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.

Counter-Culture and The New Horizons of Sound (Thinking With Varése)

I want to minimize the revolutionary images, the superficial tensions that are projected onto composers like Varése and Antheil, they need not to be made into mavericks or rebels—its simply not true (entirely) or helpful when listening/understanding their music. When looking through their words, one will encounter plenty of strange and seemingly eccentric information, but plenty that is mundane and not rebellious. Consider Edgard Varése in regards to Amériques “This composition is the interpretation of the mood, a piece of pure music absolutely unrelated to the noise of modern life which some critics have read into the composition”(Ouellette, 57). So, the composer appears both unreliable and sincere in his attempts to create new music with new sound. My point in minimizing the revolutionary image is mostly for the sake of dropping pretension an unrealistic standard in which we understand art. Modernist, and men like Varése are Agents/representations of change (yes a small distinction), rather than forces of change. There is something Pseudo-democratic in the nature of Art; like language (speech) Art is largely consensual, and exists always outside of the subject. Perhaps Artist anticipates just as much as they shape cultural perceptions.

As we have mentioned in class, these composer’s and their music exist in a timeline of a musical tradition. I reject the idea of revolution and paradigm shift, at least in terms of the individual piece if music or performance—the subject is always over determined by the critic and the audience. Their ability to understand the piece of music is evidence enough, meaning that change is always anticipated by the conditions that give rise to the cultural movement or product. For Varése “To be modern is to be natural, an interpreter of the spirit of your own time. I can assure you I am not straining after the unusual”(Ouellette, 57). Varése seems to be quite aware of how unremarkable his position is, as his revolution of sound and noise in merely a manifestation of the natural development of music. He is merely accessing the technology and sounds of the world he arrived in (both literally and ontologically). It is difficult to not insert sarcasm or a sense of irony in Varése’s words because: the question of what is natural is implicated in the modernist exploration of noise. What is natural? And how is man’s perception of nature conditioned? These questions extended into the realms of noise and music. What is natural and what is man-made (unnatural); what is music and what is noise?

For this thought, the composer is the: scientist, the cook, the tinkerer and the experimenter. The ideal experiment/preparation will reveal and report a phenomenon that already exists. Science does the best to uncover constants; the only new information is the means of reaching the constancy. The crafter will always arrive at their real state of existence as well as within a system ideology. First we have, raw values of what is going to be manipulated, and then we have the history and context of how things have been used, manipulated/utilized. On the other end of the artist and their Art there is the willing recipient, and producers, Varése like his contemporaries were able to secure patrons as well venues to share their art. Sure, there are conservative and nostalgic forces at work, but these are usual at odds with change and progress.

Mathematics are not the means of exploring new frontiers, so formulas only prove, verify old models of perception. Yet one discovery anticipates the next. Consider “Art’s function is not to prove a formula or an esthetic dogma. Our academic rules were taken out of the living work of former masters. As Debussy has said, works of art make rules but rules do not make works of art. Art exists only as a medium of expression…”(M&M, 185). Varése speaks to the over determination that often occurs as well as the problems with conservative and nostalgic approach to creating art. When a fine piece of work arises, the critic and the audience must systematically establish it’s greatness, to prove a formula for success. In in reality the basis of the artist success includes an array of specific and arbitrary conditions.

How is something both new and completely anticipated (predictable)? This tension is all pointing towards the implication of a work like Amériques and other noisy pieces of music “clearly developed a new way of listening, learning not only to celebrate the noise in music, but also to appreciate the music in noise” I am a little hesitant to celebrate this notion, as we have seen from Fascist zeal and the Marxist criticism, there are clearly consequences and pretentious overtones here. How we get to the noise and how we receive the noise is all subject to highly structured cultural activities. I don’t think we need to celebrate one thing or another rather we need to rigorously explore the tension between noise and music. We still have the music of Varése and Antheil and they are still difficult to listen to. It is not so much about the new worlds of sounds but new questions and conflicts represented in sounds.

Ouellette, Fernand. Edgard Varése. New York: Orion, 1968. Print.

–Harry Brown

Blog instructions and prompts for 10 April 2015.

