for understanding the history of electronic musical sound. While popular perceptions often frame electronic musical sound as “lifeless” or emotionally “flat,” the Amsterdam critic’s comparison of the theremin to the voice opens our ears to alternative hearings of electronic musical sound as expressive, affective, even human. When we hear this aspect of electronic music’s sound, we can begin to account for histories that go beyond the white western cannon that dominates our understanding of electronic music history. We can populate such accountings with performers like Rockmore and composers like Johnson who worked and lived outside the boundaries we have traditionally drawn around electronic music history.

Dr. Madd Vibe (aka Angelo Moore) plays theremin in his band The Brand New Step, covering “Brothers Gonna Work it Out” Angelo Moore been playing theremin for over 20 years.

Featured Image: “Theremins are Dreamy” by Flickr User Gina Pina, (CC BY 2.0)

Kelly Hiser is co-founder and CEO of Rabble, a startup dedicated to empowering libraries to support and sustain their local creative communities. Kelly holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and embraces work at the intersections of arts, humanities, and the public good. She talks and writes regularly about music, technology, identity, and power.

 

SO! Reads: Kirstie Dorr’s On Site, In Sound: Performance Geographies in América Latina

“World Music,” both as a concept and as a convenient marketing label for the global music industry, has received a fair deal of deserved criticism over the last two decades, from scholars and musicians alike. In his famous 1999 op-ed, David Byrne wrote that the term is “a none too subtle way of reasserting the hegemony of Western pop culture. It ghettoizes most of the world’s music.” Ethnomusicologists have aldo challenged the othering power of this term, inviting us to listen to “worlds of music” and “soundscapes” as the culture of particular places and times, suggesting that these sonic encounters with difference might teach “us” (in “the West”) to consider how our own musical worlds are situated in social and historical processes.

While this has been an important move toward recognizing the multiplicity of musicking practices (rather than reinforcing a monolithic “Other” genre), the study of “musical cultures” runs the risk of territorializing musical “traditions.” Linking them to geographically delineated points of origin, nations or homelands that are made to seem natural, fixed, or timeless often overlooks the heterogeneity of places, essentializing the people who make and listen to music within, across, and in relation to their ever-changing borders. The challenge for music critics and scholars has been–and still is–to delegitimize the alienating broad brush of the “world music” label without resorting to a classification system that reifies music production and circulation into exotic genres or fetishized “local” traditions.

Image result for Kirstie Dorr's On Site, In Sound: Performance Geographies in América LatinaIn her 2018 book, On Site, In Sound: Performance Geographies in América Latina(Duke University Press), Kirstie A. Dorr demonstrates a method for conceptualizing relations between music and space while avoiding the pitfalls of colonial and capitalist definitions of “culture” and “identity.” She takes the term “performance geography” from Sonjah Stanley Niaah, whose discussion of Jamaican dancehall employs this analytic as “a mapping of the material and spatial conditions of performance: entertainment and ritual in specific sites/venues, types and systems of use, politics of their location in relations to other sites and other practices, the character of events/rituals in particular locations, and the manner in which different performances/performers relate to each other within and across different cultures” (Stanley Niaah 2008: 344). Dorr looks at “musical transits” rather than musical cultures, focusing on the politics and relations within sound and performance across South America and its diasporas; one particular relation serves as the central argument of the book: “that sonic production and spatial formation are mutually animating processes” (3).

Three conceptual frames help Dorr follow the musical flows that push against national and regional boundaries sounded by the global music industry: listening, a form of attention toward the interplay of sensory content, form, and context; musicking, or conceptualizations of music-making in terms of relationships and creative practices, rather than the musical “works” they produce and commodify; and performance as “a technique of action/embodiment that. . .potentially reshapes social texts, relationships, and environments” (14-16). Through close listenings to performances in Peru, San Francisco, and less emplaced sites such as YouTube and the “Andean Music Industry,” Dorr makes a strong case for performance geographies as creative decolonial strategies, both for participants in musical transits and for scholars who imagine and invent the boundaries and trajectories of musicking practices.

***

Nearly a century after Peru won its independence from Spain, limeño playwright Julio Baudouin debuted El Cóndor Pasa, a two-act play promoting national unity through a tale of indigenous miners in a struggle against their foreign bosses. The play’s score, composed by musician and folklorist Daniel Alomía Robles, weaves Peruvian highland music into Western-style arrangements and instrumentation, and was widely received by its 1913 audience as the sound of what Peru was to become: a modern nation firmly rooted in the cultures of its indigenous peoples.

Image result for el cóndor pasa Daniel Alomía Robles

Daniel Alomía Robles

In the century that followed, the score’s homonymous ballad has been interpreted and recorded by countless artists around the world. Easily the most well-known rendition of this famous melody is Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could),” (1970) which Dorr credits with catalyzing a Latin American music revival as well as spurring on a wave of Euro-American musicians and producers who collaborated with and brought into the international spotlight a number of groups who otherwise would have remained in relative obscurity. The tendency to see these projects as the work of (typically white) Westerners “discovering” and “saving” or paternalistically “curating” the dying musical cultures of the world, Dorr suggests, is part and parcel of a World Music concept that frames “primitive” traditions as fair game for extraction and appropriation into innovative sonic hybrids.

