IASPM-US Interview Series: Roll With It, by Matt Sakakeeny

by Jessica Dilday on August 18, 2014

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Roll With It is a firsthand account of the precarious lives of brass band musicians in New Orleans. These young men are celebrated as cultural icons for upholding the proud traditions of the jazz funeral and the second line parade, yet they remain subject to the perils of poverty, racial marginalization, and urban violence that characterize life for many black Americans. The gripping narrative follows members of the Rebirth, Soul Rebels, and Hot 8 brass bands from back street to backstage, before and after Hurricane Katrina, always in step with the tap of the snare drum, the thud of the bass drum, and the boom of the tuba.

Steven Feld: Let’s start where you end the book, in conversation with Willie Birch about words and images, representation and evocation, about working together to create a rhythm from ostinatos to riffs, from grooves to surprise accents. So: there have been several photographic accounts and responses to the world of brass bands in New Orleans, and there have been literary, documentary, and historical writings. But nothing like what the two of you do here: combine a layered multiplicity of academic and local voices with the angularity of modernist art registers that distinctly place us in the now, with nods to the visual genealogy of Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and others. This is a bold move, particularly in the way it locates a very contemporary story of the streets, the struggles, the sounds, in the longer and larger historical duree of race and place, of reputation and memory. Tell us more about the kind of representational work you hoped to do through your collaboration with Willie Birch, and about how it has been received now by New Orleans locals and aficionados, as well as an audience of newcomers and passersby.

Matt Sakakeeny: Collaborating with Willie Birch was a dream I had, a creative germ of an idea that nestled in my imagination after first seeing a painting of his in 2006. It was a life size rendering of a brass band parade, and because of the scale of the work and the specific techniques he used I felt swept up in the image. Willie can erase the boundary between art and spectator, which is also what happens when you attend one of these parades and there is no separation between musicians and club members and everyone else. I was writing my dissertation and trying to figure out how to do that with another two-dimensional medium, words on a page, and it wasn’t working. I remember presenting on a panel at the ethnomusicology conference with our friend Andy Eisenberg, and I was explaining afterwards how I was trying to model my presentation on the rhythm of the parade, and he casually responded that I wasn’t there yet. When I saw Willie’s painting something clicked: He’s not just representing or depicting a multisensory experience, he’s using it as a model, a method. How can I do with words what he did with visuals?

For the dissertation I could only begin to play with narrative and poetics and pacing, but after starting at Tulane I decided to rewrite everything top-to-bottom for the book, and while I was working on it I brought Robin Kelley in for a campus lecture and Willie was there. We began a relationship that is paternal, fraternal, and professional, meaning he is my friend and he is also one of the most insightful critics of my work. When I told him my dream of collaboration, he said only if he read my manuscript and approved, so I gave him a printout of the first draft and he brought it back to me with the margins filled with suggestions in red ink, and said let’s get to work. The full story is in the afterword of the book, which we wrote together, but essentially we created an ethnographic monograph that is also an “art book,” as Willie calls it. (He compares it to The Sweet Flypaper of Life by Langston Hughes and photographer Roy Decarava, which of course I would never do, and he teases me that years from now our names will have to be reversed on the cover so his is first, which is more plausible.)

Willie and I are almost 30 years apart in age, and he is a black New Orleanian with an established international career while I am a white northerner who moved to New Orleans 17 years ago and just wrote my first book. We come from different social locations, but each of us is attempting to model our work off of local cultural formations and we both do so explicitly from our relative subject positions. Maybe most importantly we assess ourselves as both cultural critics and creative artists, the latter of which continues to be marginalized as “radical” or “experimental” in academia decades after Foucault, the reflexive turn in anthropology, and the system wide deconstruction of objective research. Trying to model writing or visual art after another cultural formation takes creativity in translating methods from one medium to another, and then combining words and visuals was a thrilling artistic process hashed out in Willie’s studio using photocopies, scissors and tape to create a syncopated rhythm. The painting technique (grisaille) is literally layers of paint and enamel that creates the depth that draws the viewer in, and the text is a purposeful layering of musicians’ voices, scholars’ voices, and my voice, and they work together to replicate the dense layering of polyphony and polyrhythm that is the hallmark of the New Orleans style, especially in the street parades where audience participation and environmental resonance create added layers.

The response locally has been beyond gratifying, with the highlight being the book release party, which we had at Sweet Lorraine’s bar near Willie’s studio with the Hot 8 Brass Band. And New Orleanians and fans of the music are SO invested in it, I’ve had some great exchanges with readers, but the text is very critical of structures of power in New Orleans so ideally there will be some backlash that inspires public dialog. It will also be interesting to see the response from my colleagues. The only scholarly review I’ve seen was very dismissive, and it sent me into spells of laughter because the reviewer just absolutely nailed what I was trying to do, except he hated it! “Adding to the vagueness is the absence of photos… Instead the book has only line drawings by artist Willie Birch.” That line is a keeper, but my favorite criticism was about the organization of the writing: “finding specific kinds of information [is] nearly impossible, requiring readers to immerse themselves in the players’ lives. In other words, one must read the book cover to cover.” So maybe we’re on to something.

SF: As engaged ethnography, Roll With It is one of the first books about music to deal deeply and consistently with what is now widely called “precarity,” surely one of the hottest buzzwords in contemporary anthropological discourse and debate. Much ink has been spilled to argue why “precarity” is so much about the current moment in histories of power and position, and is a concept that can take us well beyond other familiar analytics (like resistance and accommodation, structure and agency, labor and materialism, ethics and care, etc.) Tell us about the significance of “precarity” as a means for discussing the scene, the music, the musicians, the moment, the aspirations, the troubles, the post-Katrina anxiety-scape presented in Roll With It.

MS: The book is organized around the experiences of a handful of musicians from three brass bands in New Orleans. These bands propel the movements of large crowds in jazz funerals and neighborhood parades called second lines, and the musicians have marched off the streets and onto the stages of festivals, concert halls, and clubs. These young men are ambassadors of the city, and yet they remain vulnerable to the racial pathologization and curtailed citizenship facing many others in urban enclaves across the U.S. They are alternately celebrated as culture-bearers and marginalized as secondary citizens in richest and most powerful country in the world. So the term “precarity” is definitely applicable, just as it is in the many so-called third- and fourth-world sites that fill the anthropological record, and the most significant studies of post-Katrina New Orleans have taught us much about the vulnerabilities produced by market-based governance (Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith by Vincanne Adams, Driven from New Orleans by Jay Arena, and The Neoliberal Deluge edited by Cedric Johnson). The city has been restructured as a neoliberal laboratory for experiments in charter education, public housing, flexible service labor, and privatized health care, and poor black New Orleanians – Americans – are the primary lab rats.

But the allure of precarity as a shiny new analytical category can be blinding, obscuring longstanding patterns of marginalization that began during plain-old “capitalism” and have adapted extremely well of late. Precarity and neoliberalism are hawked as the cause and the effect of the new world order, whereby the borderless transnational expansion of capitalism and market-based strategies of governance (“neoliberalism”) produce unprecedented disparity and insecurity (“precarity”). Yet capitalism has been based on the transnational mobility and exploitation of labor, in the form of objectified and commodified bodies, for over 400 years. That’s some precarious shit right there. In the U.S., the slave system was replaced immediately by a police state of enforced segregation, ensuring disempowerment by legal means (Jim Crow rule) as well as within the supposedly free market (“redlining”). Were the people subject to these curtailments of citizenship not “precariats”? If the era of civil rights and Great Society were a fleeting attempt to legally redress these uninterrupted histories of peril, then the subsequent rise of market-based solutions is not so much a new ordering as a re-ordering, a flexible adaptation that allows for the retention of prior patterns of marginalization. I’m on board with calling this precarity if it helps readers relate these particular conditions of insecurity to others, but I situate contemporary conditions within what Benjamin called the “state of emergency.” Precarity is not the historical exception but the rule.

