Steve Albini’s lo-fi aesthetics

As a central figure in the 1980’s Chicago noise rock scene with his band Big Black, the famed indie recording engineer/producer Steve Albini developed a reputation for his distinctly anti-commercial work ethic and ability to effectively convey gritty, abrasive noise. Albini’s stance was once described by the scholar and composer Marc Faris as constructing “a gender-, race-, and class-specific workingman persona”. Albini normally wore worker’s overalls (as in the photo above) while in the studio and described his approach to music recording in terms of construction or “putting together”, similar to a bricklayer or steelworker, touting a liveness to his sound by avoiding nonessential studio trickery. As part of the Chicago scene, Albini forged an aesthetic that mixed a musically exact virtuosity with a emphasis on communal music performance.

This aesthetic embraced a documentary approach to studio recording where record production honestly conveyed a band’s live performance with transparency and fidelity. Drums and guitar recording under Albini’s expertise were rendered with startling immediacy and liveness, allowing for the ostensibly natural sound of the performance and performing space to be aurally inscribed in the recording. This aspect of his craft was often described in terms of capturing the essence of a live band. Albini’s recording of vocals, however, often left them buried in the mix. He described his reasoning for focusing on instrumental elements of rock: “In the pop music tradition, the vocal is always the paramount thing . . . In records that are of a band . . . the vocals may not be the most important thing. Now, I can’t count the number of times that a vocalist has said, ʽOkay, it’s time to do the vocals on this. Give me a minute, I have to write some lyrics’”. With such reasoning, Albini placed a modernist aesthetic of instrumental performance squarely against the historically feminized, emotional pop aesthetic of vocal expression.

Albini (middle) and Big Black circa 1986.

One of Albini’s signature works as a recording engineer was on PJ Harvey’s critically acclaimed 1993 album Rid of me, which valorized a lo-fi aesthetic of raw musical expression, stripped down to its most fundamental elements. In the early 1990s, the emerging subgenre of lo-fi foregrounded debates about both the aesthetic and ideological significance of sound production in rock music. For some lo-fi artists and listeners, modes of performance, recording, and mediation were central to the meaning and expression of the recorded music. The ideologies and impulses of lo-fi were a crucial factor in shaping the contrasting implications of the production myths of Harvey’s recordings of that period, including Rid of me and 4-track demos.

PJ Harvey Rid of me cover art.

Harvey’s choice of Albini for the recording of Rid of me proved compelling. After all, Harvey’s musical persona had demonstrated a penchant for gendered antagonism and boundary-defying iconoclasm. She also shared similarities in sound and style with Albini’s noise rock aesthetic, namely abrasive guitars, drastic dynamic contrasts, rhythmic complexity, and an emphasis on tight-knit, active ensemble performance.

Steve Albini passed away in Chicago on 7 May 2024.

Read more in “The power of a production myth: PJ Harvey, Steve Albini, and gendered notions of recording fidelity” by Brian Jones (Popular music and society 42/3 [2019] 348–362; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2019-5609).

Below is studio footage featuring Albini and PJ Harvey during the Rid of me studio session in 1993 along with Big Black’s Racer-X.

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Beethoven’s ninth in millennial culture

For nearly two centuries, Beethoven’s ninth symphony, which premiered on 7 May 1824 at the Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna, has held musical audiences captive. Few other musical works hold such a prominent place in the collective imagination, and each subsequent generation has rediscovered the work for itself and made it its own. Understanding the significance of the symphony in contemporary culture requires a dialog between Beethoven’s world and ours, marked by the earth-shattering events of 1789 and of 1989.

What is special about the ninth in contemporary millennial culture is that the music is encoded not only as score but also as digital technology. We encounter Beethoven 9 flashmobs, digitally reconstructed concert halls, globally synchronized performances, and other time-bending procedures. The digital artwork 9 beet stretch by Leif Inge, for instance, presents the ninth at glacial speed over the span of 24 hours, challenging our understanding of the symphony and encouraging us to confront the temporal dimension of Beethoven’s music. In the digital age, the ninth emerges as a musical work that is recomposed and reshaped; robust enough to live up to such treatment, and continually adapting to a changing world with changing media.