This week we begin rotating our blog posts. This week’s blogs are due Friday, 4/10, by 11:59 p.m.

Blog Group 1: if your last name begins with A through H (inclusive), you are hereafter in “Blog Group 1,” and you have a blog post due this Friday by 11:59 p.m.. Prompts are below. 700+ words.

Blog Group 2: last names I through N. This week, by 23:59 on Friday, you need to read and reply to a blog posting from last week. You can find all of last week’s postings by clicking on the link marked “Week 1 blogs.”

Pick a blog post you find particularly interesting, thought-provoking, question-raising, etc., and probe it further. Again, your goal is not to praise or to bury the original posting, but to engage with its ideas and extend them further. Ideally, you could use materials from this week’s materials that allow you to reflect back on a posting from a previous week…but as long as you’re citing specific examples, you can approach this in many different ways. 300+ words.

Blog Group 3: O through Z. You have this week off. (You’ll have a reply due on 4/17.)


Prompts: As always, you’re welcome to remake or reinvent these prompts however you like, provided that you’re citing specific examples. Please tag your blogs “Blog 2.”

1. Based on your readings and listenings for this week, respond to and elaborate on the following passage from Emily Thompson’s book The Soundscape of Modernity:

To composers like Antheil and Varèse, the noises of the modern city inspired the creation of a new kind of music. When this music was performed in places like Carnegie Hall, audiences were challenged to test their ideas about the distinction between music and noise. Some–including critics like [Lawrence] Gilman and [Paul] Rosenfeld, as well as other perceptive listeners like [William Carlos] Williams–clearly developed a new way of listening, learning not only to celebrate the noise in music, but also to appreciate the music in noise. This was not, however, the only way to test the definition of noise. Acousticians and engineers were also redefining the meaning of sound, with new instruments of their own. When they took those tools out of the laboratory and put them to work in a world filled with sound, they, too, challenged listeners to listen in new ways. (144)

(If you’re super-curious, you can find Thompson’s book on reserve—or parts of it on Google Books).

2. Pound’s Testament de Villon is hardly a noise-music composition of the Amériques or Ballet Mécanique sort; indeed, after hearing those two pieces, Pound’s might sound rather tame. Yet there are many respects in which it still reflects artistic ideals that we might call “modernist”: for example, its settings of Francois Villon, the 15th-century French poet, represent a decisive stroke of classicism, and Antheil aided Pound’s composition of the piece. Analyze how Pound’s Testament de Villon reflects a modernist aesthetic, using Butler’s Very Short Introduction as well as Pound’s essays (“A Retrospect,” on Antheil) to buttress your analysis.

3. Perform a close reading of Russolo’s “Arts of Noise” manifesto. What case does he make for the new kinds of noise that could help remake music? Why, specifically, does he champion noise, either as an artistic material, or as a cultural/social phenomenon? (Here, if you’re curious, are what Russolo’s noisemakers–intonarumori–sound like.)

4. Antheil’s essay “My Ballet Mecanique,” briefly discussed in class, can be found on D2L (under “Course Content” –> “Optional/Recommended”). It’s short: read it and assess its claims in relation to the piece itself.

5. Watch Léger’s film Ballet Mécanique, which includes a reconstruction of Antheil’s score made to fit the film. As discussed in class, the film and music were composed separately, and so we need to be cautious about taking this video too literally. Still, speculate about the relationship between the images onscreen and the music. What’s going on in the film? How do the implications of the title apply to the images as well as to the music? What “themes” from the film can you abstract, and how do they compare or conflict with the music?

6. Why are player-pianos (“pianolas”) so important to Antheil’s Ballet? How do player-pianos work, what might they symbolize, and what might their inner workings tell us about the cultural resonances of Antheil’s piece? (There’s a lot of good recent scholarship on modernism’s player-pianos–let me know if you want to do more research.)

7. Choose your own adventure. (You might want to tackle Antheil’s essay on music and race, if you’re brave, or the relationship between Antheil’s music and jazz, or take up an issue from the scholarly presentation, or any materials from the PowerPoint that I didn’t get to.)