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The Sounds of Anti-Anti-Essentialism: Listening to Black Consciousness in the Classroom

Image by Flickr User Pere Ubu

Image by Flickr User Pere Ubu

Sound and Pedagogy 3In teaching the many interrelated and complicated aspects of the Civil Rights movement, Black Power, and the Black Arts Movement, the challenge for me is to help students understand the “facts” of this period, and to simultaneously destabilize the teleological historical narrative these “facts” seem to suggest.  In a pedagogical context, sound helps fill in the gaps that fall outside of the knowledge produced–and contained within–certain archival accounts of black cultural and political history. While crucial, having students listen to the gaps, can be daunting, especially in our current historical moment, as the decades-long push against identity politics has been solidified by the recent (re)election of the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama.  This point demands more elaboration than I can provide here, but the critical pedagogical issue it raises within the province of black studies, is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to consider black political culture outside of the sedimented lines of American pluralism and black radical thought.  

I use sound as a pedagogical tool to help outline a middle ground–what Frantz Fanon refers to in The Wretched of the Earth as “zone of hidden fluctuation” (166)–based upon articulations of resistance and identity that refuse to be frozen in time.  Building on Paul Gilroy’s conceptualization of anti-anti-essentialism in The Black Atlantic, an idea of black consciousness that is flexible and moves between the insufficient terms of “essentialist” and “anti-essentialist,” I use specific pedagogical examples to suggest that teaching about race and sound is a rich, evolving, and productively interactive continuum.   The auditory sense opens up new terrains of knowledge and dynamically expands the possibilities for students to think through the intricate and multifaceted formations of black consciousness during the volatile years of the 1960s and the resonance of those years in our present.

The recorded presence of Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, represents an important aural site for engaging in reflexive pedagogy, because King’s tonality–the resonance of his voice–creates a certain familiarity and is pivotal to the construction of the American myth of the radical transformation of the civil rights movement and the idea of post-civil rights racial equality.  For many students, King’s sound signals the dream of, and the pathway towards, a unified America.  Conscious of how this idea of King reflects a linear understanding of civil rights as simply a desire for inclusion, I direct students’ attention to the sound of King’s last recorded speech in Memphis on April 3, 1968.  Given the evening before his assassination, this speech resounds with King’s deepening critical perspective on black struggle through its haunting concluding notes. I point out to my classes that King’s final years (1965-1968) were marked by his increasing focus on ideas of black resistance outside of the Civil Rights mainstream, including his  critique of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, and his radical rethinking of the possibilities for black economic and political self-determination.

Martin Luther King in 1968, Image courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

Martin Luther King in 1968, Image courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

Centered on the economic injustice and dehumanization of Memphis’s striking black sanitation workers, King’s speech details the need for the Memphis black community do more than simply boycott municipal entities, but rather articulate their resistance by boycotting prominent national brands such as Wonder Bread and Coca-Cola.  Against this background, I play segments (particularly the final minutes) of King’s speech, entitled, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”

The acoustic dimensions of King’s final speech resonate with a social and political complexity that troubles the sonic memories many students have of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.  The much more intimate and less overtly majestic soundscape of Memphis’ Mason Temple underlines King’s shift from national icon back to local, community activist.  The frequent audience shifts–applause, extemporaneous interjections, and silence–create a reverberating sonic energy that accumulates throughout the speech.  Rather than relying strictly on a call-and-response interpretation of the interactive exchanges between King’s voice and the audience’s response, I have students consider the non-linear ebbs and flows in King’s sound in this latest of moments (as Fred Moten would say, the totality of King’s tonality). For example, as King’s audience considers the weight of his analyses and what it means to articulate black resistance as “a dangerous unselfishness” that “puts pressure where it really hurts,” I identify moments of uncertainty, hesitation, and contemplative reflection that mark a non-linear interactive sonority between King and his audience.