A presentation of <9 beet stretch> by Leif Inge.

Learn more in Beethoven’s symphony no. 9 by Alexander Rehding (New York City: Oxford University Press, 2018). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2018-4097]. In case you missed it, the 200th anniversary of the premiere of Beethoven’s ninth symphony was on 7 May 2024.

Below are three videos of Beethoven flash mobs in Hong Kong, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the last in Azerbaijan.

Hong Kong
Minneapolis
Azerbaijan

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Isang Yun: Composer and freedom fighter

Isang Yun’s youth was dominated by his involvement with resistance movements against the Japanese occupation of Korea, which began in 1910. His political activities deeply affected his development as a musician, which was characterized by the constant conflict between his artistic interests and the political commitment that he felt was necessary. Nevertheless, at the age of 17, Yun traveled to Japan, despite his father’s warning, to embark on a college education focused on the study of Western music. After two years, he returned to Korea to continue his studies and his involvement in the Korean liberation struggle. Yun was arrested by Japanese occupation forces in 1943, and it was not until 1948 that he returned to music, this time as a music teacher at an all-girls high school in his hometown. He later began lecturing at a university in Seoul where he received several awards for his compositions.  

These awards enabled Yun to continue studying music in Europe at the Berliner Hochschule für Musik (Berlin University of Music). His frequent participation in Darmstadt’s summer courses for new music led to his acceptance by the European avant-garde, within which he remained an outsider, albeit a respected one. Yun settled in Berlin in 1964 as a Ford Foundation scholarship recipient but the political conflict in his now divided homeland was never far from his thoughts. He was especially critical of South Korea’s leadership and refused several invitations to perform there. Yun hoped for the reunification of Korea, and to make this happen, he made a daring visit communist North Korea in 1963.

The brazen visit concerned South Korean officials, who had Yun kidnapped from Berlin in 1967 in a spectacular operation by the South Korean secret service. He was charged with treason and sent to prison where he endured torture, attempted suicide, and was forced to confess to espionage. After a trial, Yun was sentenced to life imprisonment, a charge that was later revised after massive protests internationally. Subsequently, Yun left Korea in 1969 and returned to Berlin and later became a German citizen. From 1970 onward, he worked as a professor and taught composition while lecturing on various occasions throughout Europe and North America. In 1972, Yun composed the piece Sim Tjong based on a popular Korean fairytale specially for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. When asked in a 1987 interview whether he was consciously trying to combine Asian and Western elements in his music, Yun replied,

“No, that would be too artificial.  The inner truth is, in actuality, a music of the cosmos. Realistically seen, I’ve had two experiences, and I know the practice of both Asian music and European. I am equally at home in both fields. I’m a man living today, and within me is the Asia of the past combined with the Europe of today. My purpose is not an artificial connection, but I’m naturally convinced of the unity of these two elements. For that reason, it’s impossible to categorize my music as either European or Asian.”

Celebrate Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month by reading the entry on Isang Yun (also spelled Yoon) in MGG Online. Listen to Yun’s composition Muak dance fantasy below.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Asia, Musicologists, Politics

A landmark resource in ethnomusicology

The Garland encyclopedia of world music was first issued between 1988 and 1994 by Garland Publishing as a ten-volume series of encyclopedias of world music, organized geographically by continent. An updated second edition appeared between 1998 and 2002. Widely regarded as an authoritative academic source for ethnomusicology, the series features contributions from top researchers in the field globally.

RILM Music Encyclopedias includes volumes from the series on Africa (edited by Ruth M. Stone), The United States and Canada (edited by Ellen Koskoff), Southeast Asia (edited by Terry E. Miller and Sean Williams), South Asia: The Indian Subcontinent (edited by Alison Arnold), The Middle East (edited by Virginia Danielson), East Asia: China, Japan, and Korea (edited by Robert Provine), and Australia and the Pacific Islands (edited by Adrienne L. Kaeppler). Each volume consists of three sections that cover the major topics of a region from broad general issues to specific music practices, introductions to each region, its culture, and its music as well as a survey of previous music scholarship and research; major issues and processes that link the regions musically, and detailed accounts of individual music cultures. The special tenth volume compiles reference tools, criteria for inclusion into the series, and information about the encyclopedia’s structure and organization.

