Black One Shot stages brevity and precision in response to the art of blackness, contemporary and/or prescient. At 1000 words a pop, these pieces divest from academic respectability to inhabit the speculative, ambivalent, irreconcilable ways of black forms, and move through the fires this time. Seditiously, we are object forward, conjuring up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object and keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness. We hold fast to the given/taken works, the cultural productions without reduction, the condition of knowing all-too-well, and the imagining of something otherwise. Object love in the time of pandemics and insurrections.
b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2020, come what may. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, Aurelie Matheron, and Irenae Aigbedion of ASAP/J.
– Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)
At the start we hear broken chords. Bell peals at a distance that lead to a thrum in voice and alto around staggered G major and minor triads. These two textural centers, bells and expiratory tones, comingle and advance an auditory illusion in which each is transposed into the warp and weft of the other. The, mainly, sustained chordal hum takes on a tocsin clarity, and dramatic contralto softens the tolls. The binate drone snakes the length of the piece, as much alarm as dirge. We are both warned and mourned. It is a gentle, but persistent, and at times tortuous, awakening from sleep. It is a galactically metamorphosizing drone, onto which is hooked folk song, memoir, sonic clipping, figures and phrases. By such, the piece is carried along, feet barely touch the ground, kicking up dust, like the angel, mouth agape, caught in a storm from Paradise. I would have liked to interpret Matana Roberts’s “All Is Written” (2015), the opening track of River Run Thee, as the unearthly sound that escapes the mouth of the angel of history when the scene of piling catastrophe is unmuted—a contribution to Walter Benjamin’s soulful allegory. I would have liked to consider why the angel’s Black sound is of consequence.1 Yet this would be to deflect from a more pressing concern, one which questions the analyst’s search for the work’s penny slot of meaning. It seems to me that “All Is Written” does not want our understanding, and, in fact, is perhaps impervious to it. In this piece, alongside explorations of how opacity sounds and how the impenetrable is heard, I ask how is it (or, how can I make it so) that I hear this opacity/impenetrability, rather than consolatory humdrum. How do we sit in blackness, resist being drawn to the threshold of the general social field, buoyed by “creative” responses to disingenuous calls from humanism (“You, too, are free! It is just for you to believe! All you need to do give us a sign, show us that you might grasp this, given time. Perform your liberty. Realize your personal sovereignty”)?
We are met by a cacophony that frustrates analytic access. Ostensibly, a solo recording, it involves layer upon layer of live overdubs, a stacking of sound drawn from an assortment of sources. These sources are recitations and samples of the artist’s grandfather, abolitionist G. L. Sullivan, and activists Malcolm X and James Weldon Johnson; along with snippets and snakes of alto, original lyrics, analog synth, and contemporary field recordings. Roberts provides the body-space for a gathering-work as she channels several voices. When in her own voice, she employs crosstalk, indecipherable mutterings, song, and vocal gesture. This adds yet another sonic section to the polyphony that swarms the piece. Roberts is a collector of secondhand dreams, memories, and happenings. Scenes, voices, and sounds that have been passed around a bit, and for a while—they are spirit companions of analectic counter-dialectics, of echoic sediment and decay.2 It is this ensemble address, rather than the sea shanty blues, that give the piece its folk credentials. Roberts courts the uncertainty, unruliness, unreliability, of this virtual, or perhaps, more appropriately, anamnestic ring shout. She makes herself a vector for experiments in array and placement, drawing from the collection of fragments, audio clippings, and recited text. The uncertainty introduced to a work when two or more gather, whether they be synchronous and local, or geographically and temporally dispersed, frustrates nominalist aspirations of much modern and contemporary experimental music.3 But it must be pointed out that however fervent the commitment to sovereign innovation, expressive work is, despite itself, forever attempting to find a way to its folk, those kindred works and material that speak to it and that it must speak with. Artistic expression requires communion—a new offering struggles in the absence of something old, something borrowed, and, perhaps, something black-blue.