For me, the book is about power. The original title was “Instruments of Power,” and while our wonderful editor Ken Wissoker ultimately convinced me not to hitch my cart directly to Foucault’s horse, I do miss the bluntness of that pairing. Picking up a musical instrument is an assertion of power, a form of agency, and my primary goal was to contextualize that microlevel act within the macrolevel of an imbalanced power structure. That meant furthering “structure and agency” studies that defined the social sciences for decades, while attending to critiques of “resistance and accommodation” that recast all social relations as relations of power, moving beyond the false dichotomy of powerful/powerless and the false consciousness of “hegemony.” Can you imagine if I had organized my study around structure/agency, resistance/accommodation, or hegemony/complicity today? When precarity loses its luster like these concepts have, I hope the claims made in the book about the persistence of marginalization across historical epochs will remain relevant.

SF: I was impressed, in Chapter 3, by your nuanced ways of wrestling with “tradition,” particularly how it signifies very differently to differently positioned actors, histories, generations, and narratives in New Orleans, and how it can discursively and practically operate simultaneously as a deep site/signifier of pride and a very moldy Trojan horse. How do you respond to the classic larger question provoked by this kind of analysis of “tradition?” Namely: Does modernity produce more difference than effaces? Always? Never? Sometimes? Often? Maybe? Is there something new this New Orleans brass band site and tale tells us about either/both the social productivity or potential paralysis of “nostalgia”?

MS: That chapter is absolutely the most resonant with classic topics of ethnomusicology and folklore, but I actually had no intention of contributing to that intellectual lineage; the discourse of “tradition” arose during my fieldwork among the musicians themselves, as a defining schism between older and younger musicians, and they led me into that area. I knew I wanted to focus on relatively young people, and I think that allowed me to stake out an underrepresented stance towards tradition, the study of which has historically been dominated by research on elders as tradition-bearers. I realized I could make a contribution to a much smaller and more contemporary body of literature on how new generations balance innovation with adherence to tradition, the weight of which can be a real burden for them. More than anything it was an ethnographic imperative: if it’s important to my subjects than it’s important period.

So you’re right that I only dealt in passing with folklore’s paradigmatic question of the preservation vs. transformation of tradition in relation to modernity, even if the entire chapter implicitly extends critiques of both the structuralist “tradition-as-inertia” school and the poststructuralist “invented tradition” school by Richard Bauman, Greg Urban, and others. My take is outlined a bit more explicitly in the historiographic essay “New Orleans Music as a Circulatory System,” which essentially builds off the productive friction between two intellectual lineages: the massive body of literature on African retentions of tradition that defined the field of African American studies, and recent research on circulation by Ronald Radano, Karl Hagstrom Miller and a cluster of scholars working on the blues. In this work, “tradition” is the glue that binds together a sprawling network of actors with diverse intentions, including cultural innovators who are attuned to a plethora of sounds and styles, and folklorists and industry professionals who are attempting to constrict their identities and performances to those that align with their expectations of what is “traditional.” One effect is that the feedback loop adds surplus value to tradition and bestows cultural capital on those deemed tradition bearers, and another is that boundaries of what is and what is not traditional are demarcated.

In the article, I went all the way back to the slave dances at Congo Square, the bedrock of New Orleans music if not African American music more broadly, and approached the ring shout not only as the source of tradition but also as a site of performance (of music, of bodily engagement, of race, of power), and sketched a genealogy of the circulating accounts of the dances that now provide our only documentation of them. The book, which is historically grounded but predominantly focused on the contemporary, is the other terminus: I am trying to account for all the dynamics that arise when tradition has been saturated by centuries of investment into the very idea of what constitutes tradition. As in many other cases, New Orleans traditions have become enhanced by recognition, especially through festivals and other staged cultural exhibitions for tourists, making them even more bulky and cumbersome for young people charged with upholding it in particular ways. And the short answer is, most of them don’t. They innovate, they express themselves, they mobilize rather than strictly preserve. This is what every generation going back to the slaves in Congo Square has done, and cultural vitality and longevity depends on it, because inertia and formulaic adherence is a recipe for mummification. Just compare the audiences for blues and jazz with those of brass band music in New Orleans, maybe the only place in the U.S. where young black people dancing to live music is completely routine.

SF: The words and images of Roll With It roll and rock, and are often visually evocative beyond the black and white artwork, and sonically evocative beyond voices edited into the printed word. Have you thought more since publication about ways to develop, extend, or connect the book project more to film and radio/recording or internet media? Did you think at all about making this a more image/sound enriched Ebook? As someone whose resume includes being a New Orleans resident, a journalist, a media producer, a performer, and a scholar, what are your current thoughts on bringing the project to the largest public audience through and across multiple media?

MS: I would have loved to create a more developed Ebook, but the demands of time and the path to tenure derailed that possibility, so I created a website with my photographs, videos, radio stories, and profiles of bands and musicians, including a reading guide with media relevant to each chapter. Willie and I are also planning a traveling gallery exhibition of his paintings paired with my audio recordings of brass band parades to create a kind of installation piece. The paintings are massive and really need to be experienced in person to get the full effect of his approach, which situates the subject in the artwork on the same plane as the viewer and sort of forces the spectator to enter into the space that the subject governs. The added context of the soundscape will create another dimension, so we’re fishing around for the resources of time and money to make it happen.

SF: How do you simultaneously stay tuned, keep current, and move on from a project of the ethnographic and theoretical depth and scope of Roll With It?  What are you doing now to keep the local conversations going, as well as to develop new trajectories for your research? Have your interlocutors asked for any particular kind of follow-up? Once you’ve worked with such a compelling cast of characters what comes next?

MS: I have the incredible luxury of living in the place where I conduct my research, of doing anthropology at home. And it just happens to be New Orleans! I really couldn’t be more grateful. That relationship with the city and the people shaped my whole methodology for research and writing. I moved here in 1997, and worked in public radio for six years before going away to New York for grad school, and when I returned in 2006 to do my year of fieldwork a job came up at Tulane and I got it. So the whole time I was “in the field” I was also “at home,” and that really directed the way I approached people. It gave me lots of freedom to observe and interact with people on an informal level, to create friendships with the people I was drawn to the most, and to learn about them by just hanging out in addition to more formal interview settings. Assuming you consider Accra one of your “homes,” I would venture that you assess your relations with the musicians in your movies, recordings, and writings comparably. And as with your Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra, when I turned to writing my book I saw the potential in adopting a first-person narrative frame of storytelling, where a small group of people become the hub of the book and their experiences become the spokes that connect to larger structural patterns.

I would never suggest that I see myself as integral to these musicians’ lives, or that they are pillars of my social life. Musicians are public figures who navigate within a very rich public sphere, and I see myself as part of that sphere and my “data” is mostly derived from the informal interactions and observances I made out in this world. When I finished the book I shared relevant sections with the musicians, which brought about some “dialogic editing” at a much more modest level than what you detailed in your second revised edition of Sound and Sentiment. I was honored when Tyrus Chapman’s response was “it sounds like me,” and nothing could make me happier than having every musician in the book say that, but of course reality is more complicated. For instance, there are hundreds of brass band musicians who don’t appear in the book, and to those who don’t know me (and perhaps to others that do) I may be just an interloper profiting off of their cultural labor. Racial politics and histories of exploitation and appropriation run very deep, no one gets a free pass, and my response was to write openly from a reflexive narrative position about those sticky engagements.

But anthropology at home doesn’t end with publication. In the best instances, I curate public programs with the musicians. Locally, if someone asks me to lecture, I instead request a collaborative presentation with musicians, inviting them to speak and perform. Last year I traveled to Norway with the Hot 8 Brass Band and I had a conversation with Bennie Pete onstage before their performances, and I’m doing the same with Rebirth Brass Band for the 25th Anniversary of the Southern Folklife Connection at UNC. However, my future encounters with brass band musicians will not all be fueled by the spirit of collaboration; there will be other motivations, people will be wary of me or worse, and ideally that will lead to more dialog and more collaboration.

As for my future research, I am writing a theoretical essay on sounded communication in the jazz funeral, drawing upon the anthropology of the voice and linguistics to interpret the capacity of instruments to communicate to the dead and among the living. I have begun a new research project with the congregation of the Church of the Living God in Toccopola, Mississippi, charting the sounds of their services on a continuum of sounded communication ranging from the sermon to shouting to singing to the instrumental articulations of the steel guitar. Eventually I will bring together this research in a book about “voice,” broadly conceived, and interwoven together with reflexive analysis of my own multiple voices (musician, author, radio narrator, etc.). That’s where my publications are going to be directed. In my ongoing engagement with New Orleans, my intention is to enter more directly into cultural policy, to advocate for musicians with those in the public sector and the culture industry. That’s where the rubber hits the road.