Listening to King’s final thoughts offers a disturbing and disruptive emphasis on the stakes of breaking with entrenched modes of activist thinking. He concludes the speech with a series of prophetic thoughts on mortality as a cost of making a stand against “our sick white brothers.”  Set within the historical and ideological context I have sketched above, the delivery distinguishes the sound of King’s words.  As we listen I draw attention to King’s expression of a lack of fear in anything, any man, as King seems to convey an eerie foreknowledge of his murder and his irreverence in its face.

“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” –Listen to the concluding two minutes

The apocalyptic sound of King’s concluding notes to this political sermon leaves much to contemplate.  From the mention of the potential threat posed to his life by “our sick white brothers,” through the speech’s last line, there is a tonal, timbral shift in his voice and demeanor. Through sound and posture, and the reaction of the audience to those factors, King’s affect seems to convey something more momentous occurring beneath the event’s surface dynamics.  King projects a confrontational edge through the sound of fearlessness in the face of mortality.  Did he know he was going to be killed shortly after giving this speech?  It’s a question that the peculiar tonality of his concluding lines raises for students.  If so, what does it mean to use the sermon as a site of prophetic, aural documentation of the fact that a force of transformation exists beyond the flesh and blood of leadership, a force that assassination can’t kill?  In the speech’s final synesthetic moment, I have the students listen and watch the shift that occurs in King’s demeanor as he closes, and the way that this shift culminates in an almost ecstatic moment as he delivers the final line: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” His defiant turning away from the microphone is crucial as it amplifies the meaning of the voice, letting those watching know that, much like an emcee, King has just “served” white power with a delivery that will outlast the sniper’s bullet the following evening.

Nina Simone, Image courtesy of Flickr User GlingG

Nina Simone, Image courtesy of Flickr User GlingG

I want to briefly point to two other examples that show additional ways in which sound complicates ideas of racial identity and expression during the 1960s.  When I teach Nina Simone’s composition, “Mississippi Goddamn,” (recorded live at Carnegie Hall in 1964), I ask students to consider the relationship between the distinctive sound of her voice and the ironic and critical elements of her lyrical meaning as this interaction creates a complex idea of radical black consciousness.  Composed in the aftermath of the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Simone offers a musical, and more broadly sonic meditation on white supremacy.

Most students find the timbre of Simone’s voice, its grain (as Roland Barthes would say) and depth, immediately striking.  Her unique sonority and its context, greatly influence attempts by students to understand her reference to the song as simply a tune: “The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddamn” she says, and “This is a show tune, but the show for it hasn’t been written yet.”  Clearly it isn’t simply a tune, and the caustic quality of lines such as, “Oh but this country is full of lies/ You’re all gonna die and die like flies,” creates a critical depth through the sound of Simone’s commitment to a black radical perspective.  What does it mean, for instance, that Simone projects such sarcasm and biting critique to a predominately white audience at Carnegie Hall?  How might we hear the specific grain of her voice in this setting?  How does Simone’s projection of critical black sonic resistance, emerge at the conjuncture of anti-black racism and the beginning of legislative efforts under the Johnson administration to rectify racial inequality through civil rights bills?  What can be taken from the simultaneity and contrast that Simone projects her sound within?  I pose such questions to my students as a way of considering what it means to be committed to critical thought and social transformation that falls outside of the dominant lines of American national consciousness, and how the sound of such commitment, heard in the pitch and tenor of Simone’s voice, matters as a different kind of historical documentation.

In considering how the sound of music can offer an intervention within the formation of black political consciousness in the Black Arts Movement, I often use the 1966 recording of Amiri Baraka’s signal poem, “Black Art,” as it set to the experimental musical sounds of Sonny Murray’s ensemble (Murray-drums, Albert Ayler-tenor saxophone, Don Cherry-trumpet, Henry Grimes, Lewis Worrell-bass).  Having first read the poem, students then are able to hear it set to– and against–the unconventional instrumentation of Murray’s ensemble.

The musicians create an unconventional sonic context for Baraka’s reading that de-emphasizes and re-situates the apparent dimensions of black rage that seem to arise from verse that can “shoot guns,” through an almost carnivalesque, comedic, and off-kilter sound that troubles the linear expectations one might have of instrumentation amplifying the words on the page.  The dissonance between page and sound allows for useful pedagogical opening, in that it underlines the non-conformist, avant-garde aspects of the movement, and the fine line that artists such as Baraka were imagining between the intensity of black radical consciousness and the ability to articulate that standpoint outside of the expected forms of black cultural nationalism.