“All Is Written” embodies and dramatizes what Saidiya Hartman calls the “opacity of black song,” referring to a withholding, a refusal, or perhaps an impossibility to disclose.4 To avoid being cast as consolation, or as Hartman puts it, to counter the “attempt to make the narrative of defeat into an opportunity for celebration,” to counter “the desire to look at the ravages and the brutality of the last few centuries . . . [and] still find a way to feel good about ourselves,” expression must assume its blackness, it should uphold the inescapability of its opacity.5 The piece’s potency depends upon its coolness toward appeals to understanding. “All Is Written” dramatizes the opacity of black song encountered in expressive sites such as jazz standards and in the blues.6 Such spots become inundated and present “chromatic dissonance, rough polyrhythmic complexes, and Babel glossolalia.”7 Roberts’s piece demonstrates how accumulation compounds their opacity. Mining of meaning is forestalled in River Run Thee, its indecipherability holds us at arm’s length. There may well be nothing to understand.
Yet, there are matters to speak on here. I pick up where Fred Moten and Theodor Adorno leave off, lending my support to the notion that to interpret music is to (prepare to) play it.8 Drawing unfaithfully from and bringing together Nathaniel Mackey and Walter Benjamin, I attempt to speak (alone) together with Roberts’s ensemble, a heterophonic chorus that spurns intramural identity and that does not rest on a politics, ethics, or aesthetics of mutual recognition. This short piece primes me for an investigation into how preparation for expressive communion, particularly as a scholar, rests on uncovering ways to reach beyond the embarrassment of presuming oneself of the gathering’s “anagrammatic” experiments.9 It suggests that the only way to speak of “All Is Written” is to speak with it.
This is one of five essays from the fifteenth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:
Lisa Uddin is author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), and has recent writing in the volume Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020), ASAP/J, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Postmodern Culture. She’s here for the freedom.
Michael Boyce Gillespie is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). His recent work has appeared in Black Light: A Retrospective of International Black Cinema, Flash Art, Unwatchable, and Film Quarterly. He hopes that people are still outraged in November.
- Walter Benjamin presents three distinct takes on the Angel of History in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” The first is drawn from “Angelic Greetings,” a poem by Gershom Scholem. The second is of the Paul Klee painting, Angelus Novus. And the third is Benjamin’s own critico-poetic imaging of the angel. These three angels are distinct but they come together to present us with the dialectical image of Benjamin’s understanding of the modern catastrophe. I imagine including Black sound, or more specifically Black voice (and further still, falsetto and alto—full-throated or nasal).
- For more on anamnesis as a techne of black and African expressive practices see Moyo Okediji’s book The Shattered Gourd: Yoruba Forms in Twentieth-Century American Art. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003.
- On nominalism of experimental music see “The Aging of the New Music,” Theodor Adorno, Essays on Music. Richard Leppert (ed). University of California Press, 2002; Robert Hullot-Kentor, “Popular Music and Adorno’s ‘The Aging of the New Music,’” Telos 1988, no. 77 (1988): 79-94; Martin Jay, “Adorno and Musical Nominalism.” New German Critique 43, no. 3,129 (2016): 5-26.
- This notion of the right to opacity is drawn from Édouard Glissant. See Poetics of Relation. University of Michigan Press, 1997, 189-194.
- Saidiya Hartman, and Frank B. Wilderson, III, “The Position of the Unthought,” qui parle 13(2) Spring/Summer 2003: 185.
- Think of the layer upon layer of contribution to a standard such as “Yesterdays” or to “St. Louis Blues,” or the blues as such or the scream, or other center of expressive significance. “Yesterdays,” Jermone Kern and Otto Harbach, 1933. “St. Louis Blues,” W. C. Handy, 1914.
- See Fumi Okiji, Jazz as Critique: Adorno and Black Expression Revisited (Stanford University Press, 2018), 82.
- Theodor Adorno suggests that to “interpret music means to make music,” and while this is speaking of musical performance rather than of its commentary, when read in concert with Moten’s sharing of his preparations for playing with Cecil Taylor, I feel quite comfortable in extending both interpretation and performance of the music to cover certain approaches to commentary. Adorno, Theodor W. “Music, Language, and Composition.” The Musical Quarterly 77, no. 3 (1993): 403. Rowell, Charles Henry, and Fred Moten. “’Words Don’t Go There’: An Interview with Fred Moten.” Callaloo 27, no. 4 (2004): 956.
Borrowed from Nathaniel Mackey’s “Alphabet of Ahtt,” School of Udhra. City Lights Books, 1993, 43-44. (Unable to reproduce original spacing here.)
“Made us wonder would it ever do
differently, all but undone to’ve
been so insisted on,
ythm, anagrammatic myth…
Spat a bitter truth. Maybe misled but
if so so be it. Palimpsestic