I must admit that every time I am around musicologists, I have to admit to myself that I don’t hear what they hear. I feel a little like I’m in a scene from White Men Can’t Jump, being chastised for listening but not hearing. To be clear, they don’t condescend; I simply and faced with my own ignorance.
And, this, as a scholar, is usually a good and reasonable thing.
In the panel, “Out of Body: Composing Blackness through Sound, Music, and (Performance) Art,” we were treated to multiple wonderful scholars: one whose voice will make you cry, one who insisted on making room for Miles Davis, one who funked up Art History, and one who foregrounded the blackground in classical music. There’s so much to say about each of the papers (in order Imani Uzuri, Kwami Coleman, Nikki Greene, and Matthew D. Morrison) and their intellectual merit. I’ll leave that for other scholar well-versed in musicology to pursue. For my purposes, I’ll focus briefly on why it was important for me to be(come) a dilettante.
Often as scholars, we spend a great deal of time being knowledgeable in public and ignorant in private. That is, the only times we’re faced with our own ignorance is in private conversation or before whatever texts we study. I like for a variety of reasons to publically experience being a student in conferences. I like learning out loud because there’s an energy there, and a generosity there that does not quite exist in the same way once you leave the classroom in your capacity as student.
During this panel, I felt like I learned some pretty basic stuff about jazz (how to listen), black figures in classical music, and how to read art (whether sung or materially crafted). In those moments, worlds opened up. I don’t want to overstate the case by saying that the earth moved. However, the tectonic plates of knowledge I have (which tend to move slowly) quaked and changed the terrain of my knowledge… just a bit.
What I find fascinating about these papers is that, for people who knew more, they got more. For me as a dilettante, I got an entry point. I feel like I might be able to hear jazz differently and therefore teach the mid-twentieth century differently. Thinking about Kwami Coleman’s paper specifically, he noted a pointed difference between the way critics see artists and the way artists see themselves. This is something a good friend of mine has been working on as well. In that moment, my dilettante self and my expert self were connected in that I could think my way through the disjuncture in conversations between artists (of all kinds) and critics. In Nikki Greene’s presentation, I began to understand how people classify funk as a movement, not merely a musical genre or an outlook. Not only does this make me more excited to read Nikki Greene’s work, but LaMonda Horton-Stallings has a forthcoming book, Funk the Erotic, that I am now more jazzed (see what I did there?) to read. As for Matthew Morrison’s work, he revealed something about what I had been struggling with regarding Black folks in Europe. With Black influences on classical music (specifically George Bridgetower), it becomes clearer that Black thought has purchase on and influence in putatively white European art forms. It is like Ellison’s paint-mixing example. You had to add a little black so that the Optic White appears so. And, as the ‘optic’ suggests, this may in fact be trick of sight, a sight sleight of hand. To be clear, you can’t get to European art forms without black folk. To see otherwise is to participate in a grand optical/ontological illusion. As for Imani Uzuri’s voice, she has the kind of melodic resonances that will make you cry. What I appreciated (in addition to her voice) was her statement that “you can’t just add melismas whenever you want. It has to do something to you.” In other words, there are levels to this…
… and when I’m at the bottom level, I enjoy the view and start thinking about how to get up. And, then… how to get over (pace Carolyn Rodgers).