Image Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

Image Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

As these examples have shown, I incorporate sound into my pedagogical framings of black cultural and political identity as an opening through which students may expand their understandings of black consciousness and black political culture well beyond stagnant ideas of racial authenticity, while still preserving an understanding of the transformative and often radical possibilities that have been projected through black expression during the period.  It is the open space of sound that invests the project of black radical thought with the uncanny spontaneity of experimentation.  Having students understand ideas of expansiveness, asymmetry, and non-linearity as central to black cultural expression and critique–even as artists refuse to sacrifice an expressed political commitment to black resistance–begins to suggest ways for students to contemplate the intersection of identity politics with the unexpected, fantastic elements of expression that lie outside of more recent flattened diagnoses of black nationalism.  Teaching at the intersections of race and sound opens up new terrains of knowledge, dynamically expanding students’ abilities to think through the intricate and multifaceted formations of black consciousness during the volatile years of the 1960s and the resonance of those years in our present.

Carter Mathes is an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University.  He has completed a book manuscript entitled, Imagine the Sound: Experimental Form in Post-Civil Rights African American Literature, that focuses on the relationship between sound and literary innovation during the 1960s and 1970s.  He is co-editing a volume of essays on Black Arts Movement writer and critic Larry Neal; and also has essays in print or forthcoming on Toni Cade Bambara, Peter Tosh, and James Baldwin. At Rutgers, he regularly teaches classes focusing on African American literature, Twentieth-century literature, music and literature, and experimental writing.

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Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Afternoon

I am not usually one to listen and tell, but this time I feel the need to publicly confess, Katy Perry-style. A few weeks ago, I heard a symphony orchestra. And I liked it. I might even go so far as to say it fairly delighted me. What warmth and depth of sound! What a potent tension between distinguishable instruments and commonly held notes! And oh, the violas! My pleasure in this experience, however, has thrust me in ethical, epistemological, and ontological crisis mode, leaving me to wonder: Who am I? and What on earth has happened to me?

If anyone had told me even six months ago that I would be making this declaration, they would have received a fairly withering sardonic look. Classical music has never been my thing—by politics, class, birth, or taste (of course, if you ask Pierre Bourdieu, taste is hopelessly bound up in the first three, anyway, whether we acknowledge it or not). My working class roots have eschewed Capital-C “Classical” music listening as far back as I can trace: most immediately, “classical” to my father means one of his musical holy trinity: the Beatles, the Stones, or Hendrix. Next to the electrically-charged and vocally-driven musical traditions that raised me, classical has always seemed sonically uninteresting and unavailable, even as rebellion against Woodstock (unless of course it was the synth patch work of Wendy Carlos that was switching me on to Bach).

However, it wasn’t solely that classical music didn’t speak to me—it was also a matter of what it said when it did. I have encountered some version of classical in so many forbidden, intimidating, and privileged spaces that it often seemed as if the music itself drew borders around me, its booming kettle drums warning me to “keep out” while its mincing violins suggested I had better put on a uniform and grab the hors d’oeuvres tray should I decide to stay. From the report on Haydn I was assigned for 7th grade Music Appreciation to the metronymical Beethoven ticking off my many minimum wage hours at the mall—the lilting soundtrack to the security footage my boss collected every night from the cameras not-so-subtly trained on me—my encounters with classical have almost always been connected with the imposition of power. More recently, I found myself waiting for a bus in downtown L.A. around 2 a.m., where I was pummeled with high-volume classical music blasting from the doorways of high-end condos, echoing down the unusually empty streets. Apparently, building managers feel amplified classical deters homeless people from seeking shelter there, without annoying their well-heeled residents. According to the San Diego Union Tribune, “The music that seems to do the best job of driving people away. . . is baroque”. . .the music characteristic of Bach and my old friend Haydn. I wonder if my 7th grade teacher knows this.