The entries synthesize in-depth fieldwork conducted since the 1960s, as well as recordings, analysis, and documentation. The publication is generally considered a landmark achievement in ethnomusicology. While ethnomusicologists may appreciate The Garland for its critically designed components, non-ethnomusicologists can embrace the encyclopedia for its capacity to serve as a primer on world music.

Find the Garland encyclopedia of world music in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

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Vocal music of the southern Philippines

Among the non-Islamic highland communities of Mindanao in the Philippines, singing is not just a form of entertainment but is also embedded in formal or ritualized gatherings. The Agusan Manobo healing ritual is a good example of such context where the tud-om song genre is performed by a medium (acting as the host) before family members and the sick patient (the guest). The same song is always sung in this ritual as a way to resolve misunderstandings among members of the community.

The T’boli people have a song genre called setolu, which is performed after a woman has accepted a gift offered by the man courting her. Setolu represents a sung debate where two singers–a man and a woman, who respectively embody the roles of wife-taker and wife-giver–compete against each other to negotiate the marriage arrangement as a type of social exchange. This is similar to the Maguindanao dayunday and the Sulu sindil, both of which also represent a vocal debate or dialogue between male and female singers, often heard after weddings and ceremonial events to welcome visitors and give thanks. As a form of entertainment, the dayunday is a competition between two men and a woman or two women and a man, who take turns singing with a Western guitar from eight o’clock in the evening until four o’clock the next morning. The performers openly debate the worthiness of the marriage suitor, usually taking the form of humorous denigration.

In the neighboring island of Palawan, a vocal music called kulilal features sensual and metaphorical images of love. Kulilal does not represent a courtship but is a song of seduction in which a woman playing the zither is invited into an adulterous relationship. During the performance she is flanked by two men who take turns singing and playing their two-stringed lutes (pictured above).

Learn more in a new entry on the Philippines by Jose Buenconsejo in MGG Online.

Below is a contemporary performance of dayunday in Maguindanao.

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Laura Jane Grace sings the gender dysphoria blues

Photo: Mat Stokes

It has been noted that the durability of punk has been driven by a communal ethos that embodies inclusivity, resistance, challenge, and transformation. First wave punk represented this ethos, and it remains evident in punk’s ongoing engagement with queer politics and gender fluidity. In recent decades, articulations of transgender punk have centered on Laura Jane Grace, lead singer of the U.S. anarcho-punk band Against Me!, who came out as transgender five albums deep into her public life as an established musician. Against Me! began as Grace’s adolescent DIY solo project, through which she crafted a series of lo-fi and limited releases on local labels, including Misanthrope Records, Crasshole Records, and Plan-It-X Records, resulting in the eventual release of the band’s well-received debut LP, Reinventing Axl Rose in 2002.

From 2002 to 2009, Grace and Against Me! released five albums that saw the band emerge from DIY basement shows and self-reliance to playing stadiums and being labeled as “industry sellouts”, drawing sharp criticism from the anarcho-punk community. It was after this period that Grace chose to openly discuss her struggles with gender dysphoria and growing up closeted in her first interview with Rolling Stone in 2012. As Grace explained,

“You know, one of the very appealing things to me about the punk rock world when I was 15, 16, especially stumbling onto anarchist punk rock and activist punk rock. And a scene that was really strongly feminist and anti-racist and anti-homophobia, anti-transphobia, all about body liberation, all about . . . just being yourself.”

Laura Jane Grace (center) performing with Miley Cyrus (left) and Joan Jett.