____

Matt Sakakeeny is an ethnomusicologist and journalist, New Orleans resident and musician. An Associate Professor of Music at Tulane University, he initially moved to New Orleans to work as a co-producer of the public radio program American Routes. Sakakeeny has written for publications including The Oxford American, Mojo, and Wax Poetics. He plays guitar in the band Los Po-Boy-Citos.

Steven Feld is a musician, filmmaker, and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Music at the University of New Mexico. His books include Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra: Five Musical Years in Ghana, also published by Duke University Press. He is a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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As the director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham, Stuart Hall (1932-2014) called for a groundbreaking critical practice that takes seriously the political heart of popular culture, “one of the sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged: it is the stake to be won or lost in that struggle…” From the contours of digital video’s gendered representation, to the politics of ethnicity in the recording studio, to the affect of co-movement on the dancefloor, the sounds and styles of popular music both reproduce and trouble the cultural status quo. Popular music studies itself also unfolds on contested political terrain, as we struggle to transform–rather than reproduce–pop’s place in the discourses and practices of dominant world systems.

Hall outlines a popular cultural studies that offers an intervention into established regimes of representation, and the 2015 IASPM-US conference takes up his mandate for “the deadly seriousness of intellectual work” on popular culture. In a neoliberal age in which the substance of political struggle organizes around unequal flows of global capital and the elusive politics of everyday empowerment and disempowerment, popular music studies becomes an amplifier by which the radically contested and otherwise fugitive strains of musical practice become audible. Here, the study of Black aesthetics, youth culture, disability, socioeconomic class, postcoloniality, queer identities, and Third World feminisms, among others, hangs together with attention to the textures of musical composition as well as the patterns of global media markets.

Hall locates the struggles of power in the realm of aesthetics and politics. Central to this work is a nuanced consideration of the ways in which media (for McLuhan, “any technology by which the human body is extended”) serve both to reproduce established discourses and to generate new possibilities for artistic liberation, decolonization, self-authorship, and the imagination of alternative futures. Popular music studies mobilizes an inclusive concept of media studies that acknowledges dominant global digitalities alongside subcultural, stylistic, and other “off-label” engagements with media technologies. In order to account for the breadth and depth of musical practice, the field binds together an engagement with aesthetics, the textures of technology, and the politics of difference.

The 2015 IASPM-US conference will revisit the genealogies of critique that shape popular music studies’ longstanding intervention into discourses on culture, media, and power. An approach that takes into account the radical contexts of musicmaking is key to documenting processes of empowerment and disempowerment in pop. It calls for an understanding of, in Hall’s words, “the effect of the unseen ‘work’—that which takes place out of consciousness, in the relationship between creative practice and deep currents of change.” The field honors Hall’s legacy by practicing popular music studies while simultaneously reflecting on its theoretical and critical arcs. We enthusiastically welcome proposals that creatively engage both popular music and the broader field of cultural and media studies, particularly through these key discourses:

1. Roots and Routes
While popular music studies continues to critically mine the genealogies of genres, lyrics, styles, and sounds in pop, we ask how the field can also better foster a complex, multilinear engagement with globalization, diaspora, and the mobility of musical practices. Reflexively, what continuities does pop music studies have with other modes of engaging music, culture, politics, and history, and how can attention to these strengthen critical work? Who are we as a body of scholars who converge at IASPM-US, whom does the field currently include and exclude, and who do we hope to be?

2. Defining the Struggle
What populations exist on the periphery of or fully outside dominant world systems that control the flow of money, availability of vital resources, and ease of mobility? When these populations make popular music, what does it sound like, how does it circulate, and what interventions become possible through these sounds? How has/does this music fit into the field of popular music studies? In what ways might popular music studies take up the political work of contributing to the empowerment of the subaltern?

3. A Detour through Theory
What happens when we apply Hall’s mode of conjunctural analysis–a mode of studying culture that takes into account the intersecting histories, polyvalent meanings, cultural genealogies, media technologies, politics of place and time, and other radical contexts that reverberate in a given pop genre/scene/style? How can the field of popular music studies, which so often draws from theories generated in literary studies, sound studies, gender and sexuality studies, ethno/musicology, anthropology, sociology, multicultural studies, philosophy, science and technology studies, and communication and media studies, articulate a theoretical legacy from within?

4. Pedagogy and Intervention
The demands of work in the academy and contemporary media challenge pop music scholars to balance theoretical rigor and readability that, like popular music itself, reaches wide audiences. How can intellectual work about popular music circulate in formalized, institutional settings as well as in public venues? What are the opportunities and pitfalls of the growing acceptance of popular music studies within academia? What role do popular music scholars play in light of widespread de-funding of higher education and the increasingly corporate model of university administration?

5. Digital Media and Representation
How can popular music studies engage new developments in technology and globalization both in terms of the increasing speed and thickness of their networks, and in terms of their contested, polyvalent, and problematic work in perpetuating global inequality? How do complex forms of musical communication and representation shoot up through the established regimes of representation and make space for new musical possibilities?

Please submit proposals via Word document [last name_first name.docx] to iaspmus@gmail.com by 15 October 2014. Individual presenters should submit a paper title, 250-word abstract, and author information including full name, institutional affiliation, email address, and a 50-word bio. Panel proposals, specifying either 90 minutes (three presenters) or 120 (four), should include both 125-word overview and 250-word individual proposals (plus author information), or 250-word overview and 50-word bios (plus names, affiliations, and email addresses) for roundtable discussions. Please indicate any audio, visual, or other needs for the presentation; each room will have sound, projector, and an RGB hookup. We also welcome unorthodox proposals that do not meet the above criteria, including ideas for workshops, film screenings, and other non-traditional formats. All conference participants must be registered IASPM-US members (it’s okay to register after one’s proposal is accepted). For membership information visit: http://iaspm-us.net/membership/. For more information about the conference, go to http://iaspm-us.net/conferences/ or send email inquiries to iaspmus2015@gmail.com.

Program co-chairs: Justin D. Burton (Rider University) and Ali Colleen Neff (College of William and Mary).
Program committee: Rebekah Farrugia (Oakland University), Luis-Manuel Garcia (Freie Universität Berlin), Anthony Kwame Harrison (Virginia Tech), Nadine Hubbs (University of Michigan), Elizabeth Lindau (Earlham College), Larisa Mann (New York University), Shana Redmond (University of Southern California), and Barry Shank (Ohio State University).

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Call for Nominations: The 2014 Woody Guthrie Award

by Jessica Dilday on June 30, 2014

The International Association for the Study of Popular Music-US Branch (IASPM-US) requests your nominations for the most distinguished English language monograph in popular music studies published during 2013. Books may be nominated by any member in good standing of IASPM, by members of the prize committee, by their authors, or by publishers.  Copyrights must state 2013.

CHANGE:  The deadline for nominations is August 1, 2014. Nominations should be sent electronically to guthrieaward.iaspmus@gmail.com, and should include the author’s name, book title, and publisher’s information including ISBN. The society will announce the winner at the spring 2015 IASPM-US meeting.

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IASPM-US: Call for Web Editor

by Mike D'Errico on June 20, 2014

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The executive committee of IASPM-US is currently seeking applicants to fill the position of Assistant Web Editor.

The Assistant Web Editor commits to an 18-month position. In the first six months, primary responsibilities include managing social media networks for IASPM-US (Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud), as well as assisting the current Executive Web Editor, Jessica Dilday, in generating content for the website. In the next year, the Assistant Web Editor will take on the position of Executive Web Editor, becoming the primary point person for website related tasks, including: maintaining and generating content for the website; working closely with the executive committee and program committee to keep the organization updated about elections, annual conference details, and other IASPM-US related business; addressing the executive committee and broader membership with an annual report at the IASPM-US conference; and training the incoming Assistant Web Editor. The executive committee is particularly interested in applicants who are adept at social media networking, blogging, and content curation. While there are no technical prerequisites to the position, a working knowledge of WordPress is desired.

To apply for the position, please send a 300-500 word personal statement to iaspmus@gmail.com, including a brief biography, list of accomplishments, and what skills and ideas you would contribute to the organization. Applications must be received by July 14, 2014.