A Christian Marclay Classical

Given experiences like these, I have been unable to simply ignore classical music throughout my life, but I have officially considered myself “a hater.” I have been that punk rocker hooting and hollering for their cello-playing friend in the pin-dropping silences between movements, wishing that everyone would turn around and glare. I have actually called up my local NPR-classical combo station during pledge drives and told them I will increase my donation if and only if they banish the bassoons and switch to a full-time news format. Like all that classical vinyl clogging up the dollar bins at record shows, public classical programming is an ideological holdover from the turn-of-the-last-century, when classical was aligned with white middle class respectability. The streets of my neighborhood in Binghamton, for example—chock full of aging Victorians that were once a sign of industrial prosperity—are named after Schubert, Mozart, and Beethoven, which the local residents of these now crumbling buildings, since chopped up into rooming houses, defiantly call “Beeeeeth-oven.” In the early twentieth century, labels like Victor pumped out classical discs to convince Americans of the “respectability” of the gramophone—that the new machine wouldn’t be used solely to spread Tin Pan Alley, or worse yet, jazz—while offering a lower-cost alternative to expensive opera houses for poorer folks. Distilling orchestra onto portable 12-inch discs has the veneer of democratization and agency, sure—shouldn’t everyone have access to the listening habits of the rich and powerful in their very own homes?—but the practice enforced and upheld the 19th century split between so-called high and low cultures that we still wrestle with today.

Lawrence Levine described this as the division between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” culture. It deemed non-white and/or working class cultural production—categorized as “pop,” “folk,” and/or “vernacular” musics—as the gauche and corrosive soundtrack of lesser minds, while constructing the Eurocentric symphonic hall and the opera house as sacred cultural sites (long with museums and libraries—see Aaron Trammell’s recent post). Elite white gatekeepers in the 19th centuries drew both sonic and discursive borders between “high” and “low” culture, deliberately excluding African American artists, for example, from music’s elite spaces by using language to redact “Othered” sounds from the category of “music” itself. In the white press reception of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, for example—a touring group who combined black musical tradition with European concert performance styles in the 1870s, the first to do so on American stages—recurrent descriptors such as “weird” and “rude,” show white critics attempting to interpellate a new cultural force into their pre-existing musical value systems—marked of course, as “universal”—in ways that would neither threaten nor reveal the white cultural supremacy that undergirded them. The best efforts of the Jubilee Singers were repeatedly presented by white reviewers as uncultivated, emotional, ephemeral, racialized sound that, while

The Jubilee Singers Perform for Queen Victoria

mesmerizing, was not to be categorized as “music”—universal, eternal, artistic—alongside the German composers in vogue at the time. Levine argues that these elites constructed the physical and discursive sites of music as demanding a certain type of discipline, purpose and “most important of all—a feeling of reverence” (146). The term “classical” is part and parcel of this reverence, appearing in the early 19th century, and, according to Alex Ross—the classical music critic for The New Yorker who for the record hates the term—“mirrored the rise of the commercial middle class, which employed Beethoven as an escalator to social heights.”

From my first record purchase—The Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat (1980)—to my latest, Cee Lo’s The Ladykiller (2010)—I have been on a search for reverence elsewhere, most often smashed up against a sweaty crowd of people, feeling the waves of the giant speaker stack reverberating through my body, shouting along until my vocal chords were completely raw. Jimi Hendrix called this form of reverence “the electric church” in 1969, and Paul Gilroy does a beautiful homage to its power in “Some Soundscapes of the Black Atlantic” describing Hendrix’s vision of music as an inclusive ritual event whose high volumes not only deliver a proper wake-up-call to those who need it, but “promote a direct encounter with the souls of the people involved” (383). Unlike the concert hall’s rarefied air, the sonic cervices of the “electric church” seemed to welcome all comers. Sadly, since moving to Binghamton—a smallish town in upstate New York—my tithes to the electric church have dwindled; against my will, I have become one of those Christmas and Easter types. I hadn’t realized my extreme musical privilege growing up in Los Angeles’ shadow until I found myself in the outer limits of America’s musical infrastructure. However, as my recent symphony encounter has proved, being locked out of the “electric church” has made me more open to the power of musical sound wherever I find it. Not to mention that, in my anxious mental deconstruction of my new appreciation of the orchestra’s roar, I couldn’t help but think that it was because—barring the Dolby soundsystem at the local movie theater—the symphony was easily the loudest thing I have experienced in almost a year.