A literary analysis of Grace’s early song lyrics, composed before she came out publicly in 2012, stands out for its emotional complexity and unique insight into the mind of someone, who for many years, had wrestled with their gender identity. The purity and conviction of punk initially offered Grace a platform to counteract the turmoil of growing up experiencing gender dysphoria. However, she describes becoming frustrated and disappointed with punk’s rigidity and found herself impeded by its codes of masculinity that, in many ways, reinforced gender norms and her own gender insecurity. Facing criticism from the scene she once called home, Grace turned inward, often within the spatial confines of her own songs. On the final track from the album Searching for a former clarity, Grace writes,

No the doctors didn’t tell you that you were dying.
They just collected their money,
And send you on your way.
But you knew all along.
Went on pretending nothing was wrong.
You said I will keep my focus,
Till the end.
And in the journal you kept,
By the side of your bed.
You wrote nightly an aspiration,
Of developing as an author.
Confessing childhood secrets,
Of dressing up in women’s clothes.
Compulsions you never knew the reasons to.
Will everyone,
You ever meet or love,
Be just a relationship based,
On a false presumption.

Read more in “Tonight we’re gonna give it 35%: Expressions of transgender identity in the early work of Laura Jane Grace” by Kristen Carella and Kathryn Wymer (Journal of gender studies 29/3 [2020] 257–268), and ““Delicate, petite, & other things I’ll never be”: Trans-punk anthems and love songs” by Gareth Schott (European journal of English studies 24/1 [2020] 37–51). Find both articles in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature.

Listen to the track Searching for a former clarity below.

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Filed under Gender and sexuality, Performers, Popular music

Cyclist/masseurs and their shakers in urban Vietnam

Hồ Chí Minh City, December 2003

“During my visit to Hồ Chí Minh City I heard a distinct sound, short and accented, coming from the small lanes in District 1. Listening, I tried to determine if there was an ostinato or sequence to the rhythms, but there wasn’t any. Fascinated by the sound, I ventured outside the guesthouse where I was staying to try to determine from where this sound was coming. I was unsuccessful in finding the source of the sound, so I made an enquiry with the guesthouse management. I was told it was a shaker type of instrument commonly heard at night, played by bicycle-riding masseurs offering their services.

Dining out on the following night, I heard another distinct sound that was accented with shorter sounds. That’s when I saw, for the first time, a type of shaker that belonged to one of the hundreds of people who commonly carry these instruments on their bicycles. Within minutes of this initial finding, I noted two more cyclists with their shakers.

After dinner, I approached one of them to ask as to what these were called. Unfortunately, he spoke almost no English and instead offered a massage. Upon returning to the guesthouse, I asked the management to write my question in Vietnamese. I was then able to communicate with another cyclist/masseur to establish the instrument’s name, function, and measurements. The effort was successful for his answer was a chuông gõ.

On my second trip to Hồ Chí Minh, I made a similar enquiry of several cyclists/masseurs to confirm the name of the instrument given to me on my first trip. Though this time the names of chuông gõ, cál lắc, and lắc lắp were given. I noted the variations in the construction of the instrument. The best-constructed ones of the lot were the chuông gõ, which seems to have been made with wire, pierced through the middle of bottle caps, and attached to a handle. Some handles were made of old garden trowels, while the most creative used an old squash racket grip. All variants combined recycled resources.”

Read more from Terry Moran in Vietnamese musical instruments: A monographic lexicon (2020). Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

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Global designs for 78 RPM record sleeves

78 RPM sleeve from India

The 78 RPM record was originally a means of commerce intended to make money. When recording engineers were dispatched across the globe to capture sounds and voices, there was no intention to preserve the recordings that they created. The point, at the time, was to attract as many customers as possible to buy phonograph machines. It was largely an accident that these recordings turned out to be quite meaningful for diasporic populations who had moved away from their homelands. Such recordings became essential to people who otherwise would not have had access to their music, and they purchased gramophones and records to feel closer to homeland and as accompaniment to ritual feasts, births, weddings, and other cultural events.

78 RPM sleeve from Burma

Sales increased as immigrants crossed the oceans. Record production was kept cheap. Discs were disposable and longevity was not central to their design, and so were the first 78 RPM sleeves, which were plain, cheap paper with no printing. Many record companies and store owners eventually realized the potential of using the sleeves as advertisements for the recording (and other items). From those early recordings, we learn that the information on the sleeve did not necessarily have to refer to the record it held. Some simply were a shoutout for the record company’s brand, for accessories, and gramophones. Others mentioned the company’s roster of musical talent.