Please direct any questions to current web editor Jessica Dilday, or outgoing web editor Mike D’Errico, at iaspmus@gmail.com.

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2015 IASPM-US Conference

by Jessica Dilday on May 14, 2014

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IASPM-US is pleased to announce that its 2015 annual conference will take place in Louisville February 19-22, hosted jointly by the University of Louisville and Bellarmine University.

Stay tuned for the conference theme and call for papers.

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J Playing PianoWilliams Rhymin Stealin

In Rhymin and Stealin: Musical Borrowing in Hip-Hop (University of Michigan Press, 2013), Justin Williams turns his ear to the re-use of pre-existing musical material in hip hop, primarily focusing his attention on rap. Williams theorizes hip hop as a genre that holds borrowing as a core principle, and he explores the way pre-existing music is used to define subgenres, evoke space, lament or celebrate martyrs, and bond artists from one generation to the next in a complex web of influence and lineage. Below, Justin and I delve into the topic of musical borrowing as related to the book and beyond.

Justin D Burton: Hip hop studies is a broadly interdisciplinary field, and I find it helpful to think about how our varying backgrounds inform our work on the genre. Early in the book, you mention that you are a musicologist and that Rhymin and Stealin is a product of your musicological training. How does this shape the book? Or, the same question from a different angle—how do you think the book might have turned out differently if you weren’t approaching the material from a musicological perspective?

Justin Williams: One of the things that draws me back time and time again to hip hop studies is that so many people from diverse disciplines engage with it. Hip hop becomes the common ground and gives me insight into the concerns of other fields. At the same time, it makes me think about what I am doing as a musicologist and why I think that is important. I’m finishing up work on editing a Cambridge Companion to Hip Hop which includes scholars from anthropology, ethnomusicology, music theory, art, music production, linguistics, politics, dance studies, etc. and it really does show how vast the network is.

My background in musicology helps me to a) work with different methods in which to talk about sound and b) acknowledge historical links with other musics which perhaps have been given more scholarly attention in my field. Now this is not to elevate hip hop to some greater, legitimate topic (I hope we don’t need to keep convincing people hip hop deserves scholarly inquiry), but to look at real links between practices in other cultures and eras. If I find a lamenting musical figure in songs that mourn Tupac and Biggie, for example, that cultural code of the descending minor chord progression still holds true for me and others. Or: can the strategic formation of lineage between Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven be compared to Dr. Dre, Eminem and 50 Cent in their own respective worlds? Since the subject of the book is “musical borrowing,” a musicological subfield, it also makes sense to adopt these perspectives in their historical context. Other fields can talk about sound as well as about music history quite competently, but I found that the musical borrowing perspectives had not really been discussed in hip hop studies, so I wanted to try and follow those arguments through, work through them, and provide case studies that would help to demonstrate the varied intertextual practices in hip hop and what they might say about our times.

JDB: This, I think, is a perfect explanation of what interdisciplinarity can do—it not only brings us into others’ fields of study but also helps each of us better understand and explore how our own training informs our work. As for those case studies, I notice that the book can be broken into a couple of sections. The first two chapters after the introduction look back, with you exploring the roots of borrowing in hip hop and then hip hop’s own engagement with jazz. Then the final three chapters trace parallel groups of rappers, focusing on Dre/Eminem/50 Cent alongside Tupac/Biggie. How did you settle on these as your case studies? Obviously, you only have enough space to cover a few examples, so I wonder if there was something particularly representative or evocative about these case studies that drew you to them?

JW: I haven’t really thought about the book like that, but you are right, and that’s really interesting. In a way, I see Chs. 4 and 5 (on Tupac/Biggie and Dre/Eminem/50 Cent) as companions, and Ch. 3 as an exploration of music and geography (of space, the automobile, and place, Los Angeles). I’ve deliberately chosen mainstream examples, and many which represent a mainstream West Coast gangsta ethos. This has worked from a musicological perspective since Dre and others had similar production techniques so it was a way to develop and discuss their “sonic signatures” in a way that had not been done before. I’d extend that further to The Game (whom I am writing an article on as we speak) and Kendrick Lamar though Kendrick turns it on its head, in my opinion. As for jazz rap, I am a jazz musician so I felt comfortable talking about that genre, and it provides a useful case study for talking about genre, semiotics, and the meanings that certain sounds and genres can bring to the table, so to speak. The list of case studies is endless to be honest, so I did have to stop somewhere!

JDB: This is something you cover in the book, but, before moving on, could you say a few words about how “musical borrowing” is not simply “sampling”?

JW: Thanks for this question, as it is an important one. Sampling refers to the specific process of digital sampling—taking a sound in binary form so that it replicates exactly what was originally heard. It was originally a studio technique for replicating sounds (i.e. using horns when a horn section wasn’t available or one couldn’t afford them). The practice was made cheaper and popularized in the mid-80s by samplers like the E-mu SP-12 and hip hop artists who extended DJ practices in more efficient and complex ways (not to say one is better than the other, of course). We now associate samplers with the construction of “beats” or perhaps electronic dance music but one could also sample a voice of a person for a hip hop track.

But what about when Sugar Hill Gang uses a backup band to re-perform Chic’s “Good Times” for “Rapper’s Delight”? That’s not sampling, and it’s not DJing. It’s a disco cover with rap over it, but falls under practices of musical borrowing. So does mentioning classic rap lines in a rapper’s flow. In other words, there are all these non-digital-sampling practices which occur within hip hop that warrant discussion and often derive from the same intertextual impulses as previous African-American art forms but aren’t strictly sampling, and I wanted to give them some attention as well.

I can’t tell you the amount of times when I talked about my book topic, people responded “Oh, so like sampling?” Well, yes, but it’s more than that. Graffiti is all about taking something with one purpose (spray paint) and using it for something else, or breakdancing. Auto-tune is essentially borrowing a technology and using it to different ends.

The reason to focus on “musical borrowing” (a term not everyone embraces) is twofold: one, to align myself with a musicological discipline founded by J. Peter Burkholder which I believe has been neglected in the past two decades (shout out to Phil Ford for first showing me his work); and second, simply to assert that the vast intertextuality in the hip hop world includes not only digital sampling, but is one of many techniques used to reference the past, or to use the past as raw material for the construction of new sounds and identities. I argue this at length in the introduction to my book.

I could have called the book many things and could have used many terms: intertextuality, musical theft, musical promiscuity (as Jason King once suggested to me), quotation, etc. But I felt comfortable with borrowing given that I wanted to align my story with a history of using previous musical materials to new ends.

JDB: Burkholder’s whole goal with that 1995 essay was to open up a field of study focused entirely on musical borrowing as you’ve defined it here. The idea was to cross genre/era/musician in the interest of hearing the way musical borrowing is employed over time and in different places, connecting unlikely analogs in the hopes that—in his case—Renaissance practices could enlighten Ives scholarship. His vision for a field of musical borrowing hasn’t exactly come to fruition. Why do you think that is, and what draws you to it? Burkholder includes hip hop as a part of the field but mostly as a gesture, focusing more explicitly on his area of expertise, Western art music. As a hip hop scholar, can you articulate the value of plugging into a field that studies musical borrowing across such sub-disciplinary divides? How might this intersect with other approaches to musical borrowing, like Joe Schloss’s ethnographic focus, Amanda Sewell’s taxonomic analysis of the Beastie Boys and PE, or Stanyek and Piekut’s notion of intermundane collaborations?

JW: There’s probably a few reasons why Burkholder’s “Musical Borrowing as a Field” has not really been embraced wholeheartedly by music academics at large, or at least not used more. As an article, the taxonomy works really well for Ives, but needs to be tweaked for other repertoire. Additionally, borrowing is problematic as a term because it almost suggests the object being borrowed can be returned. I think many just don’t like the term. And I think there is just a general skepticism in looking at things across time and place. We become specialist in one or two fields for various reasons, not least because of time restraints and job marketability. Philip Tagg looks at pop by often acknowledging the history of musical sounds and gestures, but he is skeptical of musicological terminology and wants us to adopt his terms, terms which some musicologists may not want to adopt.

