Winkiel and Slavery Papers

Winkiel comments on page 523 that, “Negro was deeply invested not only in breaking from narratives of Western progress and bourgeois complacency but in presenting an alternative history, that of color.” I found the phrasing here to be particularly interesting, especially her use of the term “alternative history” which others black history. Indeed, Cunard just by putting together this anthology and naming it Negro, she ignores the fact that Western history and African history are inextricably tied together. Negro: An Anthology, presents a “their history” and “our history” situation. This is strange because some of the documents presented in the anthology actually suggest otherwise.

One of the documents I chose to look at was the Slavery Papers, which combines first hand accounts of the horrors of the slave trade along with some commentary by Edgell Rickword, an English communist poet. Rickword’s forward clearly lines up with Winkiel’s claim that Negro sets out to debunk certain notions of Western history. Rickword opens the piece by referring to the “impetuous insolence of Europeans” and follows up moments later by pointing out that the slave trade really grew out of greed. Slyly working his communist agenda into the anthology. Rickword’s project with this compilation is generally without any demerits. He says he is out to show the basic inhumanity of the slave trade and indeed succeeds. It heavily contrasts in a sense with the uncomfortable (for the reader) observational style musings of Cunard’s Harlem Reviewed piece. The recounting put on display in this piece is almost too horrible to approach the idea of being fetishizing.

But even when mere facts are listed, they are still coded by the context of both the anthology’s production and the situation of the reader. One would think that the objectivity of this document would be clear, but in reality it is just as muddied as everything else in the anthology. Rickword clearly sets up some ideas of white culpability in the horrors of certain black experiences. However if we think about Zora Neal Hurston’s opinon as voiced by Winkiel that, “rather than inscribing these remnants onto a premodern past, Hurston demands that they be understood as a confrontation of dominant narratives of modernity in the present moment.” then Rickword’s piece becomes less powerful. He is so focused on presenting an alternative history and ascribing blame for past actions that he, and Cunard, fail to trace the problems of their present to these artifacts that Rickword is presenting.

And much in the way that Hurston explains the white adoption of black music, we can read Rickword’s piece and the entire anthology as whites “adopting and reinterpreting” black history. Rickword practically turns his forward into an anti-capitalist treatise. Had a black writer constructed the forward the context of the slavery papers would feel much different. Instead, we still have a white writer being the one with agency, presenting and interpreting purely black experiences. Moreover, much of the first person accounts from slave ships are from white witnesses who for the most part only account for what they can see, but occasionally attempt to assign motive or emotion to slaves, which is a troubling endeavor.

Slavery Papers certainly sets out to, as Winkiel says, break “from narratives of Western progress and bourgeois complacency.” It also succeeds at this, both in presenting a history that could otherwise be silent and being disturbing enough to shake some of that complacency. However, as Robert McNamara says, both seeing and believing are often wrong, which makes the project of developing “alternative histories” difficult. Rickword is trying to expound on something he really doesn’t have a firm grasp on and furthermore, the whites giving this primary accounts are troubled by their privileged point of view. Slavery Papers is still told through a white lens by nature of the forward and being in Cunard’s anthology. Yet, despite all of the problems surrounding the context of the piece, it remains an extremely powerful read. Rickword succeeds at laying bare the horror of the slave trade in a way that shakes and effects the reader. He ends up fulfilling the first half of Winkiel’s claim, but on the second account the situation remains much less clear.

– Julian Rosolie

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Rhythm and Harmony

The word “rhythm” often refers to the way a piece of music flows, a song with rhythm or “good” rhythm sounds inherently pleasing to the listener. Thinking about that in visual terms, a painting, photograph, or composition in a film, can give a viewer that same feeling. Although personally I do not find much rhythm in the Mondrian the Kandinsky painting on page 20 holds a certain rhythm by the way the viewer’s eye catches on to the blob in the top right and all the objects around seem to gravitate around that. That composition feels natural to the viewer and in the way I described rhythm earlier, it embodies a natural state of enjoyment.