Below is Reto Muller’s collection of global 78 RPM record sleeves of the early 20th century. Learn more in “A short tour of global 78 RPM records and sleeves” by Reto Müller (ARSC journal 54.1 [Spring 2023] 123–129). Find it in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text.

78 RPM sleeve from Finland
78 RPM sleeve from Peru
78 RPM sleeve from China

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Filed under Mass media, Visual art, World music

The nobat in Malay court life

The nobat, a percussion-based music ensemble, has performed in the Malay courts of maritime Southeast Asia since the coming of Islam to the region in the 13th century. The nobat originates in the Islamic traditions of the Middle East and has long been incorporated into the sacred court regalia as a symbol of a sultan’s power and sovereignty. The ensemble also is revered for its perceived mystical powers and its ability to consolidate and maintain sociopolitical order. The spread of Islam saw the nobat and its musical practice travel via ancient land and sea routes across Asia to develop by accommodating different local cultures and belief systems.

Drawing patrons from some of the greatest Muslim empires, the sounds of the nobat in palaces symbolized the installation of new rulers, announced the arrival of dignitaries, signaled prayer times, and instilled courage among soldiers on the battlefield. The emergence of the nobat as a court institution was less a result of the collective agency of the masses than a desire of the Malay ruling elites. The ensemble developed during a period when societies were governed by absolute monarchs, military commanders, and regional governors who had the means and purpose to patronize it. Along with the nobat, ruling elites also were responsible for supporting the advancement of the arts and sciences generally, and many musicians, poets, painters, philosophers, and scientists found themselves under court patronage.

By the late 20th century, the nobat mostly went silent as sultanates declined in visibility and power. The few that have survived continue to perform in the sultan’s courts of Kedah, Perak, Selangor, and Terengganu in Malaysia and in Brunei.

Read more in “The nobat: From Muslim antiquity to Malay modernity” by Raja Iskandar Bin Raja Halid in Performing arts and the royal courts of Southeast Asia. I: Pusaka as documented heritage, edited by Mayco A. Santaella (Leiden: Brill, 2023) 139–160. Find it in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature.

The video below features a performance of the nobat in Kedah, Malaysia.

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Musical expressions of the Harlem Renaissance: An annotated bibliography

Emerging from a New York neighborhood in the early 20th century, the Harlem Renaissance was a period of vibrant intellectual and artistic development in the African American community. Considered a turning point in Black history, the Harlem Renaissance offered African American writers and artists the chance to express their cultures and experiences during a time when they continued to face racism and discrimination. The end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865 brought many African Americans in the South newfound freedoms and hopes for inclusion economically, politically, and socially within society. Unfortunately, these hopes were dashed by white supremacy and the rise of Jim Crow Laws that legalized racial segregation on state and local levels. Such laws existed for nearly the next 100 years, making African Americans second class citizens while denying them the right to vote, hold jobs, and become educated.

Many Southern Black people were denied ownership of land and were exploited in a system of sharecropping, a form of farming where families rented small plots of land from a landowner in exchange for a portion of the crops they had grown. Hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan also terrorized Black communities through murder and intimidation, discouraging Black communities from exercising their newly won rights. Conversely, Northern cities offered industrial jobs in fast growing economies to people of all races. Many African Americans left the South in search of such opportunities, leading to what was termed the “Great Migration” in the 20th century.

The Cotton Club in New York City

The Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan during this period drew more the 175,000 African Americans and quickly became one of the largest concentrations of Black people in the United States. African Americans of all social backgrounds congregated in Harlem based on their shared experiences of racial oppression, slavery, emancipation, and future aspirations as a free people. Harlem also served as a cultural node where artists and writers lived and creatively shared their ideas of modernity, folk culture, and religion. In this sense, the Harlem Renaissance represented a rebirth not only for intellectuals and artists but for all Black people, providing a cultural space to reshape the existing predominant narratives on Blackness.