But in another sense, borrowing has been embraced by many scholars, it is just that those people who are interested in borrowing (whether they call it parody, quotation, homage, allusion, intertextuality, modelling, etc.) don’t really talk to each other very much. Burkholder’s bibliography of borrowing attests to the fact that there are hundreds of people working on this field, they just might not know it, or they might use different terminology. I’m also to blame here, but another reason this hasn’t been pushed forward is because musicology is not terribly collaborative compared to other fields. And even when two or more people collaborate, they may all be “Medievalists” or “jazz scholars” or “pop scholars” etc. etc. How could we get 8-10 musicologists around a table, all trained in completely different subfields and repertoire, to create a working document that addresses musical borrowing as a field from a real variety of disciplines? It would take some determination, but it might be possible. Nor would I want that document to become a ‘my way or the highway’ set of tools, terms, tricks and methods that then dominate the discussion.

David Metzer’s first book is probably the closest I’ve come to seeing a single person looking at a wide variety of eras and genres. I’ve always liked what that book was trying to do, and I hope more things like that come out. My book focused only on hip hop, so in a way it was trying to add hip hop to this discourse of books by Burkholder, (Chris) Reynolds, Metzer, (Honey) Meconi, Stilwell and Powrie (ed) and many others.

In relation to Schloss, Sewell, Stanyek and Piekut, yes, they are all part of this conversation. In a way, Schloss’s Making Beats and its concern with compositional process is more aligned with old school musicology than we’d think at first glance. I hope that doesn’t sound like I am being unfair to Joe, as that book is still the best book on sampling out there (!) But I can see a link between some producers who wish to hide their sample sources by transforming them and Reynolds’ book about how 19th century composers tried to hide their influences to sound original. Sewell is taking it in a really positive direction, to really get into the analytical details of these techniques as well as many of the legal issues. Stanyek and Piekut’s article on the intermundane involves some fascinating comments about dead labor and the studio processes of “Unforgettable” which very much add to my writings on post-mortem sampling in Ch. 4 of the book, and I’m still trying to think through some of the issues they brought to the table with that article.

So yeah, we’re all here doing this work, and I guess the question is: do we try and use the same terminology and try and push things forward, or is it simply a case of having it grow organically through responding to each others’ books and articles? Maybe we need an edited collection on musical borrowing, or on intertextuality, but one which does not feel like a set of discrete articles, but something which has come about through a symposium/workshop, something that feels like a real productive conversation. Maybe this is already happening and I just didn’t get the memo.

JDB: I guess part of the subtext is the question of whether a field needs to define itself as such. Certainly the work is being done, and bibliographies—including Burkholder’s impressive catalog as well as those found in books and articles by scholars working on musical borrowing/intertextuality/sampling—provide connective tissue.

As for the term “borrowing,” you mention here and in the book that one problem the term faces goes something like this: to borrow something implies the ability to return it, and borrowed music can’t be returned. I’ve been having trouble getting with this line of reasoning, though, as I think we often use the term “borrow” to refer to things that can’t be strictly returned. A few weeks ago, my neighbor borrowed sidewalk salt from me during a snow storm. Three days later, he knocked on the door and gave me a new bag of salt. He didn’t bring back the exact salt I gave him—nor would I have wanted him to—but he brought back something very similar to what I gave him. I hope this isn’t reductive, but it seems musical borrowing works in much the same way. Dre borrows through reperformance “Swing low, sweet chariot/Stop and let me ride” and returns to PFunk (and the rest of us) something very much like what he took.

There are a few problems with this analogy, namely that salt has a finite use; once my neighbor drops salt on his sidewalk, those granules are used up. A musical idea can be endlessly recycled without using up the original source, so what Dre returns is a new bag of salt but also the old bag, which remains available to other musicians to “borrow.” What the analogy perhaps highlights, though, is the value of what is returned—Dre has reworked PFunk’s musical material in imaginative new ways and in the process generated more material for others to borrow.

I wonder whether some reluctance about this term is bound up in issues of ownership, copyright, and control. Certainly, Queen and David Bowie weren’t particularly thrilled with the return on “Under Pressure” that Vanilla Ice offered. And famous, rich producers borrow/take from unknown artists without asking or willingly sharing the profits, which crosses some ethical lines most of us would like to preserve. How does a term like “musical borrowing” fit into this complex web of activities, and how do you think cultural practices of capital shape our understanding of both musical borrowing and the terms we use to name it?

JW: I like what you are saying about the value of what is returned after it has been re-worked, and I do think it brings up important issues of ownership. What I perhaps should say is that the music can be returned, but never in its earlier form—it is transformation of the “original” through re-contextualization. Can we really hear The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” the same way post-Puffy?

Musical borrowing, as I see it, is a framework that attempts to start a conversation about the different ways that hip hop music references the past and other things around them. The legality of doing such things, or the value of it (in both senses of the term) was not a huge part of the conversation within the book. This was both in the interest of pushing the “not all borrowing is the same” agenda and that I had other things to say about what such practices tell us about hip hop and the times we are living in.

Of course, the legality of sampling, ownership, value and control tells us things about the times we are living in and influence the musical poetics of the tracks. My mind is certainly starting to think more about labour and practices of production which do use older labour and materials to sell or update products. So I think some of the next work I do will address these issues from the standpoint of labour and ownership.

JDB: Alright, so let’s get back to those other things you had to say about the practices of borrowing in hip hop. I don’t want you to give away an entire chapter of the book, but you explore the intersection of borrowed sounds and their spatiality in relation to Dr. Dre and his focus on car sound systems (and I know you also explore automobility further in the recently published Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies). Could you say a bit about how borrowed sounds can evoke space and also follow up on what you mentioned earlier, that The Game and Kendrick Lamar extend (and in the latter’s case, “turns on its head”) the sonic signature of the West Coast that Dre was so instrumental in helping popularize?

JW: Yes, in the Oxford Handbook (of which you are in as well) I talk about a longer history of car audio and use Dre as a case study. That was a great experience as it helped me to think about music and mobility, which could be considered one arm of mobility studies (and one of the book launches will be at the EMP conference coming up at the end of April). I’d love to write an even longer history of music and automobility someday, but that feels like a life-long project to me and someone may beat me to it!

My chapter on Dr. Dre in the book takes a similar perspective, but emphasises this idea of borrowing and tailoring sounds for certain spaces, in this case, the automobile. But as you say, sounds can signify both space and place, and the whiny “Funky Worm”-esque synth has become representative of the West Coast sound of a certain era, and a signifier of Compton. If you listen to Lamar’s “M.A.A.D. City” (feat. MC Eiht), the track uses that synth style at the end, but I read it completely different in that context given the lyrical content of the song. For Dre, it was about celebrating Compton. For Lamar, it is a leitmotiv which in his context feels very different, certainly not a celebration in the G-Funk sense. It almost makes you feel ashamed for celebrating it in the early 90s. It is actually a very powerful track as I hear it. And with borrowing, so much hinges on a person’s knowledge of the “original” material, so I think if you grew up with G-Funk, or know it well, then that is what makes the Lamar track especially poignant.

JDB: One of Lamar’s gifts seems to be his ability to evoke mixed emotions about hip hop and its tropes in general, and listening through to “M.A.A.D. City,” I can hear how that GFunk sound resonates in new ways. The last chapter of your book covers the idea of lineage and the way rappers/producers use musical borrowing to establish themselves in specific hip hop traditions. This theme runs through the book, really—jazz samples mark off one subset of hip hop while Dre’s synthesizers map the West Coast and Pac/Biggie samples apotheosize these larger-than-life figures from the mid-90s—but the last chapter considers the strategic ways Pac and Biggie samples can be deployed to play up Eminem and 50 Cent as carrying the gangsta rap torch into the 21st century. This brings to mind a couple other examples, one recent and one not, of rappers/producers positioning themselves in Biggie’s wake. Puff Daddy, of course, achieved an impressive level of national notoriety just after B.I.G.’s death, and his use of samples stands out as different from what most of his peers and predecessors were doing—do you see Diddy as a significant game changer when it comes to musical borrowing in hip hop? Just this year, Rick Ross released his Mastermind album, which features the track “Nobody,” whose hook is pulled from Biggie’s “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Kills You.” Jon Caramanica recently reviewed a Ross performance for the New York Times, and ends with some loose thoughts about the way Rick Ross is calling on Biggie at a time when the rapper is shrinking back from his image just a bit—Caramanica describes the album as attempting some introspection as Ross himself appears and sounds smaller than before. Caramanica’s review called to mind your chapter and has me thinking about whether the sampling of Biggie (or Pac or other hip hop icons) can be employed not just to establish careers like Eminem’s and 50′s but also to shift gears, if indeed that’s what Ross is doing. How would Diddy and Ross intersect with your work on lineage and borrowing in hip hop?

