Karisa Cleary – Why “The Negro” on the Spiral? (make-up blog)

George Antheil’s “The Negro on the Spiral” appears to be a melodramatic praising of, what he calls, “Negro music.” Yet, the not-so-subtly controversial language and rhetoric he choses to articulate this sways on the edge of dehumanizing and universalizing the African-American identity.

This can be observed in spurts of shocking comparisons to white identification where Antheil compares the rhythm of “Negro music” to the rhythm of white races. While the former “comes from the groins, the hips, and the sexual organs,” the latter is from “the breast,” which can be interpreted as the heart, “the brain,” the intellect, “the ears and the eyes,” the most vital senses and all being tools for intelligible communication. While Antheil makes several other references to the primitiveness of this music the sexual attribution to the rhythm, especially when compared with white rhythm, alludes to one of the human being’s most animalistic behaviors, often concealed at this time in the civilized nations (214).

Still, within these suggestions of a wild, sexual and unabsorbable music, there is a contradictory connection between this and the precision of machinery. He describes the “rhythms and counter-rhythms” of the black choir as having “machine-precision” and later asserts, “one can scarcely believe that one has not to do with a highly civilised race, masters of steel, mathematics, and engineering.” While Antheil, in one sense, might be making a statement about the uncontrollable musicality of industrialization, but in another sense he is bringing their music from the level of passions and expressions to that of a mechanical, inhumanness (214).

More than this, the in which Antheil tosses the various differential geographic origins of black identity into one category of color, and taken down to its literal sense. He contrasts this with “not white, nor yellow” and claims, “This note [of the Congo] has erroneously been called ‘American,’ but this note belongs no more specifically to the North American Negro than to those of the West Indies or South America.” It feels as though he’s mashing a variety of seriously distinct cultures and identifying the whole of them solely by color. When placed adjacent to an earlier statement about Europeans where he states, “the Latins became more Latin, and the Germans more German,” there is this diametrical opposition unveiled where Europeans are described in a much more clear and individualistic fashion. He then takes this to a literal function of the color that he attributes dangerously equally to the body through this idea of absorption when he claims that “Yankee hymn tunes, or the Habaneras of the Portuguese or Spanish, [etc.]… were always completely absorbed, and did not conceal or hinder the original pure Africanism underlying every measure of this music.” The question inevitable arises of what in the world this essential “Africanism” is and how the “Negro music” could possibly absorb all of these different influences and still remain essentially and as fully African as it always has been? (214, 215).

While first lowering down and universalizing the African/African-American identity as “black,” Antheil then uses this notion of absorption to, in a strange way, elevate their agency without actually displaying any of their agencies. In fact, this goes further by creating a universal, “black” platform of which white musicians jump off from. He cues in Strawinsky and Pushkin and calls them “mulatto,” then name drops Wagner, Modigliani, Gaudier-Brzeska, Brancusi, Chirico… all white artists of the time and, while influenced (or having absorbed) this “Negro music” concurrently kept the influencers behind the veil of their color. If “the roar of the lion” reminding Antheil and his fellow artists “that life had been going on a long while and would probably go on a while longer” is a reference to this music, then the “life-blood dripping down upon the white keys” from alligators captured by Brunuel inside of grand pianos is nothing less than a violent recapturing of the black, musical individual. Dripping “life-blood” suggests, if not a death, then a painful injury to that vicious southern animal that appears to be representational of the African (218).

This dismal contradiction of raising the African up artistically while simultaneously submerging them beneath the level of intellectual equality prompts this common, Imperial tendency of seizure in an endeavor to squeeze every last beneficial bit out of another group of people. Because art is obviously very different from industry, I can’t help but get the sense that Antheil wasn’t as serious when dehumanizing the black population as he was making an expository connection between the colonization for industry. When he quite honestly-seeming suggests, “A greater duty would be to trace, scientifically and carefully, the development of the Great Spiral,” that idea is being reinstated. If the spiral represents a progression of history, carefully examining that circular (ish) development would uncover the similarities within the slightly different repetitions of the same events, the same colonization and exclusivity of a Westernized culture.

Antheil, George. “The Negro on the Spiral or A Method of Negro Music.” Negro: An Anthology. ed. Nancy Cunard, Hugh D. Ford. Bloomsbury, 1996. 214-219. Print.


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