SURVIVAL TECHNOLOGIES: AFRICAN-AMERICAN MUSICAL MODERNISMS
This dissertation focuses on a variety of African-American musical expressions of the later twentieth century, situating them along a continuum of musical modernism that constitute various modes of survival technology, inextricably connected to the cultures from which they arise. My application of the term survivaltechnologies denotes two primary aspects: musical “technologies” in the sense that the term is commonly understood to refer to the construction of musical instruments and recording instruments both old and new, but also “technologies” in the sense of the term employed by Murray and Dinerstein: as modes of knowledge and strategies of resistance. My use of survival technologiesas the conceptual underpinning that unifies my research entails bringing these two aspects together, and the two senses of the term converge especially when African-American musicians use musical instruments and tools in new, unexpected ways, as frequently happens throughout the history of African-American music in the twentieth century. I analyze how African-American musicians’ use of electric guitars, amplification, synthesizers, analog sequencers, studio effects, turntables, samplers, drum machines, and digital audio workstations constitute a uniquely African-American mode of musical knowledge and practice that is improvisational, heuristic, non-linear, and constantly aware of the past while simultaneously re-imagining the future. I link this analysis to works by twentieth-century literary authors and theorists in order to examine how African-American musicians’ modus operandi, varied and distinct as they are, are nonetheless consistent not only across divergent musical styles and eras, but also function inseparably from other arts and broader cultural contexts.
Throughout this project, written words interact with musical recordings. I strive to “hear” written texts (literature and literary criticism) and to “read” sound texts (recordings), highlighting the resonances between “literary texts” and “sound texts.” The Chicago blues style of Muddy Waters interacts with Richard Wright’s literary documentary of life on Chicago’s South Side, 12 Million Black Voices,to highlight how old rural black vernacular “folk” expressions could serve as the basis of a new urban African-American modernism. Likewise, the electronic experiments of Herbie Hancock, which innovatively combined European modes of music creation and African diasporic musical concepts, interacts with Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s The Signifying Monkey to highlight how African-American modernism entails Signifyin(g) on European precedents as well as precedents in African-American art. Additionally, the historically informed jazz of Wynton Marsalis interacts with T. S. Eliot’s ideas of tradition in order to highlight how artistic conceptions of the past inform African-American modernist expressions today, such as jazz and sampled electronic music. Finally, Detroit techno music interacts with the musical and cultural criticism of Theodor Adorno to highlight how African-American modernism uses survival technologies to construct visions of the future that resist what Adorno called the “culture industry.”