JW: Good question. First of all, I picked Eminem and 50 Cent to discuss sampling and lineage because I also had things to say about Eminem’s production, his “sonic signature” which helped in providing a study of hip hop beats which is a big focus of the book. Not only do I want to nuance and widen the discussion on borrowing and intertextuality, but I want to provide case studies in the musical analysis of hip hop. That example worked well and I am now expanding some of those ideas to The Game and Kendrick Lamar. In terms of Rick Ross, I certainly see this both as a “rap cover” as well as using the social capital of B.I.G., and the personal detail that Ross was the target of a drive by shooting in 2013. Diddy is also using Ross as social capital as well, I think, to stay relevant. To answer the question, though, it may be part of a larger “changing gears” as you say in this context, but rappers can often either utilize laments or more introspective tracks as part of their overall output (largely popularized by 2Pac, and extended by Eminem). The fact that Ross is doing this in 2014 demonstrates there is still more to talk about, lots more (and don’t get me started on Yeezus!)

As to Diddy, I think his way of operating did reflect a shift. This is something I want to write more about: producers The Trackmasters and The Hitmen doing production for Diddy and Will Smith and others which were closer to rap covers than pieces transformed through sampling. A song like “Come with Me,” I think, reflects the Clinton-era economic prosperity of the late 1990s, and these covers in a way also update the previous product in a particular way. This is something I’ll talk more about at EMP and hopefully more in print soon.

JDB: The relationship between Diddy and Clinton-era prosperity is an intriguing one—I’ve been talking to my students about him in the context of so-called luxury rap. The Police and Led Zeppelin are the Audemars and Bugatti of the licensing world. You mention The Game and Kendrick Lamar as your current focus of study, and Kanye and Yeezus as fruitful possibilities, too. Were there any studies planned for the book that didn’t make the final cut? And is there anything else you’re working on now?

JW: We had J. Griffith Rollefson give a research seminar in Bristol the other day, and he talked a bit about Watch the Throne (2011) as “luxury rap” (and it’s great to have another hip hop musicologist out in the UK now!). So I think my original list of case studies for the book was extremely long, and I am now wondering if I have that lying around as a document or notes somewhere as it would be interesting to re-visit.  Some of those ideas extended the genre conversation, like the use of Bollywood samples and exoticism (and pop exoticism has been discussed in lots of places like Glenn Pillsbury’s book on Metallica and Tim Taylor’s work), but I didn’t have time to do anything with that. I also was toying with the use of rock and metal in Run D.M.C., but I think Loren (Kajikawa) has done some work on it since. I think I initially had a lot of ideas for case studies, but they haven’t been pursued yet, but may well be extended in future.

Other things I’m working on include a chapter on crowdfunding for the Oxford Handbook to Music and Virtuality (with Ross Wilson), a chapter on Soweto Kinch for an edited collection on Black British Jazz (ed. Tackley, Doffman, Toynbee), and editing the Cambridge Companion to Hip hop which has been a very personal journey for me. First of all, it will be dedicated to the memory of Adam Krims (my former PhD supervisor), such a pioneer, but it also is a testament to my navigation of hip hop studies, which largely thanks to IASPM-US has allowed me to meet all sorts of people interested in hip hop from other disciplines. Case studies also include a lot of hip hop outside the US, and make me realize that we need either a book series on hip hop outside the US, or 50 edited collections on the topic, or both. I think that the Companion will be informative for students, fans, and others, and that’s one purpose, but it is a celebration of one of the most interdisciplinary fields I can think of.  It is turning into an important snapshot of the next generation of hip hop scholarship which is going in amazing directions. After this, my attention moves to co-editing a Companion to the Singer-Songwriter (with Katherine Williams), which surprisingly has little in print beyond biographies and autobiographies (with a few exceptions; we’re presenting a singer-songwriter panel at IASPM-UK in Cork). Lastly, my attention increasingly is moving to the contributions of the UK to hip hop culture, where US influences morph into unique and innovative styles in terms of breakbeat-based dance musics and street art, to name but two things.

JDB: We have a lot to look forward to, then. I’ve been especially excited to see the Companion, and it will be particularly rewarding for the field to have such a hefty contribution in Adam Krims’ memory. Thanks for taking the time to discuss the book for this interview series. 

Justin A. Williams is Lecturer in Music at the University of Bristol. He received his BA in music from Stanford University, master’s degree in music from King’s College London, and a PhD from the University of Nottingham. As a professional trumpet and piano player in California, he ran a successful jazz piano trio and played with the band Bucho! which won a number of Sacramento Area Music Awards and were signed to two record labels. Research interests include: popular music studies (especially hip-hop),musical borrowing, film music, jazz, digital patronage, music and geography, mobility and sound studies, and the analysis of record production. He is currently finishing editing the Cambridge Companion to Hip-hop.

Justin D Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University and serves on the IASPM-US Executive Board. His research interests include hip hop studies, posthumanity, and critical race theory. Recent and forthcoming publications can be found in the Journal of Popular Culture 46:3, the Journal of the Society for American Music 7:3, the Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies, and Sounding Out! . He is co-editing with Ali Colleen Neff a forthcoming special issue of the Journal of Popular Music Studies titled “Sounding Global Southernness.”

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Sound and Affect: Voice, Music, World

Stony Brook University, April 18 and 19, 2014

Keynote speakers will include Lydia Goehr, Robin James, Tamara Levitz, and Gary Tomlinson. A full list of our speakers (including scholars in musicology, music theory, ethnomusicology, philosophy, art history, media studies, and literary studies) is included below.

This conference is co-sponsored by Stony Brook’s Departments of Music and Philosophy.  It has been organized in collaboration with the Music and Philosophy Study Group of the AMS and with the assistance of the Music and Philosophy Study Group of the RMA.

A full conference schedule is available here:

http://www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/music/conferences/soundandaffect/soundandaffect-schedule.html

Details about travel and accommodations are available here:

http://www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/music/conferences/soundandaffect/soundandaffect.html

The event is free and open to the public.  If you have any questions, please contact Stephen Decatur Smith at stephen.d.smith@stonybrook.edu.

Speakers:

Anthony Abiragi, UC Boulder
James Currie, University at Buffalo
Murray Dineen, University of Ottawa
Ryan Dohoney, Northwestern
Benjamin Downs, Stony Brook
Denise Elif Gill, Washington University, St. Louis
Lydia Goehr, Columbia University
Ted Gordon, University of Chicago
Roger Mathew Grant, University of Oregon
Mack Hagood, Miami University, Ohio
Robert Harvey, Stony Brook
Christopher Haworth, University of Calgary
Aaron Hayes, Stony Brook
Berthold Hoeckner, University of Chicago
Don Ihde, Stony Brook
Robin James, UNC, Charlotte
Adam Knowles, New School
Sophie Landres, Stony Brook
Tamara Levitz, UCLA
Sara Marcus, Princeton
Eduardo Mendieta, Stony Brook
John Melillo, University of Arizona
Julie Beth Napolin, New School
Tony Perman, Grinnell
Deniz Peters, Music and Performing Arts, Graz
Emily Richmond Pollock, MIT
Michael Birenbaum Quintero, Bowdoin
André Redwood, Notre Dame
Martin Scherzinger, NYU
Lorenzo Simpson, Stony Brook
Chris Stover, New School
Kris Trujillo, UC Berkeley
Gary Tomlinson, Yale
Daniel Villegas Vélez, University of Pennsylvania
Dan Wang, University of Chicago
Emily Wilbourne, Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY
Peter Winkler, Stony Brook
Jessica Wiskus, Duquesne

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Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr.The Amazing Bud Powell

Bud Powell was not only one of the greatest bebop pianists of all time, he stands as one of the twentieth century’s most dynamic and fiercely adventurous musical minds. His expansive musicianship, riveting performances, and inventive compositions expanded the bebop idiom and pushed jazz musicians of all stripes to higher standards of performance. Yet Powell remains one of American music’s most misunderstood figures, and the story of his exceptional talent is often overshadowed by his history of alcohol abuse, mental instability, and brutalization at the hands of white authorities. In this first extended study of the social significance of Powell’s place in the American musical landscape, Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. shows how the pianist expanded his own artistic horizons and moved his chosen idiom into new realms. Illuminating and multi-layered, The Amazing Bud Powell centralizes Powell’s contributions as it details the collision of two vibrant political economies: the discourses of art and the practice of blackness.