15 Nov 1991, Paris, France — Peruvian singer Yma Sumac

The “exotica” category follows the same logic, as the case of Yma Sumac illustrates. From the beginning of her career in the early 1940s with el Conjunto Folklórico Peruano to her 1971 psychedelic version of “El Cóndor Pasa,” Sumac’s vocal versatility and stylistic experimentations map out an experience of Andean indigeneity that Dorr hears in stark contrast to the narratives of the global music industry. While Capitol Records performed their own geography via their marketing of this sexualized “Incan princess,” the singer strategically composed her own sonic-spatial imaginary, not rejecting the difference suggested by “exotica,” but by synthesizing a “space-age” modern aesthetic with traditional songs. Dorr challenges us to listen to Sumac’s “El Cóndor Pasa” against Simon’s arrangement, thinking of her performative dissonances as disruptions of “the static geotemporal imaginaries of ‘authentic indigeneity’ that have most often informed the ballad’s deployment” (59).

If Chapter One makes a case for performance’s potential to shape notions of place and time, Chapter Two explores “spatial(ized) relations of musicking” (68) through a broader consideration of market strategies and the politics of sound in public space. Putumayo serves as another classic example of the global music industry’s pandering to multicultural idealism, promoting itself as “lifestyle company” that brings conscious capitalism into the curation of musical worlds. Dorr keeps her critique of Putumayo rather brief, but uses it as a convincing contrast for the focus of this chapter: the informal streams of economic activity and performance that she calls the “Andean music industry” (AMI). Among other examples from transnational and virtual “sites,” the Andean bands that performed in San Francisco’s Union Square throughout the 1990s demonstrate how performance geographies can challenge state and capitalist power while simultaneously running parallel to the marketing and distribution practices of the world music industry.

The AMI story is one of migration and the formation of a pan-Andean diaspora, of busking and bootlegging tactics that tested the boundaries of zoning and noise regulations as well as California’s immigration and labor policies, and of transposing music networks onto the internet when public performance became too precarious. It is also another case of dissonance, in which musicians willfully use their own cultural difference to their advantage, but not without consequences for poor musicians in South America; a telling example is the “Music of the Andes” CD, a mass-produced compilation used by various groups who, instead of having to record and press their own albums, could simply print their own covers for the Putumayoesque compilation and sell them to their none-the-wiser U.S. audiences (84).

But if the diasporic politics of the AMI came up short in challenging a monolithic representation of “Andean culture” or in highlighting the dynamic transits of Andean fusions such as chicha and Nueva Canción, the daily performances of street musicians in the race- and class-ordered Union Square support Dorr’s argument about the co-constitutive relationship between sound and space: “This unmediated display of embodied and sonic ‘otherness’ threatened the coherence of the square’s representational function by converting it into a spectacle of work and play for a population upon whose concealed labor the economic foundations of California’s wealth largely depend: undocumented migrant workers from the global South” (81).

Busking in Union Square, 2013, Image by Flickr User Dr. Bob Hall

Elsewhere in 1990s San Francisco, musicians, artists, and activists formed a collective that, like the busking Andean groups, challenged dominant notions of public and private space while performing its own transnational and migratory experiences of Latinidad. In Chapter 4, Dorr relates the story of La Peña del Sur, a grassroots organization in the Mission District and, like the many anti-imperialist peñas popular throughout Latin America since the 1960s, a space for artists to perform or display their work for local audiences. While this peña provided a community for undocumented immigrants and local residents threatened by gentrification, it also served as an unsettling force against the sort of geographies that separate “queer space” from “heterosexual space” without regard for how these neighborhoods are also classed and racialized.

The founder and director of La Peña del Sur, Chilean exile Alejandro Stuart, was among several queer community members whose efforts constituted their shared space as a challenge to normative boundaries, a site for musicking that engendered dialogue among a wide range of people with divergent visions and motivations. Community organizers and students of cultural sustainability would do well to read Dorr’s account of this decade-long experiment that “enabled the exploration of sound-based solidarities rooted in the identification of common historical and political ground through improvisation and participatory performance” (168).

Victoria Santa Cruz, Image courtesy of Flickr User “Traveling Man”

Between these two compelling tales of the dynamic relationship of sound and space in San Francisco, Chapter 3 explores the significance of race, nation, gender, and sexuality within the performance geographies of several Afro-Peruvian artists. Dorr traces the movements of performers and activists who challenged the colonial boundaries that framed blackness as “antithetical to the emergent nation” (111); unlike the indigenous traditions that could be appropriated for an imagining of Peru as modern yet firmly rooted in history, Afro-Peruvian bodies and sounds were treated as contaminants within the postcolonial order.

Listening to Black feminist performance geographies, from Peru’s Black Arts Revival in the ’60s and ’70s to the recent hemispheric collaborations of “global diva” Susana Baca, one can hear the formation of not only such racially imagined communities as “the coastal” and the “Afro-Latinx diaspora,” but also of “the body.” A powerful case of this latter sort of performance is heard in the lyrics and experiences of Victoria Santa Cruz, who, in her choreographed, cajón- and chorus-accompanied poem, “Me Gritaron Negra,” contests the ways in which “[t]he physical contours of her body – her lips and skin and hair – become a geography inscribed with social meaning, an ideological imposition intended to enact and legitimate her ongoing displacement” (121).