Similarly, “harmony” describes something basic, a natural state of balance. Also a music term, harmony is used outside of the subject much more than “rhythm.” All good visual composers have to base their work on balance, either achieving it, or disrupting it. A teacher at film school will start out the first day by stressing that filmmakers maintain balance in their shots to keep it visually appealing, for example, do not set two characters on the far left of the frame and then leave a heap of unused, vacant space on the right side. Therefore, where the Kandinsky held a certain amount of rhythm it completely lacks balance, instead feeling more chaotic. The Mondrian on the other hand, while I found very little rhythm, possess complete balance through its mathematical exactness. That is not to say that any painting that possess balance and/or rhythm is inherently good art. However, the Matisse on page 19 manages to find both balance, the contrast between the woman in black and the man in white, as well as rhythm in the way the eye of the viewer catches onto the face of the woman first and then follows her sight line to the face of the man on the other side of the painting.

The Mondrian painting focuses on bringing about harmony through a mathematical balance. It uses straight and exact lines, forming visually (not actually) perfect ninety-degree angles. That makes the painting harmless, it avoids being unappealing because it holds just perfect balance and thus feels safe, achieving a sort of harmony.

Just as Mondrian uses geometry to achieve Composition with Red, White, Blue, and Black, music, rhythm, and harmony can be broken down into numbers. All sound can be quantified. Tone, pitch, loudness, these all are given measurements and certain levels are naturally more appealing to the human ear. If these were not quantifiable, much of the music put out today would not be possible. If a computer program can be used to put out a song using no real instruments, than that means perfectly pleasing rhythm and harmony are not some unreachable goals, they can be achieved. A producer can know that tone X, pitch Y, bass level Z, etc. are automatically going to be polite to the human ear. Every single aspect of sound can be broken down into a number. This is slightly harder to do with something visual but once again, we have the ability to create images from no physical source (no paint, film, etc.) therefore, every aspect of a visual composition can be translated as data.

Viewing art in this manner does, as Butler comments about the work of Mondrian, “deny individual expressionism” in favor of “universality.” It suggests that certain works of art can be created which everyone must enjoy. It ignores the emotional trigger of art and perhaps even the purpose of art. Mondrian may think that he created a universal work through a painting of harmonic rectangles however; the painting does not connect with me emotionally. Rectangles do not make me sad, happy, scared, or angry. That is why I described it as not unappealing; it is the most perfectly inoffensive piece of art. As Butler suggests, “our enjoyment of Mondrian depends on our feel for harmony and balance. (Butler 24).” Mondrian’s own words though suggest a desire to ignore that individual feel. If anything, Mondrian’s painting reminds me of the subjectivity of art, which I think might have been the opposite of the effect he wanted to have.

Some additional research (not cited): http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/06/science/06sound.html?_r=0

– Julian Rosolie

Sierra Rose on “Sirens”

I was once told by one of my English professors to read Ulysses. They said it was the book that could never be forgotten. So I went out and bought it and it has sat on my bookshelf ever since. In my history as an English student, James Joyce and Ulysses have come up several times with the lasting impression that I should be very brave to undertake it. After reading the excerpt in Modernism and Music I am getting a sense as to why. Modernist text isn’t for everybody. I actually hate reading stream of consciousness texts; its lack of organization drives me crazy. However, the work they have done is inspiring. I always had it in my head about modernism that in order to make something new you have to break something old. And, in terms of “Sirens,” I believe what’s breaking is the idea that literature lends to music or music lends to literature and that they cannot be one in the same. That literature can be music or music can inspire literature is nothing new. However, what Joyce did was make music out of noise and literature out of the music and they became one in the same. The sounds expressed in “Sirens” give me a mental picture of Joyce sitting somewhere public with a pencil and some paper. We joked in class that it was a pub and I’m going to roll with that. I originally thought “where bronze from anear?/where gold from afar?(47) kind of sounded like a pub song anyway. The noise around Joyce was not his doing, yet he was still directing the noise to be made into music in a poem. In a way I see Joyce as a conductor and the reader is the singer and the words are the music. Yet you could argue and one of those things is any one of those other things as well.

After talking about it in class I really jumped on this idea of echoing, which Joyce does through allusions and literally with repeating terms. He does this with “rose of Castile,” “bloom” and images of bronze and gold. The best way I can describe Joyce’s use of echoing in “Sirens” is as inception-like. Echoing within echoing. For example, one of the repeated images is the rose of Castile which is an allusion, or echo of the past, to an opera by Michael Balfe (45). The echo of the past is echoed several times. That seems textbook modernist to me; to use pieces (of the past you have broken off) to make something new. Of course other poets and writers use allusion, but what sets this one apart is “Sirens” complete dedication to sound rather than any sort of direct meaning.