Nate Sloan: This book began as your dissertation. What drew you to Powell at that time?

Guthrie Ramsey: I had had an interest in Bud Powell as a performing pianist. You come up with your list of musicians that you want to emulate, and Powell was one of them. When I matriculated to the University of Michigan and began this life as a scholar I really didn’t know what I wanted to work on, but at that time jazz was a viable subject for a dissertation at Michigan because of an eminent scholar of American music, Richard Crawford, and at that point he had advised the dissertation of Mark Tucker on Duke Ellington, Jeffrey Magee on Fletcher Henderson, Jeff Taylor on Earl “Fatha” Hines; [laughs] and I guess I was continuing in that tradition of jazz pianists being examined under Rich Crawford.

NS: What made you feel like this was the time now, in 2014, to turn this into a book?

GR: I wrote another book before this one, Race Music: Black Culture from Bebop to Hip Hop, and that is more expansive than jazz; it takes blues, rhythm and blues, gospel and hip hop, and I wanted to produce that book first because as a young scholar I wanted to build a reputation on a breadth of popular music styles instead of one. When I moved back to Bud Powell I believe I had learned a lot more about what would make it a stronger book by that time and so when I returned to him l I just felt like I had more chops to deal with all the issues that his life entails.

NS: I find it refreshing that your book is not just a chronology, but an assessment of who this figure was and what his importance was. One thing that’s powerful about your writing is that it doesn’t avoid Powell’s mental illness, a significant part of his career. Did you have any precedents for writing about jazz and mental illness?

GR: I relied on the research of other people who had written about mental illness more generally in the African American male population. What I learned from dealing with Powell is that you have to approach the subject both realistically and sensitively. You have to think about what it means for a person who happens to be young and black at midcentury, what it means to be both somewhat disabled psychologically and yet, at the same time, to believe that the music you play and write was your main mode of communicating what that meant. I tried to treat him not only as a working musician, as a laborer in the culture industry, but to think about the fact that he had a family, he had personal relationships, he had colleagues. I wanted to show how he interacted with them in the context of being a hugely talented musician, and someone who had to live a life being somewhat impaired.

NS: Reading your book got me thinking: do you hear references to his mental instability in his musical output, whether in the music itself, or even in the song titles, like “Un Poco Loco,” or “Dance of the Infidels,” or “Wail.” I wonder if you read those as references to his condition.

GR: Well, I’m not sure who titled pieces. Sometimes the titles come from other people. I think they were meant to signify that [Powell's mental illness], but I typically tried to think about what the music is doing structurally and how that signifies in the world, and using the titles of songs only as a departure or some useful reference for listeners who are reviving the music. I don’t see it necessarily all the time or unilaterally as a prompt from the musician him or herself.

NS: Could those titles be interpreted as a marketing tool? Because some of his song titles are strikingly different from those of his colleagues.

GR: I think about it as more of an introspection, and as someone who was perhaps deeply philosophical. That’s what I personally get from the music, and I certainly wrote from my own interpretive stance: I think is he is person who had to learn how to think because to he had to interact with a world that was not always kind to him, not always understanding or patient with him.

NS: It’s shocking to read about his treatment at the hands of psychiatric institutions. I couldn’t help but think as I was reading: if he hadn’t been black, would his treatment have been different? Would the reception of his fractured genius have been different?

GR: I think once you look at the social evidence and the fact that he was living under Jim Crow; this was at a moment when things were taking a change. But, it is what it was [laughs]. In terms of whether a non-black person would have been treated differently, I had to depend on others’ research; who talked about the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia among white middle class women. The diagnoses tended to move around to different demographics, different populations at different historical moments. So not taking the term schizophrenic as being a stable one, but one that means different things at different times for different people.

NS: There’s an aspect of the book that I found very interesting, which was learning of Powell’s classical education and his abiding interest in classical music. I wonder if you hear a classical influence on his compositions, or his improvisatory technique?

GR: Yes, I do. I think that while there are lots of ways to gain technical facility on a instrument, the musicians like Powell who did study Western art music and piano literature, I personally hear—even in his articulation, the sweeping grandeur of some of his statements—much derived from that training. Not only from that training, but also how he was able to couple with, and play with, the popular styles of the time. I really see it as being an amalgamation of trainings, let’s call it.

NS: Can you expand on his friendship with, and his mentorship by, Thelonius Monk? I wonder if you detect an influence of Monk on Powell, or maybe even vice versa.

GR: I certainly hear the influence join from Monk to Powell, because I think of Thelonius Monk as being a master of harmony, and that he was able to take the language of popular music of his moment and infuse it with an air of experimentalism. I look at Monk as the same thing with blues based culture as was Powell with the bebop language: that he had to a certain degree inherited, and to a certain degree helped codify. I definitely hear it on the level of harmonic expression, the influence on Powell from Monk.

NS: I totally see that. It’s fascinating to read this book and see him not only interacting with Monk but with Tatum himself, and there’s that amazing anecdote about him and Tatum getting into a cutting contest and Powell proving he can use his left hand by only playing with it the next night, and even maiming his right. I mean, this sense of competition and one-upmanship is kind of stunning, and you describe it as Powell taking it further than anyone else.

GR: [Laughs]. I’ll say.

NS: To the point that he’s disturbing his friends and manager.

GR: Well, what I think we can concentrate on is that this shows where this heroic, masculinist, virtuosic display, if left unchecked, where it can go. And particularly in the hands of someone who has a proven track record of having some emotional and psychological instability.

NS: One thing I find really compelling about Powell’s trio records is his interplay with his drummers, especially, and I’m curious if in your research you found that there was one drummer in particular that he really liked working with, was there a whole stable of drummers who he enjoyed playing with?

GR: There are not many records of Bud Powell’s words out there, that I know of. I know that there were musicians who were particularly sensitive to him, like Max Roach, first and foremost, and throughout his life there was an empathy between them, not just musically but interpersonally. I think that tends to be true with musicians who knew Bud Powell before he had all his struggles and developed all of these issues, and I sense from them some kind of perfection around him, that he was—and this is what I really wanted to come across in the book—is how much his colleagues really cared about him, and how hard it was on him and all his family members when he started having all these issues and troubles, and I look at whatever they were doing on the bandstand as how they felt about him when they weren’t playing music. I also know that there were musicians who claimed—for instance, George Duvivier—that he did not know Bud Powell at all but just had an extended gig with him. That he was unknowable. That, in fact, his personal demeanor was not interactive with everybody.

NS: Thinking about the larger continuum of this music, I wonder how you see Powell’s influence on 21st-century jazz musicians. Is he someone who is still studied in jazz institutions? Are there specific pianists working today who are directly inspired by his craft?

GR: I hear at least 99% percent of the realm of what we call jazz piano today as influenced by Bud Powell’s centering of the pianist in this avant-garde experimental musical culture of the mid-20th-century, and how he’s on par with what would be expected of a saxophonist or a trumpeter in the context of those small bebop ensembles. And I feel that influence even today.

NS: In the first few chapters of your book you paint a narrative of bebop that beautifully complicates the narrative sometimes put forth in a very facile and reductive way in textbooks. I’d love to hear you talk for a second about how your understanding of Powell’s life and work helps give us a better understanding of the bebop movement.

GR: I think the movement—since we’re calling it that, I kind of inherited that word—I’d like to have more nuanced pictures of the musicians who contributed to this style of music. They led complex personal and professional lives, they were individuals. Some had longer lives than others; some were able to successfully deal with the underside of the jazz life, able to craft a living in an industry that was stacked against your well-being, able to deal with the challenges of trying to be an artist in a Jim Crow society that would have preferred you be a shoeshiner. A lot of different discourses that I’m hoping to illuminate in the book are about who these musicians were, what their aspirations were, how many obstacles there were to them in creating the creative life that they wanted to have. And then, ultimately, I want to talk about it as a story of victory, of creative victory, among harsh circumstances. We want to have our masterpieces without the messiness of the everyday lives that those masterpieces represent, and I suppose what I wanted to achieve in this book is to show how we can be both enamored of what they created but then also respect the process they went through to create it.

Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania. A widely published writer, he is the author of Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop (University of California Press, 2003). It was named outstanding book of the year by the International Association for the Study of Popular Music. His next book, Who Hears Here?: Essays on Black Music History and Society, a mid-career collection of his essays is also forthcoming. He was recipient of the Lowens Award from the Society for American Music for best article on an American music topic in 2001.

Nate Sloan is a PhD candidate in musicology at Stanford University, writing a dissertation on the Cotton Club. His research interests include jazz, Tin Pan Alley, and urban geography. He is an Associate Professor at the California Jazz Conservatory. As a composer, he has written music and lyrics for two musicals. Recently, he scored the film Slomo, which won Best Short Documentary at SXSW 2013 and was shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination. He is also one-half of the guerrilla theater production, The Gideon and Hubcap Show, which performs exclusively in living rooms.

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*This review was co-authored by Jess Dilday and Mike D’Errico

IASPM-US at The Station

The IASPM-US conference’s DJ night this year was definitely one to remember. We had a diverse group of DJ/scholars dropping a variety of beats, and enthusiastic crowd participation created the perfect storm on the dance floor, which didn’t let up until the bar closed at 2 AM. We even had an MC.

The event was held at the Station—the bar section of Southern Rail, a restaurant, bar, and music venue built to pay homage to the historical train station in Carrboro, North Carolina. The vintage feel of the creaky wooden dance floor lent an eclectic air to the night’s festivities, with broken records sitting alongside a stuffed deer head lining the wall behind the DJ booth. Early in the night, the IASPM crowd filled the floor, only to be later flooded with a diverse mix of UNC students and Carrboro townies strolling in to celebrate both St. Patrick’s Day and the start of Spring Break in the research triangle.

The event was hosted by resident DJ PlayPlay—North Carolina native, key player in the Durham club scene, and assistant web editor for IASPM-US. As she was setting up, a man following the moniker “Chocolate Drop” approached her and requested she play some “old school.” As a sound check, she dropped The Sugarhill Gang’s “Apache,” and the party popped from there. The IASPM crowd, already eager for the music to begin, began to dance, while PlayPlay handed the mic to Chocolate Drop, who proceeded to rock it with a brilliant freestyle to successfully hype the crowd early on.

Supreme Court at The Station

With the energy created by Chocolate Drop, IASPM-US graduate student representative Benjamin Court—a.k.a. Supreme Court—started out the night with his first foray into DJing, dropping the Talking Heads, ESG, and numerous gems from the New Wave, to win over the crowd’s mix of intellectuals and weekenders alike. It was a solid entrée into the DJ booth for Court—a child of the Rochester punk scene, most often seen performing shock and awe noise sets in LA art galleries and dive bars with shirtless compatriot John Horner.

Bit Faker at The Station

Next up was Bit Faker, the alias of UCLA PhD student and film producer Tiffany Naiman. Rocking a Native Instruments S2 digital setup, she rolled out an immaculate selection of late 80s/early 90s industrial and EBM, including “The Most Wonderful Girl” by Lords of Acid, among other 303 house favorites. Her set was certainly a highlight for the organization’s president, Robert Fink, who was drenched in sweat and grinning in delight at this point. Meanwhile, other conference attendees captured the moment on their phones, snapping picks, tweeting, and shooting Vines of the event.

The Attic Bat a.k.a. The Los Angeles Grime Sniper a.k.a. Larry Koole a.k.a. Bat God

When Mike D’Errico—a.k.a. The Attic Bat a.k.a. The Los Angeles Grime Sniper a.k.a. Bat God—hopped behind the booth and dropped back-to-back trap music via Beyonce and Miley, everyone who wasn’t already dancing rushed the floor. Trap music is the genre most of the Station regulars are familiar with, as most of the resident DJs play at least some half-time instrumentals during their four-hour sets.

LMGM at The Station

Luis-Manuel Garcia (LMGM) transitioned with an all-vinyl, classic turntable setup, packing the floor with a disco and house set that did not disappoint. Having carried a crate of records from Berlin while rocking a faulty house mixer at the Station, LMGM’s set represented the “vinyl is final” aesthetic well, with every blend hyping the Station even further.

Doctor Dakar, PlayPlay, and FiFi HiFi

Without a doubt, the highlight of the night was the 90-minute dub-for-dub vinyl battle by former DJ trio in the research triangle—DJ PlayPlay, Doctor Dakar (Ali Colleen Neff) and Fifi Hi-fi (Sarah Honer). Especially impressive were the smooth and consistent blends between tracks reflecting widely disparate tempos and stylistic feels, as well as the sense of play and experimentation imbued in the crate digging sensibilities of all three DJs. With each mix, the self-proclaimed “Red Wine Society” challenged each other further, lending an interactive and spontaneous feel to the already exciting night.

PlayPlay on the Decks

To close out the night, PlayPlay transitioned to a vinyl Serato set up for a juke, footwork, and jungle set. As was the case during the vinyl battle, it was the improvisatory character combined with a penchant for taking risks that defined (and continues to define) PlayPlay’s style. Earlier on that day, The Attic Bat asked her what she was planning on spinning that night, and she told him that she hadn’t even worked on it yet, and that she would probably just spend some time scouring Soundcloud for some “surprises” before the gig. The result was a jittery apex of mashed up classics combined with lo-fi Soundcloud demos and remixes, constantly pushing the intensity upwards of 180 BPM. An expert crowd-reader with a solid skillset in both “analog” and “digital” techniques, PlayPlay was the perfect host for the second installment of what proves to be an exciting and enduring tradition for the IASPM-US annual conference.

Playlist

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IASPM-US Election Results

by Mike D'Errico on March 11, 2014

We are pleased to announce the results of the recent election. The newly elected IASPM-US officers are:

Secretary

Rebekah Farrugia

Treasurer

Lindsay Bernhagen

We congratulate the winners of this year’s election and extend our thanks to all who appeared on the ballot.

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IASPM-US Interview Series: Political Rock, edited by Mark Pedelty and Kristine Weglarz

February 28, 2014

Edited by Mark Pedelty and Kristine Weglarz, Political Rock (Ashgate, 2013) examines how—through their careers and oeuvre—a diverse group of musicians have expressed political statements, invoked messages of protest, supported social movements, and commented on issues related to class, gender, environmentalism, imperialism, and war. The collection’s editors and authors incorporate autobiographical reflection, song analysis, live […]

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CFP: 2014 David Sanjek Memorial Graduate Student Paper Prize

February 10, 2014

The committee for the David Sanjek Graduate Student Paper Prize of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music – US Branch (IASPM-US) invites graduate students who will be presenting at the 2014 IASPM-US annual conference to submit their papers for consideration. Eligibility: Any student who presents, in person, a formal paper at the […]

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CFP: “Innovation in Music Education,” The Association for Popular Music Education (Los Angeles, June 2014)

February 10, 2014

The Association for Popular Music Education (APME) will host its 2014 Conference, “Innovation in Music Education,” at the USC Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles, CA on June 19th-21st, 2014.  This conference aims to delve into a variety of topics centered on the following four areas: 1. Innovations in Music Education 2. Individuals looking […]

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MA in Popular Music and Culture (Western University)

February 6, 2014

MA in Popular Music and Culture (London, Ontario) Jointly offered by the Don Wright Faculty of Music and the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University. What is it? A pioneering, innovative, and interdisciplinary MA degree program for students who want to explore any and all facets of popular music by combining cultural […]

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CFP: “A Riot of Our Own: A Symposium on The Clash” (Belfast)

February 6, 2014

A Riot of Our Own: A Symposium on The Clash University of Ulster, Belfast Campus, Northern Ireland (June 20-21, 2014) There are few bands that have enjoyed as much adoration or endured as much controversy as The Clash. Emerging originally as a principal voice in the burgeoning mid 1970s London punk scene, The Clash would […]

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