Santa Cruz’s pedagogical and performative practices, in particular, reveal why Dorr has chosen sound – and not only broader analytics of performance and musicking – as a central theme to explore in terms of its relation to places and bodies. While this book might leave a few sound studies scholars wanting more elaborate description of particular sonic phenomena or ethnographic consideration of how sound is imagined among Dorr’s interlocutors, a few examples in particular are keys to thinking about how sound signifies, and is signified by, racially mapped bodies and places.

Most intriguing here is a discussion of Santa Cruz’s 1971 book, Discovery and Development of a Sense of Rhythm, which outlines the artist’s approach to “listen[ing] with the body” and tuning in to “rhythm’s Afro-diasporic logics” (116). A pedagogy and practice developed well in advance of Henri Lefebvre’s theory of rhythmanalysis, Santa Cruz’s concept of ritmo–internal rhythm deserves consideration alongside the work of Amiri Baraka, Jon Michael Spencer, Fred Moten, and Daphne Brooks as crucial for thinking about how Black aesthetics and diasporic sensibilities are cultivated through sound and capable of mobilizing new mappings of bodies and their worlds.

Victoria Santa Cruz, still from  el programa de La Chola Chabuca. (Video: América TV)

 On Site, In Sound also calls for renewed thinking on sonic-spatial relations and the meanings that emerge from within them – how the sounds of particular Latin American voices and instruments come to be understood as masculine or feminine, indigenous or modern, exotic or local. Although “sound” as a specific performative or sensory medium might seem, at times, only one among many phenomena examined within the book’s threefold conceptual framing – listening, musicking, and performance – Dorr weaves it throughout her own performance geography where it takes on multiple forms and scales, challenging even the very boundaries defining what sound “is.” More importantly, this is a geography that scholars of “the sonic” or “music worlds” should read (and hear) as a reminder of sound’s unique ability to create and transcend boundaries – but rarely without a great deal of dissonance.

Featured Image: “Gabriel Angelo, Union Square,” by Flickr User Brandon Doran

Benjamin Bean is a PhD student in sociocultural anthropology at The University of California, Davis. His research interests include Afro-Caribbean music and sound, food and the senses, Puerto Rico, religion and secularism, and the Rastafari movement. During his undergraduate studies at Penn State Brandywine and graduate studies in cultural sustainability at Goucher College, Ben’s fieldwork focused on reggae music, the performativity of Blackness, and the Rastafari concepts of Word, Sound, and Power and I-an-I. His current fieldwork in Puerto Rico examines flavor, taste, and marketing in the island’s growing craft beer movement. Ben was formerly a vocalist and bass guitarist with the Philadelphia-based roots reggae band, Steppin’ Razor.

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Shoo bop shoo bop, my baby, ooooo: W.E.B. Du Bois, Sigmund Freud & Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight

Inspired by the recent Black Perspectives “W.E.B. Du Bois @ 150” Online Forum, SO!’s “W.E.B. Du Bois at 150” amplifies the commemoration of the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’s birth in 2018 by examining his all-too-often and all-too-long unacknowledged role in developing, furthering, challenging, and shaping what we now know as “sound studies.”

It has been an abundant decade-plus (!!!) since Alexander Weheliye’s Phonographies “link[ed] the formal structure of W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk to the contemporary mixing practices of DJs” (13) and we want to know how folks have thought about and listened with Du Bois in their work in the intervening years.  How does Du Bois as DJ remix both the historiography and the contemporary praxis of sound studies? How does attention to Du Bois’s theories of race and sound encourage us to challenge the ways in which white supremacy has historically shaped American institutions, sensory orientations, and fields of study? What new futures emerge when we listen to Du Bois as a thinker and agent of sound?

Over the next two months, we will be sharing work that reimagines sound studies with Du Bois at the center. Pieces by Phillip Luke SinitiereKristin MoriahAaron Carter-ÉnyìAustin Richey, Julie Beth Napolin, and Vanessa Valdés, move us toward a decolonized understanding and history of sound studies, showing us how has Du Bois been urging us to attune ourselves to it. To start the series from the beginning, click here.

Readers, today’s post by Julie Beth Napolin brings her trilogy to a close, exploring the echoes of black maternal sounding and listening she has amplified in Du Bois in Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winning film Moonlight (2016).

Essay One: Listening to and as Contemporaries: W.E.B. Du Bois & Sigmund Freud

Essay Two:  (T)racing Mother Listening: W.E.B. Du Bois & Sigmund Freud

–Jennifer Lynn Stoever and Liana Silva, Eds.


The theory of the acousmatic—the idea of a sound whose source is unseen, as it comes to us from Barthes, Chion, and Dolar—rests upon the mother tongue and the Oedipal scene, the dyad of mother and father. There is in “Do ba – na co – ba”–his great- great- grandmother’s song Du Bois remembers hearing passed down through his family–a transmission from the mother, but what kind of transmission? “There is no one extant autobiographical narrative of a female captive who survived the Middle Passage,” Hartman writes in “Venus in Two Acts” (3). History becomes, she continues, a project of “listening for the unsaid, translating misconstrued words” (3-4). The word-sounds “Do ba-na co-ba” are not the translation of a misconstrued word and they bolster a song of survival, of living on.  But there is a silence there. “Do ba-na co-ba,” in a manner of speaking, survives the Middle Passage, and re-opens it as a primary channel of listening and receiving.