In this context, it is nearly impossible to explore the Harlem Renaissance without considering its music. Despite being known as a genuinely American art form today, jazz emerged from small urban bars, clubs, and halls to the national stage during the Harlem Renaissance, announcing the arrival of renowned musicians such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Bessie Smith. These early jazz artists reconfigured African American folk musical elements into expressions that were more distilled and elegant, and ready for mass consumption.

Duke Ellington and his orchestra

Like other Harlem Renaissance writers and visual artists, musicians such as Josephine Baker (pictured at the beginning of this piece) were in continuous conversation with audiences beyond Harlem and the United States. In Europe, Baker became an icon of the early jazz age as many European audiences had never seen such a visually striking Black chanteuse who could sing fluently in French and perform such suggestive dance moves. In this context, the Harlem Renaissance sounded in the rhythms of jazz and swing a radically new and modern Black subject that was central to the development of international modern art. It also made Harlem (and venues like the Cotton Club) the place to be modern in the early 20th century.

The selected texts below taken from RILM Abstracts of Music Literature reflect the diverse expressions of the Harlem Renaissance and its lasting impact on music, theater, visual art, poetry, and other fields in the arts. The bibliography foregrounds the significant contributions of jazz women, including Florence Mills and Melba Liston, as well as themes of voice, community values, modernism, migration, and the paradoxical qualities of Blackness.

–Written and compiled by Russ Skelchy, Editor, RILM

__________________________________________

Newton, Elizabeth. “Ethnic irony in Melvin B. Tolson’s Dark symphony”, Journal of the Society for American Music 15/2 (May 2021), 224–245. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2021-2157]

Abstract: Historicizes musical symbolism in Melvin B. Tolson’s poem Dark symphony. In a time when Black writers and musicians alike were encouraged to aspire to European standards of greatness, Tolson’s Afro-Modernist poem establishes an ambivalent critical stance toward the genre in its title. In pursuit of a richer understanding of the poet’s attitude, the poem is situated within histories of Black music, racial uplift, and white supremacy, exploring its relation to other media from the Harlem Renaissance. The changing language across the poem’s sections is analyzed and informed by Houston A. Baker Jr.’s study of mastery and deformation, the poet’s tone is theorized. While prior critics have read the poem’s lofty conclusion as sincerely aspirational toward assimilation, here the ambiguity, or irony, that Tolson develops is emphasized: he embraces the symphony’s capacity as a symbol to encompass multiple meanings, using the genre metaphorically as a mark of achievement, even as he implicates such usage as a practice rooted in conservative thought. The symphony, celebrated as a symbol of pluralistic democracy and liberal progress, meanwhile functions to reinforce racialized difference and inequality–a duality that becomes apparent when this poem is read alongside Tolson’s concurrent poems, notes, and criticism. Such analysis demonstrates that Dark symphony functions as a site for heightened consciousness of racialized musical language, giving shape to Tolson’s ideas as a critic, educator, and advocate for public health.

Doktor, Stephanie. “Finding Florence Mills: The voice of the Harlem Jazz Queen in the compositions of William Grant Still and Edmund Thornton Jenkins.” Journal of the Society for American Music 14/4 (November 2020) 451–479. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2020-12258]

Abstract: After her performances in Shuffle along (1921) on Broadway and in Dover Street to Dixie (1923) in London, Florence Mills became one of the most famous jazz and vaudeville singers. Known as the “Harlem Jazz Queen”, Mills was revered by Black Americans for her international breakthrough and because she used her commercial success as a platform to speak out against racial inequality. Extensive descriptions of her performance style and voice exist in writing, but there are no recordings of her singing. The sound of Mills’s voice is considered in two compositions written for her: William Grant Still’s Levee land (1925) and Edmund Thornton Jenkins’s Afram (1924). It is shown that Still and Jenkins imagined a much more musically complicated and politically powerful voice than that found in the racialized and gendered stereotypes permeating both her vaudeville and Broadway repertoire and the language of her reception. While scholars have written about how Mills’ outspokenness regarding issues of race and omission of sexually explicit roles made her central to 1920s Black political and artistic life, the sonic properties of her voice positioned her as a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

