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Wednesday, September 16, 11am-11:45pm (Roundtable)

Black Speculative Musicalities 



Roundtable Description

Black Speculative Musicalities is a panel dedicated to new research on radical sonic imaginings of the African diaspora, considering a range of creative work from the past century that might fall under this rubric. We employ the term “musicalities” rather than “music(s)” to consider specific histories, artists, works, or musical moments that challenge existing notions of music, by offering new ways of sounding, listening, calling, and responding. The framework of musicality allows us to consider moments and strategies that become musical, thereby expanding the category of music. Informed by Black studies, music theory, sound studies, praxis, and historical musicology, we aim to underscore the connection between music making, sound production, subjectivity, aesthetics, and political identity. Musicologist and vocalist Nina Sun Eidsheim discusses the process of meaning-making in relation to Wadada Leo Smith’s scores; music-maker and scholar Vijay Iyer considers key moments from a century of African diasporic creative sonic practice in working towards a consideration of Black speculative musicalities; and pianist, composer, and musicologist Kwami Coleman explores the imperial logic of musical texture in the West with a focus on discrepancies surrounding heterophony and improvisation. Through these presentations, the panel seeks to shed light on music-making practices that exist at the margins of common practice, or have otherwise been obscured because of their perceived illegibility or the idiosyncratic visions of the practitioners involved.

Vijay Iyer: When used by evolutionary biologists, the term “musicality” denotes a human capacity for music. However, through the perspectives of Black studies and queer of color critique, “music,” “human,” and “capacity” become critically unstable terms. This talk cites key moments from a century of African diasporic creative sonic practice in working towards a consideration of Black speculative musicalities. This phrase is meant to invoke the vast range of performative, listening, and hailing strategies imagined and invented in defiance of the endless precarity and dehumanizing violence that have persistently framed Black life. Coleman Hawkins’s “Queer Notions” (recorded by Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1932), Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” (1939), Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda’s Transfiguration (1978), Prince’s “When Doves Cry” (1984), and Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” (2001): each example bursts forth fully formed into its own historical frame, as if simply exemplifying a Black aesthetic already well in motion, sounding a rich entanglement of subjectivity and affect. Yet each also seems to initiate a new aural regime, a new sonic order, ushering a new musicality into being. In listening across the usual frameworks of genre or style in favor of a recurring rubric of the unnameable, previously undefined creative act, I relate these sonic imaginings to defiant Black speculative practices in other disciplines, including literature, film, dance, and political organizing.

Kwami Coleman: This talk explores the musical texture of heterophony in two seemingly disjunct historical moments. The first is at the turn of the twentieth century in Vienna, when an article on heterophony was published by one of Europe’s most preeminent musicologists, Guido Adler, who contrasted the texture with polyphony on the basis of its design logic, making an ethnocentric case as to the superiority of the latter over the former. The second moment is more than half a century later, in the 1960s, when younger improvising musicians were experimenting with new strategies for coterminous creative (motivic) invention in standard repertoire (popular song) and original composition. My goal is to show how traditional Western understandings of musical logic in modernity have, since the nineteenth century, relied on imperial notions of ethnic difference. By focusing on younger, experimental improvisers of the 1960s, I make a case for artists’ responses to a hegemonic aesthetic regime where musical coherence, with regards to form, was understood narrowly and to the exclusion of more collaboratively-achieved and intuited possibilities. I end by proposing, taking cue from the examples of the 1960s, the social implications of non-hegemonic, decolonized musical order; to do so I draw from the radical reimaginings of sociality outlined by Édouard Glissant, Fred Moten, and others.

Nina Eidsheim: At the age of 12, Wadada Leo Smith started playing the trumpet and, a week later, started composing. Now, nearly seven decades years later, he is still in the process of discovering and refining what he understands as the symbolic language, Ankhrasmation. While Smith’s scores are extremely precise, the premise of proportionality and relationality is in the music’s “DNA”— in contrast to pitch or time being tethered to a metric grid. Performers are also invited to research their own meanings around Ankhrasmation’s symbols and colors. cSome symbols are adapted from Western notation and use the five-line staff system, but these are always relational rather than fixed—for example, a duration is always “longer than” or “shorter than,” “louder than” or “softer than.” Notes are always understood in relation to and as connected to each other, with no meaning if conceived in isolation or separated from the whole—and these relationships are not limited to a so-called performance, but can be “longer than” “that note in Beethoven’s Fifth” or with “higher velocity” than “this Alice Coltrane solo.” This paper considers the ways in which Ankhrasmation gives us the grammar with which to move into a zone of unassigned signifieds. In this zone, what something means is not known. Meaning may only be known in proportion and in relationship, and may also shift in a flash, seemingly without reason. This language comes with no lexicon. Instead each participant brings their own, which shows how meaning is built rather than invoked. I think of this process as the erotic. The erotic is a “source of power,” Audre Lorde asserts. “In touch with the erotic,” she elaborates, “I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.” Smith’s music provides opportunities for ways of being where meaning-making—that is, power—is not exclusive but shared, and therefore infinite. That is, no one can control the so-called correct meaning, but the meaning is understood to develop. Might that be black speculative musicality?