The Bantu woman was Du Bois’ grandfather’s grandmother, so many generations removed.

Returning to the vestiges of black motherhood in recent black cinema (including Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight), Rizvana Bradley argues that the loss of the mother “in black life more generally, as it repeats through cycles of material loss, … encapsulates racial slavery’s gendered social afterlife” (51). Bradley’s essay is crucial in retrieving the figure of the lost mother even in moments when the mother is absolutely elided as a character, not to appear visually. Horror more generally owes its immersive quality to the womb (enclosed spaces), but Bradley turns to black film form in particular to find in its mise-en-scène (such as in the gravitational field of the “sunken place”) maternal flesh and form.

In the compositional and formal strategies of The Souls of Black Folk, in the punctuated silences that open each chapter, there is a trace of the elided black maternal. The Bantu woman is lost not because Du Bois did not know her (he could not have), but because something of her song transmits a loss and theft that were not symbolic, but literal—a stolen and kidnapped maternal, rather than simply destroyed, as in the Oedipal mandate. It is crucial that the song that is at the core of Du Bois’ memory is transmitted along the maternal line. This maternal voicing is the unspoken wound of Du Bois’ text.

Spillers begins “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” from the premise of non-Oedipal psycho-biographies, and these include not only the single mother, but the kidnapped mother. The quotation marks that surround the figure of the “black woman” for Spillers are “so loaded with mythical prepossession” that the agents it conceals cannot be clarified. Spillers takes particular aim at the infamous conclusions of the Moynihan report of 1965 that trace the roots of African American poverty to the figure of the single mother, the underachievement of lower class black males being linked in the report to black women.

In this way, black culture is thought to operate in a matriarchal pattern essentially out of step with a majority culture where a child’s identity and name, by definition, cannot be determined by the maternal line (66). As Lacan insists, it is the Father who gives a child both the Name and the symbolic Law (language). According to this configuration, Spillers argues, the child of the black mother can only be left in a haunting dis-identity. The implications for psychoanalysis are radical: Spillers begins the essay with a “stunning reversal of the castration thematic,” one that displaces its structure “to the territory of the Mother and Daughter, [and] becomes an aspect of the African-American female’s misnaming” (66). Among these misnamings is that black women are often not seen as “women,” omitted from the category and its political inflections. She is left castrated, politically impotent. For in this displacement, the subject positions of “male” and “female” lose—or fail to adhere to—their traditionally conceived symbolic integrity, and this loss begins with the historical experience aboard ship.

“waves and shadows,” image by Flickr User Albatrail

For Spillers, then, it is essential to trace this misnaming and undifferentiation of black women to the physical and psychic conditions of the Middle Passage. When Freud begins Civilization and Its Discontents, he notes an “oceanic feeling” engendered by religion. The oceanic is the longing for return to a pre-subjective state where one is united with all that is, before the cut that is birth and then language (indeed, the oceanic feeling is often attributed to song). Spillers’ move is to read the oceanic literally and structurally at once: there is the Atlantic Ocean and its Middle Passage. The oceanic, in this way, is de-subjectivating; it casts the subject out of itself in a terror of undifferentiation that does not cease with landfall.

But Spillers also implies that, in that (sexual) undifferentiation, a radical political potential can be retrieved. It is not that black feminism retrieves for her a sexual differentiation after becoming an ambiguous thing. It would not be “woman” in any traditional sense, for that New World category rests upon the violence Spillers seeks to describe. Above all, it would not be easy to name.

Du Bois certainly takes up the Father in his poetic epigraphs. But in ending with the Bantu woman’s song—as it seems to anatomize all of the other songs he describes—Du Bois upholds himself as being named by the maternal line. He is unable or perhaps unwilling to make a clarified place for a black female political agent. If we listen with ear’s pricked, we find that she is the submerged, oceanic condition for his speech.

By way of an open-ended conclusion, we can recall the sound of the ocean that punctuates Jenkin’s stunningly lyrical and psychologically complex coming-of-age film, Moonlight. The ocean provides the anchoring location for the psychological action, but also its aesthetic locus, the beginnings of its cinematic language. The sound of the ocean continually marks a desire for “return” to maternal undifferentiation and oneness, and yet, it provides the space for two embodied memories that cannot be compassed by traumatic separation. In the first, a father-like figure, Juan, embraces a young boy, Little, to allow him to float in a nearly baptismal scene of second birth, and in a second scene at the shore, Little experiences with his friend, Kevin, sexual gratification, a coming into his body as a site of pleasure.

The conclusion of the film posits these moments as being in the past. We had experienced them as contemporary, but only later realize they are a well of memory for a now-adult subject who does not know himself. I want to focus, then, on the film’s conclusion, after Kevin and Little (now named Black, his adult re-renaming), meet again after many years. Kevin calls Little/Black on the phone, a defining gesture of reaching out erotically and acousmatically with voices. We later learn that he calls because Kevin has heard an old song that reminded of him of his lost friend. By this voice or call, Black is brought somewhere back to his moment of break to become Little again, as if something in the past must be recuperated for the present. As he drives down the open road to find Kevin, the music of Caetano Veloso soars.

