Powers of Blackness

Lawrence Kramer

in Musical Meaning

Published by University of California Press

Published in print December 2001 | ISBN: 9780520228245
Published online May 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780520928329 | DOI:
Powers of Blackness

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The aim of this chapter is to examine the encounter between some of the music of black America—ragtime, blues, and jazz—and white modernist concert music in both the United States and France. It intends to show that it is not going too far to describe the results as a continuation of blackface by different means. The original blackface minstrels, were crude, obscene, and egregiously racist, a carnivalesque debasement of the black male as other. The encounter of musical modernism with jazz and blues might be said to have produced a site at which dominant white cultures were unusually hospitable to African-American cultural energies, well in advance of parallel encounters in popular music. The social and cultural motives for giving concert music an Africanist dimension obviously differed by nation. There evolved a body of techniques by which the texture of a concert piece could embed the sounds of black music but at the same time imbue them with an aura of distance. The black sounds function as framed references to the idiom of the other. Musical Africanisms are generally supposed to occupy an ex-centric position, to stand outside the essence of the artwork even as their presence defines the character of the artwork. With the advent of what might be called jazz-age modernism, mainstream musical Africanism can be said to have combined the semiotics of Ives's First Sonata and the structural usage of his “Elegy.” Musical Africanisms arise in the place that pleasure as excess is felt to have vacated.

Keywords: musical Africanism; blackface; jazz; blues; modern concert music; musical modernism

Chapter.  8432 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Music Theory and Analysis

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