I see this piece of literature as an example of what Arnold Schoenberg was talking about in regards to music and art thought of as needing meaning. Music and art in general, should not be expected to have some meaning. There doesn’t have to be a lesson or a story or an image conjured for it to still be music or art (40). I think the same applies to “Sirens.” If one tries to make a comprehensible conclusion about “Sirens” then the real meaning would and should be lost. “It must… be clear to him that in this translation into the terms of human language, which is abstraction, reduction to the recognizable, the essential, the language of the world, which ought perhaps to remain incomprehensible and only perceptible, is lost,”(Albright, 40). The beauty of this poem is tasted rather than realized. “A husky fifenote blew./ Blew. Blue bloom is on the….A sail! A veil awave upon the waves.” Say it out loud a couple times. Doesn’t that just make your mouth happy? And isn’t the repeated imagery of blooming roses, gold, bronze, and blue pleasing to the mind? In the context of “Sirens,” I would have to disagree with Schoenberg that all poetry is bound to subject-matter and loses its original essence. What do you think?

PS. I will read it after I have a nice comfy degree under my belt.

NickieF

Rhythm, as it is used in this context, I believe could mean a lot of different things. Out of pure curiosity I looked up Piet Mondrian’s artwork and found that he started in about 1909 with a sort of classic art that depicts landscapes, houses, and random scenery. He then abruptly stopped with this classic form of art and moved into a more modernist form. He primarily used geometric shapes and the three primary colors with back lines and lots of white space. However, his piece entitled Composition in Oval with Color Planes 1 (http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=78441) is a bit different. You see a very set angular pattern within an oval, juxtaposing linear segments with some bent U shapes and blending/blurring the colors out to the softer curves of the oval. It’s like the idea of an old pachinko machine; where you drop the ball into the slot in the top and its luck of the draw as to which linear pegs it will hit on the way down. Depending on which segment the ball lands into depends on what prize you win, and also how much noise the machine will make. So in a way, the rhythm of the painting could be related in terms to the voyeur’s interpretation of how they see movement in the piece of art. As I have described is as a pachinko machine, I might hear the rhythm of the bouncing ball as it hits the pegs, rolls across the planes, or as it rocks back and forth in a slow decline of movement in one of the half pipe shapes.

As Butler says “But modernist art is far more indirect –it can make the world seem unfamiliar to us, as rearranged by the conventions of art” (Pg 2). This is to say, I believe, that Butler is trying to get at the main problem here which is that paintings and literature are not (to most) comparable but in using the word “seem” he suggests that they are because they are both forms of art. He suggests these interconnections between all art forms by titling most of the plays, artwork, poetry, and literature under the modernist movement. However there is a deeper symbiotic relationship in the way that all artists fall into a certain rhythm and then feed off each other’s similar creativity or, in a lot of cases, use their own art as an obstruction, forcing the onlooker’s mind to sort of flinch and think twice about what the artist might be trying to do. Picasso had it right when he said “To me there is no past and future in art” (11). All art –in all forms –can definitely be linked together by a sort of rise and fall of what is popular at the times, then years later someone tries to reenter that art form into the public’s view. Much like sound waves there is a rise and fall. I might even venture to say that seeing art is this sort of rhythm is the Modernist way of thinking of this, that is to say that time is illusive, art is timeless.

So there is both a mental rhythm and a physical rhythm, as in looking at it and seeing the strokes of the brush, there is a lot to be said. Like a musical composer must move his hands, arms, and body to orchestrate a symphony, so must an artist do the same with paint, brush and canvas and of course a  writer with his pen, paper, and imagination. People have a certain method to their creativity. Mondrian’s later paintings were said to have been influenced by jazz. One can see the connection between the staccato liveliness that moves across the canvas mixed with the white space in Broadway Boogie-Woogie (http://www.moma.org/collection_images/resized/540/w500h420/CRI_203540.jpg). It may not be a physical road map to any particular song but when listening to any upbeat jazz song you can see how Mondrian’s art would be created, especially when in comparison or side by side to the sheet music of the song that might have influenced Mondrian’s. Langston Hughes also syncopated his poetry with Jazz music, it was a common art form of the Harlem Renaissance; using the disjointed rhythm to add another layer of feeling to one’s piece. Mondrian’s idea is far from the first and far from the last time that artists will try to put rhythm into their art.