We can’t be sure if this is extra-diegetic or diegetic music. To be sure, Black would never listen to such a song on his stereo. And yet, the song seems to emanate directly from its affective space. In the language of literature, it is a “free-indirect style,” part character and part author; the film is hearing Black/Little feel. He’s in a space of haunting melody, drenched in personal memory, whose principle scene had been the Florida shore, the ocean lapping providing a (maternal) containing motif for the film, now transmuted into song.

The oceanic, Spillers might remind us, is violent, echoing the passages that made it possible for these two black boys to be there. But the sound is also amniotic, a space of maternal longing, particularly for a character who, in Bradley’s estimation, is positioned as pathological, injured by the missing mother who is, in turn, indicted by the film’s imaginary. To some extent, Moonlight participates in the mother’s misnaming: it cannot see the structures that ensure her lostness. But the film does also push towards some mode of melancholia that, as Michael B. Gillespie argues of Jenkins’ earlier work, would cease to be depressive. Jenkins’ aesthetic practice is transformative, Gillespie suggesting that we use Flatley’s term, “antidepressive melancholia,” as it’s with a stake in the personal past but turned towards the collective future (106).

When the two boys, now men, meet again, several sounds punctuate the scene. They are not words or even phonemes, yet “speak” to provide a sonic geography of feeling that includes or “holds” the viewer, as Ashon Crawley might suggest. Among them is the sound of the bell on the door, which marks hello and goodbye, entry and exit, coming and going (­or “fort-da” in Freud’s lexicon). When Black enters the diner, he is still “Black.” It is only when remembering what happened at the shore, then to say that no man has touched him since, that he becomes Little. He discloses this truth on behalf of a potential in present and a still-nascent future. Kevin cooks for Black, and Jenkins’ is careful to amplify the sound of the spoon stirring. He provides for Black, the film locating Kevin, a male, within the coordinates of maternal care. The sonic crux of the scene—no longer primal, no longer traumatic—is when Kevin plays the song on the jukebox that had drawn him to call to Little/Black in the first place. “Hello, stranger,” Barbara Lewis croons, “it seems like a mighty long time. Shoo bop shoo bop, my baby, ooooo.”

In listening to a song that is from our past, Newtonian time collapses, a shock running from past to present. The film never discloses whether these two had once heard this song together before. It is more likely that its affective map impacts Kevin, that he hears in its melancholic sound a nascence, and with it, a longing to retrieve his own past and repair. Lewis herself, singing in the sixties, is a recalling an already eclipsed fifties doo-wop. The phonemes circle back to their beginnings in “Do ba- na co-ba.” Such sounds are to be opposed to the shot of Little’s mother yelling at him (presumably a slur). There, the sound had cut out of the scene, which recurs for Little in a traumatic nightmare.

In contrast to that violent naming, the boys’ intimacy was defined by, to use Kevin Quashie’s term, “quiet,” a sense of interiority Michael Gillespie explores in his analysis of Jenkins’ first feature film, Medicine for Melancholy.  Shakira Holt and Chris Chien called this dynamic in Chiron and Juan’s relationship “silence as a form of intimate conversance” in their 2017 post about Moonlight.  There is a queer intimacy revived apart from trauma, triangulated by a black woman’s voice, paired with male harmonies, that resonate acousmatically from the jukebox to hold and contain the scene. For psychoanalytic theories of voice, containment is the essential maternal gesture of song.

We begin to wonder what might be possible for the feminine were it to be separated from the maternal dimension, a potential that Jenkins does not explore in this particular film in his oeuvre (as he does in Medicine for Melancholy, for example); each of the women in Moonlight “mother” to some extent. Nonetheless, he disperses the maternal function across male and female subjects, particularly in moments when the film resists depression. In listening with ears pricked, as with Du Bois’ epigraphs, the voices cease to belong to an individual, to be male voices or female voices, but become plural and pluralistic. It becomes possible to ground a politics of listening to the past for remaking in the present in that sound.

 

I would like to thank Michael B. Gillespie, Amanda Holmes, and Jennifer Stoever for their incredible scholarly assistance and comments in writing this essay trilogy.

Julie Beth Napolin is Assistant Professor of Literary Studies at The New School, a musician, and radio producer. She received a PhD in Rhetoric from the University of California, Berkeley. Her work participates in the fields of sound studies, literary modernism and aesthetic philosophy, asking what practices and philosophies of listening can tell us about the novel as form. She served as Associate Editor of Digital Yoknapatawpha and is writing a book manuscript on listening, race, and memory in the works of Conrad, Du Bois, and Faulkner titled The Fact of Resonance. Her work has appeared in qui parle, Fifty Years After Faulkner (ed. Jay Watson and Ann Abadie), and Vibratory Modernism (ed. Shelley Trower and Anthony Enns).

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“Music More Ancient than Words”: W.E.B. Du Bois’s Theories on Africana Aurality

Inspired by the recent Black Perspectives “W.E.B. Du Bois @ 150” Online ForumSO!’s “W.E.B. Du Bois at 150” amplifies the commemoration of the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’s birth in 2018 by examining his all-too-often and all-too-long unacknowledged role in developing, furthering, challenging, and shaping what we now know as “sound studies.”