Banfield, William C. “Harlem Renaissance, 1920-1935: Artistry, aesthetics, politics, and popular culture”, Ethnomusicologizing: Essays on music in the new paradigms, by William C. Banfield (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) 223–232. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-11893]

Abstract: The Harlem Renaissance, also known as the New Negro Arts Movement (1920-1935), was a period in U.S. cultural history where preserving the life and culture of community was simultaneously an investment into cultural relevancy at all levels through music, literature, arts, dance, education, and business, and social-cultural engagement. People from New York’s Harlem community–extending across the national, artistic, entrepreneurial, and educational lines–were asking: What do we value now, and why? What and how are the best ways forward to create, project, and live in those values? What are we investing in, and what do we believe in for our future? In addition, for the first time in U.S. history, artists and thinkers worked to address needs, projections, and outcomes. The interests in these questions and arts movement as critical historical cultural markers, the artists and artistry from this period, and with that, the processes that led to the creation of progressive U.S. culture. A secondary theme is the impact those art questions and results have had on commercial political and cultural currency and relevancy on at least two other musical arts periods: the civil rights/social protest/soul period (1960-1975) and hip-hop, X, and millennium generation music (1980-2010s).

Lassiter, Fran L. “From toasts to raps: New approaches for teaching the Harlem Renaissance”, Pedagogy: Critical approaches to teaching literature, language, composition, and culture 15/2 (2015) 374–377. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-85442]

Abstract: Outlines the use of contemporary hip hop lyrics to access the literature of the Harlem Renaissance. A strategy is outlined for tracing the progression and evolution of African American political and social resistance in literature and music, introducing students to forgotten or overlooked texts of the Harlem Renaissance by exploring the connection between sociopolitical protest and artistic expression.

Colbert, Soyica Diggs. “Harlem Renaissance theater and performance”, A companion to the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Cherene Sherrard-Johnson (Malden: Blackwell, 2015) 285–300. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-84653]

Abstract: Explores how theater and performance of the Harlem Renaissance depicts paradoxes at the heart of modern Black cultural production. Theater and performance emerge in response to competing generational, artistic, aesthetic, and market demands and desires. Blackness appears here as a paradoxical category in the themes, characterizations, and formal attributes of the work. Social practices such as lynching and the separation of public space due to Jim Crow defined Blackness as an easily decipherable physical category. At the same time cultural practices including passing, the cakewalk, and signifying demonstrated the slipperiness of Blackness. Harlem Renaissance theater and performance changes the optics of Blackness from a biological category able to be regulated in the social sphere to a contingent category that emerges in distinctive forms of embodiment.

Melba Liston

Price, Emmett G., III. “Melba Liston: Renaissance woman”, Black music research journal 34/1 (Spring 2014) 159–168. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2014-5983]

We might better understand Melba Liston’s (pictured above) achievements, importance, and influence, as well as her artistic and political motivations by viewing her and her work through the lens of the Harlem Renaissance. The movement’s terms and cultural politics provide insight into Liston’s personal experiences and professional realities. Melba Liston is revealed here as a renaissance woman as defined by an expanded reading of the intellectual zeitgeist of the New Negro, gleaning historiographical insight about Liston (and other jazz women) through the experiences of better-, but still under-documented Renaissance women writers.

Reid, Grant Harper. Rhythm for sale. (North Charleston: CreateSpace Books, 2013) [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2013-37077]

Abstract: Ventures into the beating heart of the Harlem Renaissance through the life of the author’s grandfather Leonard Harper. Born the son of a poor singer in Birmingham, Alabama, Harper performed on the street for pennies as a child. He became a talented performer, and after his father died, he studied soft-shoe to provide for his family. Young Harper traveled with vaudeville shows until he found his way to New York, where he went solo at 16. By his early 20s, he found himself at the center of the Harlem Renaissance, and he worked with such legends as Duke Ellington, Florence Mills, Fats Waller, and Louis Armstrong. An account of the era’s racial tensions is provided, with white producers often swindling Harper and his fellow African American theater professionals out of the rights to their works. However, Harper was resourceful enough to successfully stage dozens of shows. His barrier-breaking achievements are chronicled, including his 1929 debut of Hot chocolates, an African American production that received great acclaim on Broadway. Though the book is full of praise for Harper, it also recounts his extramarital affairs and some of the more colorful stories of gangsters and burlesque dancers in the Harlem nightclub scene. Through this biographical profile, a revealing profile is drawn of early 20th century Black American music, dance, culture, and the racial politics surrounding all of it.