For those interested, Langston Hughes Jazz Poetry: http://arts.gov/art-works/2014/jazz-poetry-langston-hughes

Blog postings, round one! (Due 3 April 2015)

In a blog of 700-800 words, reflect on one of the following prompts. You are not required to answer every single question within a given prompt, nor are you necessarily limited to these topics. You may merge prompts or invent your own, if you like. These are intended merely to guide your thinking.

Whichever prompt(s) you select, be sure to cite specific examples from the reading(s) in support of your arguments. You don’t need to attach a bibliography—it will do simply to cite sources parenthetically, like this (Butler 9). Do be sure, however, to cite your sources if you go outside/beyond the syllabus. (If you are using a web source, the simplest solution is probably to link to it directly; WordPress makes this pretty easy to do.)

Blog postings are due by 11:59 p.m. on 3 April 2015. Please either sign your name to the posting, or make sure your name appears in the subject heading (e.g. “Ricky M.’s post on Schoenberg). First name and last initial are adequate, if you don’t feel like baring your identity to the world, but I certainly encourage you to stand behind what you write.

Finally, before posting your blog, please tag it “Blog 1.” Do this by going to the “Tags and Categories” menu (you’ll see this at left when you go to post); under “Enter your tags below,” enter “Blog 1” (no quote marks). Next week’s will be tagged “Blog 2,” etc. This will make it much easier for me to keep track of your blogs at the end of the quarter.

Have fun, write well, and cite specific examples. Feel free to bring in other media, links, etc. if you find them illustrative.

Prompts:
(1) Though Piet Mondrian is a visual artist, you will note that he uses the words “rhythm” and “harmony” in his philosophical ruminations (see Butler 24). Aren’t these predominantly musical terms? How can a painting have “rhythm”? Since you have the painting there on the page, reflect on how these musical/aural terms might apply also to a visual document. You might (or might not) then also consider how music, visual art, and language might be interacting with each other.

(1.5) You could also quickly peruse the correspondence between Schoenberg and Kandinsky, found in the Albright anthology, pp.169-172. This wasn’t assigned, but it might help you underscore specific points. Given what you’ve read in Butler, and what you’ve read from Schoenberg himself, how can we interpret this dialogue between a painter and a composer? What does each take from the other?

(2) In the excerpt from Roland Barthes’ “The Grain of the Voice” discussed in Monday’s class, Barthes suggests a little “parlour game”: “talk about a piece of music without using a single adjective.” Sounds good. Describe one of the musical compositions discussed in Butler’s Very Short Introduction, or discuss Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (excerpted in the Albright anthology), using no adjectives. What you might do here is spend 300 words or so trying this parlour game, and then the other 400-500 words reflecting on your own efforts. It might be useful, for example, consider what Barthes’/Schoenberg’s/Butler’s reflections say about music, language, modernism, or the relationships between and among them. (You can find any of these compositions on YouTube, and you don’t have to describe the whole thing. Use whatever sample will help you engage with what Schoenberg/Barthes/[whoever] are saying.)

(3) Christopher Butler uses James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922) to illustrate specific aspects of modernist writing. Given that, closely analyze the extract from Ulysses that we get in Albright’s Modernism and Music anthology (the opening–overture, if you will–of the episode called “Sirens”). How does this excerpt exemplify a relationship between literature and music, or exemplify the qualities of “allusion,” “echoes,” “structural parallels,” etc. that Butler describes of modernism? (Given that “echo” is itself a sound-related term, how might Joyce be playing with both literal and figurative kinds of echoing?)

If you’ve read Ulysses, more power to you—feel free to draw on any part of the novel. If you haven’t read it, however, you can stick with the excerpts given to us by Butler and Albright.

(4) Various forms of modernism, as Butler notes, are “against expressionist individualism, and anti-romantic” (9)–invested, in other words, in an impersonal ideal for art. Based on your readings this week, why do you think that is? What do impersonality, abstraction, geometrical purity, etc. have to do with artistic beauty? What do they have to do with music (sound, hearing) specifically?

(5) Choose your own adventure (i.e. create your own topic). Just make sure to keep your ideas grounded in specific textual examples from this week’s reading.