It has been an abundant decade-plus (!!!) since Alexander Weheliye’s Phonographies “link[ed] the formal structure of W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk to the contemporary mixing practices of DJs” (13) and we want to know how folks have thought about and listened with Du Bois in their work in the intervening years.  How does Du Bois as DJ remix both the historiography and the contemporary praxis of sound studies? How does attention to Du Bois’s theories of race and sound encourage us to challenge the ways in which white supremacy has historically shaped American institutions, sensory orientations, and fields of study? What new futures emerge when we listen to Du Bois as a thinker and agent of sound?

Over the next two months, we will be sharing work that reimagines sound studies with Du Bois at the center. Pieces by Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Kristin Moriah, Aaron Carter-Ényì, Austin Richey, Julie Beth Napolin, and Vanessa Valdés, move us toward a decolonized understanding and history of sound studies, showing us how has Du Bois been urging us to attune ourselves to it. To start the series from the beginning, click here.

Readers, today’s post by Aaron Carter-Ényì delineates two central strands in Du Bois’s work that have proven key to what we now call sound studies–the historical and affective meanings that sound carries as well as its ability to travel great distances through time and space.

–Jennifer Lynn Stoever and Liana Silva, Eds.


I know little of music and can say nothing in technical phrase, but I know something of men, and knowing them, I know that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world. – W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903, p. 253)

W. E. B. Du Bois claimed to “know little of music,” yet his writings offer profound insights into aurality, foreshadowing the transdisciplinary of sound studies, by connecting language, music, sonic environments and aural communication. Du Bois published the souls of The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, less than a decade after becoming the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard in 1895. In it, he addresses the color line, reflected in the policy of “separate but equal,” forming arguments that continue in Black Reconstruction in America. He also introduces themes that reappear in his later works including The World and Africa (1947), which formed the seeds of Afropolitanism and many modes of enquiry of Sound Studies. This short essay explores two concepts in Du Bois’s writings: that melodies may last longer than lyrics as cultural retentions; and, that drummed language may travel further than spoken language as communication.

By the time Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk, what he termed the “Sorrow Songs” (alternatively Slave Songs or Spirituals) had entered the popular canon of American song. As incipits (or epigraphs) for each essay in the book, he entered the songs into a new literary and scholarly canon, ultimately changing the concept of what a book could be by fusing language and music in a new way. Even in a divided society following the U.S. government’s disinvestment in Reconstruction and the sharp uptick in lynching and other forms of racial terror, the “Negro folk-song” could not help but have a profound impact “as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas” (Souls XIV), particularly due to the efforts of Fisk’s Jubilee Singers. Du Bois’s choice to include musical transcriptions without lyrics at the opening of each essay in Souls reflects a view of melodies as having a life–and a value– of their own.

Du Bois paired a quote from “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage ” by Lord Byron with a musical citation from the African American spiritual “The Great Camp Meeting” to open Chapter III, “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.”

Although Du Bois’s work quite clearly accounts for the development of what has usually been called the African American oral tradition, the concept of an oral tradition is credited to Harvard comparative literature scholars Milman Parry and Albert Lord, who popularized the term in American scholarship by establishing a binary theory of orality and literacy, that not only pitted the two against each other, but implied that they were hierarchical, evolutionary phases of “culture” (1960). This divide both widened and became more nuanced with Walter Ong’s recognition of “secondary orality” (1982), acknowledging that aspects of orality persist in literate societies.

But much earlier than these texts, Du Bois offers an alternate theory of how orality and literacy work, and even concepts similar to secondary orality, in the last essay of Souls, “XIV On the Sorrow Songs.” Notably, he describes his earliest experience with African music via a song that “travelled down” from his “grandfather’s grandmother”:

The songs are indeed the siftings of centuries; the music is far more ancient than the words, and in it we can trace here and there signs of development. My grandfather’s grand-mother was seized by an evil Dutch trader two centuries ago; and coming to the valleys of the Hudson and Housatonic, black, little, and lithe, she shivered and shrank in the harsh north winds, looked longingly at the hills, and often crooned a heathen melody to the child between her knees, thus:

The child sang it to his children and they to their children’s children, and so two hundred years it has travelled down to us and we sing it to our children, knowing as little as our fathers what its words may mean, but knowing well the meaning of its music (254).

Du Bois makes no mention of a spoken oral tradition throughout Souls. In fact, quite the contrary. In this passage, he implicitly argues it is not the meaning of the words, but the meaning of the music that survived the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Instead of an “oral tradition”, Du Bois identifies four steps in the development of American Sorrow Songs: (1) African; (2) “Afro-American”; (3) blending of “Negro and Caucasian” (a creolization); and (4) songs of white America influenced by the Sorrow Songs (256). The search for continuity between African and American culture has been a quest for many, including African-born scholars such as Lazarus Ekwueme. It is clear that melody (both pitch and rhythm) is the most idiosyncratic element of a piece, more so than lyrics, and is the most durable when a people and their culture experience extreme duress. As language (and certainly the meaning of the language) can fade (or be violently submerged)  in diaspora, melodies can often hold fast, and be held on to.

At an early date (1903), Du Bois already arrives at a point that is now a consensus: the Gullah-Geechee communities of the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia have closely retained African practices, such as the ring shout.