And maybe that’s it. I have a new loud. Between moving to Binghamton and edging deeper into my 30s, my seemingly immovable aural palate has experienced a major tectonic shift. When I recently discussed my odd ecstatic experience over dinner with visiting sound artist and Binaural Fellow Maile Colbert, she suggested that age may have a lot to do with it. Colbert posited that we don’t fully understand the physical inscription of sound on the body, especially the connection between pleasure and the ways in which sound waves strike our bodies beyond the ear. So, shifting tastes in music may not just be a

Another Christian Marclay Classical

factor of nostalgia or just plain becoming uncool, as marketers would have us believe, but rather a visceral reaction to the new ways in which sound resonates with our thinning skin, hollowing bones, slackening muscles, and disintegrating organs. After turning 30, I found, inexplicably, that I suddenly liked black licorice, so maybe an affinity for the symphony is similarly inevitable. I almost surrendered to this promising explanation, as it meant liking the symphony was part of a natural process that was out of my control, but unfortunately I have read enough Judith Butler—and 19th century music writing—to know that my experience of the “natural” processes of my body are always affected by cultural narratives. Much of what we currently consider to be “old people’s music” was once thought to corrupt and inflame the passions of youth a century ago. So, if I could not safely blame my sudden symphonic pleasures on age, then what?

Before you offer up that perhaps I just heard the “right” performance, the Guinness experience of sound after a lifetime of the aural equivalent of Coors Light, I need to make a second confession. The symphony performance I heard was not the New York Philharmonic doing Mahler’s 6th Symphony, or even the Binghamton Phil’s recent performance of Enigma Variations. Actually, I took my almost-two-year-old to hear the Binghamton University Symphony Orchestra’s 2010 Children’s Concert All Creatures, featuring “Peter and the Wolf” and other pieces of music designed to evoke animals via sound. So the concert was perhaps not your typical orchestra experience, unless it has become common practice to let you touch a spitting cockroach from Madagascar on your way to your seven-dollar seat. I brought my little guy to All Creatures not out of a desire to impose “good music” on him, but because he loves sounds of all kinds and a.m. concerts are few and far between. Older folks like me were visibly in the minority at All Creatures, and the air was hardly rarified; not only was it the most diverse orchestra crowd I have seen to date, but you could wriggle in your seat and clap all you wanted. To the orchestra’s credit, they played as passionately for a sea of six-year-olds as I am sure they would for state dignitaries, and it was fairly stunning to watch young musicians so obviously still falling in love with their instruments.

I’d like to be able to conclude by telling you that I heard the orchestra anew through my son’s still-forming, wide-open ears—an experience I have imagined in an earlier blog—but I have to make one last confession: he was asleep within two minutes of the orchestra tuning up, a chip off the old block. His impromptu snooze left me alone to wrestle with my old nemeses Beeeth-oven and Haydn, as well as the questions rooting the blossoms of my newfound guilty pleasure. Given who I am and where I have come from, was it transgressive to be sitting in the third row of a symphony hall, letting the sound touch me? Or, perhaps, this listening experience was more about where I am now than where I started from. No longer waiting in the wings or cleaning the bathrooms, I am a university faculty member with a front row seat. Was I unconsciously giving in to the powerful (and Eurocentric) aural propaganda of the orchestra, with its visible hierarchies and overwhelming harmonic quest for everything in its “proper” place—precisely the privileged perspective that I daily attempt to dismantle? Or, more than likely, the suddenness of my errant desire simply allowed me to hear new traces of an old refrain: where listening is concerned, resistance and subjection can never be easily separated, let alone painlessly resolved.

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