Young, Kevin. “It don’t mean a thing: The blues mask of modernism”, The poetics of American song lyrics, ed. by Charlotte Pence (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2012) 43–74. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2012-13801]

Abstract: The rise of modernism coincided with the emergence and reach of the blues. The influence of blues music on modernism is explored here, focusing on the importance, intricacies, and intimacies of the Harlem or “New Negro” Renaissance. It is argued that the achievement of African American writers, sculptors, and artists should be considered one of the high points of modernism. The recent disregard heaped upon the notion of Africa as a popular theme in the Harlem Renaissance is also discussed, along with how this attitude denies the power of place in the Black imagination.

Jones, Meta DuEwa. The muse is music: Jazz poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to spoken word. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011) [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2011-6634]

An interdisciplinary study that traces jazz’s influence on African American poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to contemporary spoken word poetry. Examining established poets such as Langston Hughes, Ntozake Shange, and Nathaniel Mackey as well as a generation of up-and-coming contemporary writers and performers, it highlights the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality within the jazz tradition and its representation in poetry. The prosodic analysis to emphasize the musicality of African American poetic performance examines the gendered meanings evident in collaborative performances and in the criticism, images, and sounds circulating within jazz cultures. Some of the poets who participated in contemporary venues for Black writing such as the Dark Room Collective and the Cave Canem Foundation, including Harryette Mullen, Elizabeth Alexander, and Carl Phillips are also key in this discussion. The Black Arts Movement, the poetry-jazz fusion of the late 1950s, and slam and spoken word performance milieus such as Def Poetry Jam, exemplify how jazz and hip hop influenced performance artists. The attention to cadence, rhythm, and structure fills a gap in literary scholarship by attending to issues of gender in jazz and poetry. The analysis includes exploring the formal innovation and queer performance of Langston Hughes’s recorded collaboration with jazz musicians, delineating the relationship between punctuation and performance in the post-soul John Coltrane poem, and closely examining jazz improvisation and hip hop stylization. This elaborate articulation of the connections between jazz, poetry and spoken word, and gender offers valuable criticism of specific texts and performances and a convincing argument about the shape of jazz and African American poetic performance in the contemporary era.

Patterson, Jody. “It don’t mean a thing…: Jazz, modernism, and murals in New Deal New York”, Music and modernism, c. 1849-1950, edited by Charlotte De Mille. (Newcastle upon Tyme: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011) 229–254. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2011-2812]

Abstract: Examines the ways in which jazz was taken up by the U.S. painters Aaron Douglas (1899–1979) and Stuart Davis (1892–1964), who both sought to achieve a rapprochement between modernist aesthetics and leftist politics within the context of the New Deal arts projects. Douglas painted a four-panel cycle of murals, collectively entitled Aspects of Negro life (1939), under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP; 1933–34), which were commissioned for the Assembly Hall of the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library (now the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). Douglas’s use of abbreviated forms and his repetition of schematized motifs within each composition not only demonstrate his understanding of the lessons of cubist composition but represent a self-conscious effort to engage the compositional strategies of jazz. Davis, one of the political left’s most vociferous and visible artist-activists, connected his paintings to swing, a musical form that was decidedly modern and which attracted a mass audience. Through the unexpected placement of accents on beats where they would not conventionally occur, swing musicians deliberately interrupt the regular flow of rhythm. This approach to abstraction is amply demonstrated in Davis’s 1939 mural for the New York Municipal Broadcasting Company’s Radio Station WNYC and the mural Swing landscape (1938), also executed under the auspices of the Federal Art Project, for the Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn.

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Filed under Black studies, Jazz and blues, Literature, North America, Performers, Politics, Popular music