Gullah-Geechee ring shout performed by McIntosh County Shouters (Carter-Ényì, Hood, Johnson, Jordan and Miller 2018)

Du Bois states that the Sea Island people are “touched and moulded less by the world about them than any others outside the Black Belt” (251­–2). The Language You Cry In (1988), traces a Gullah song passed down back to its origins in Sierra Leone. Though separated by 200 years and 5000 miles, the melody was immediately recognizable to Baindu Jabati, a woman of the village, Senehum Ngola, even the lyrics were “strikingly similar.”

Sheet Music, “Old Folks At Home,” A project of the Digital Scriptorium Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University

The Gullah-Geechee are exceptional because of their linguistic retentions, documented by Lorenzo Dow Turner in his 1949 book. The preservation of linguistic features was possible because of relative isolation, but as Du Bois notes, this source of African music is fundamental to American music in steps (2), (3) and (4), of which he offers famous examples of each. It is the recognition of the crossing of the African and African-American influence across the racial divide into the music of white America, in songs such as Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” (more popularly known as “Swanee River”) that was the most controversial. Du Bois approaches this matter cautiously: “One might go further and find a fourth step in this development…” (256), but then goes full force: “a mass of music in which the novice may easily lose himself and never find the real Negro melodies” (257).

Racist musicologist George Pullen Jackson (1874-1953) fought hard against the position that white hymnody had been influenced by black spirituals for much of his career. In “White and Negro spirituals, their life span and kinship” (1944), he argued just the opposite, that black spirituals were derivative of white hymnody and conducted an early corpus study to prove it. William H. Tallmadge, in “The Black in Jackson’s White Spirituals” (1981), summarizes Jackson’s findings:

Jackson, after examining 562 white items and 892 black items, found only 116 pairs which he thought demonstrated tune similarities, and of these 116, only 70 pairs actually prove to have had a valid melodic relationship… These seventy items represent slightly less than eight percent of the 892 black spirituals (150).

Jackson could not find the empirical support for his claim to of primacy (perhaps supremacy) of white spirituals, even with some ample confirmation bias. In fact, his findings fit well into Du Bois’s account, particularly his identification of step 3 in the development of the Sorrow Songs: “blending of Negro music with the music heard in the foster land” (256). Essentially, it took a nearly a century for musicology to recognize what Du Bois laid out in 1903.

The aural tradition Du Bois describes, which includes various versions of songs and the steps of sorrow song development, is more sympathetic to Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s concept of “orature” than the Parry/Lord dichotomy. In “Notes towards a Performance Theory of Orature” (2007), Thiong’o points out that:

What is often arrested in writing is a particular version, a particular rendering, … as performed by a particular performers at a particular moment. Nature, then, in orature manifests itself as a web of connections of mutual dependence … in active communications within themselves and with others (5).

For example, the black and white spirituals with similar tunes in Jackson’s corpus both are and are not the same, which challenges the very notion of intellectual property (IP), and the flawed IP debate over spirituals that Jackson pursued. Even in a segregated society, under which racist laws separated the performers, a mutual dependence developed between black and white spirituals. Despite the affinity of the melodies and common heritage in the aural culture (and perhaps even common sources in either Africa or Europe), divisions were articulated in writing, through different hymnbooks and different words, once again supporting the veracity of Du Bois’s claim that the “music is far more ancient than the words.”

Waves on the Ghanaian Shore, Image by Flickr User Yenkassa (CC BY 2.0)

Later in his life, Du Bois’s attention turned more and more toward Africa. In The World and Africa (1947), he confronts colonialism and Eurocentric history, foreshadowing Afrocentrism and to some extent Afropolitanism. He also, very briefly, reprises his discussion of aurality, citing German musicologist and father of organology, Erich von Hornbostel, as affirmation of the virtues of both African and African American music from the 1928 article “African Negro Music”:

The African Negroes are uncommonly gifted for music-probably, on an average, more so, than the white race. This is clear not only from the high development of African music, especially as regards polyphony and rhythm, but a very curious fact, unparalleled, perhaps, in history, makes it even more evident; namely, the fact that the negro slaves in America and their descendants, abandoning their original musical style, have adapted themselves to that of their white masters and produced a new kind of folk-music in that style. Presumably no other people would have accomplished this. (In fact the plantation songs and spirituals, and also the blues and rag-times which have launched or helped to launch our modern dance-music, are the only remarkable kinds of music brought forth in America by immigrants (60).

Du Bois studied in Germany from 1892–94 before attending Harvard. According to Kenneth Barkin (2005), Du Bois’s “affection” for Imperial Germany has “remained a puzzle to historians” (285). Hornbostel too had a complicated relationship to Germany: though celebrated in his home country for much of his life, in 1933 he was forced into exile because his mother was Jewish; he died in 1935. The passage Du Bois cites from Hornbostel echoes some aspects of Souls XIV Sorrow Songs, particularly the centrality of the spirituals in American culture, but not all. In particular, “abandoning their original musical style … to that of their white masters” is incongruent with Du Bois’s earlier perspective. Though Hornbostel is clearly impressed with the musicality of black people(s), Hornbostel’s summary conclusions stated at the beginning of the same article do not mesh with Du Bois’s own (more insightful) work in Souls: “African and (modern) European music are constructed on entirely different principles, and therefore they cannot be fused into one, but only the one or the other can be used without compromise” (30).

Unfortunately, Du Bois does not contest Hornbostel with his narrative of continuity and “steps” of development from Souls. Du Bois recognized both the happenings and possibilities of creolization and syncretism in black culture of which Hornbostel only captures glimpses. Ultimately, despite a generally positive perspective on black music, Hornbostel’s position is one of not only continental, but racial, division, promoting segregation of musical practice as the only way. It is disconcerting that Du Bois cites this article and Hornbostel as a musical expert with its main argument when Du Bois identified the color line as the singular issue of the twentieth century.

In The World and Africa, Du Bois goal is a bit different: in the pursuit of repositioning Africa and moving towards both a corrected history and post-colonial future, there were stranger bedfellows than Hornbostel. A more pristine vision of recasting Africa and Africana aurality is found on the same page (99), in Du Bois’s mention of an astonishing form of music as communication, the talking drum: “The development of the drum language by intricate rhythms enabled the natives not only to lead in dance and ceremony, but to telegraph all over the continent with a swiftness and precision hardly rivaled by the electric telegraph” (99).

The recent intellectual current within African studies, Afropolitanism, is embodied in Du Bois’s juxtaposition of African tradition with modernity. A recent book on West African talking drums by Amanda Villepastour, Ancient Text Messages of the Yorùbá bàtá drum also draws an analogy to telecommunication. While Du Bois’s brief 1947 account is only a single sentence, Villepastour’s lengthy 2010 account confirms Du Bois conjecture was not a metaphor or empty comparison, the talking drum and telegraph share the same utility, and while we are keeping track, the talking drum came first and is a lot more efficient in terms of infrastructure.

Yorùbá talking drummers in Ọ̀yọ́, Nigeria (Carter-Ényì 2013)

For those unfamiliar with them, here are some rough calculations regarding how talking drums work. Singing or shouting is about 80 decibels (dB) at one meter. Drumming is over 100 dB at one meter. This 20 dB differential means that a speech surrogate (like a talking drum) could travel up to 10 times the distance under the same environmental conditions. With those intensities at the source, a loud voice could travel one kilometer before becoming inaudible (at around 20 dB), while a drum could reach 10 km, easily communicating with the next village.

Hausa Talking Drum, Image by African Studies Library BU (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Within a regional network of drummers that “speak” the same language—such as in the Yorùbá-speaking region of southwest Nigeria—long distance communication was possible, and much earlier than the telegraph. A recent study (2018) by Frank Seifert and his colleagues on Amazonian Bora drumming, “Reducing language to rhythm,” finds minute timing variations represent the placement of consonants suggesting there is detail in speech surrogacy, beyond the representation of lexical tone previously documented. Seifert’s findings suggest that the “precision” Du Bois described is exactly what talking drummers have (throughout the Global South). Now the “swiftness” part may have been a bit exaggerated (electric signals travel much faster than sound waves).

Du Bois’s practiced a transdisciplinary study of sound and understood Africa as Afropolitan long before most of the West. In addition to foreshadowing the interdisciplinary moves of sound studies—which also connects sound to speech to music and examines their coexistence—Du Bois’s thinking also prefigures the current intellectual (and urban-cultural) vogue of Afropolitanism, which has to some extent displaced the Pan-African movement that drew Du Bois to Ghana.In a 2016 interview, Achille Mbembe positions Afropolitanism as a way “in which Africans, or people of African origin, understand themselves as being part of the world rather than being apart.”    Much like the African cultures he first encountered in melody in the nineteenth century and then heard firsthand as a contemporary when he moved to Ghana in 1961, Du Bois heard beyond Eurocentric disciplinary divides of music and language that served to portray African cultures as somehow always already outside of modernity, yet not the right color of “ancient.”  Du Bois wholeheartedly believed music could change the narrative of Black life, history and culture, a message first crooned to him as a child between his grandmother’s knees, to which he never stopped listening.

Housatonic River, Great Barrington Massachusetts, W.E.B. Du Bois’s Home Town. Image by Flickr User Criana, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Featured Image: Brooklyn African Festival Drum, 2010, Image by Flickr User Serge de Gracia (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Aaron Carter-Ényì teaches music theory, class piano, and music appreciation in Morehouse’s Department of Music.  He holds a PhD from Ohio State University (2016), was a Fulbright Scholar to Nigeria in 2013, and is a 2017 fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). Recent scholarship appears in Africa (Journal of the International African Institute)EthnomusicologyMusic Theory OnlineOxford Handbook of Singing and Tonal Aspects of Languages; or is forthcoming in Performance Research and Sounding Out! He is the director of the interdisciplinary Africana Digital Ethnography Project (ADEPt) and is currently developing the Video-EASE Toolbox and ATAVizM. During the summer, he is a STEAM instructor for federally-sponsored student enrichment programs including MSEIPand iSTEM for which he provides workshops and courses in the Morehouse Makerspace.

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Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic–Imani Kai Johnson

Black Mourning, Black Movement(s): Savion Glover’s Dance for Amiri Baraka –Kristin Moriah

Troubling Silence: Sonic and Affective Dispossessions of the African Slave Trade–Michelle Commander

 

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