VSW Day Three: Sound [Thinking]

[Day Three, part 1 of 2]

Today, I want to take up the question of what separates the work I do as music historian from that of a music critic.

I’ll start with a note on form. History, as well as much music criticism, often takes a textual form. No matter the sources from which we draw, the expected output of a historian is text: articles, monographs, and syllabi that bring together other articles and monographs. However, the digital humanities has shifted that expectation, sort of. Some of the most exciting historical work I’ve seen applies the historical skills of careful research, deep context, and nuanced arguments to radically new formats: digital archives, podcasts, exhibits and other forms of digital storytelling that enlivens our research and showcases our sources. However, there is a tension here, which speaks to this idea of the seriousness or objectivity of scholarship: somehow, the written word is still held up as the most serious, most expert, most trustworthy form of argument. This is why the argument for tenure still rests on articles and monographs rather than digital projects that make the same arguments through multimedia, likely took much more time and creativity, and ultimately reaches a much wider audience.

Now, a note on content. Historians have long considered non-textual sources in our work: photographs, political cartoons, lithographs, moving pictures, audio recordings, and the list goes on. So, with all of these multimedia tools now at our disposal, why the continued emphasis on textual arguments? First, literacy is political and is bound up in systems of power and cultural gatekeeping, and therefore is fundamental in fights for freedom and justice. Looking is also a deeply political act. What we are able to look at, or given the opportunity to look at, relates to deep questions about representation and cultural hegemony. The sense of sound, too, is bound up in this kind of politics. Historians like Karl Hagstrom Miller, Jack Hamilton, and Jennifer Lynn Stoever have presented powerful arguments about the ways that sound reflects and reinforces assumptions about race, identity, and authenticity. Sound is intimately tied up in the way that we order our society, the ways that we relate to and understand each other, and often the ways that political moments are encoded, performed, and pushed forward. Although we are taught to see race, or class, or gender, we are also taught to hear it.

I think that the biggest differences between music historians and music historians might lie in the relationship between form and content. As I began this workshop, I thought that one of the biggest differences was the role of aesthetics in our work. Historians seem more concerned with the larger context of a work, while critics seem more concerned with the aesthetic value of it. Put another way, it seemed that historians use art in service of an argument and in conversation with many other kinds of source material, while critics craft arguments in service of art. Further, historians claim “change over time” as one of our main objectives, while critics seem more focused in how a single piece of art, or an artist, or even a movement, interrupts a certain moment in time, most often the one they are writing in. I recognize this is very generalized, but still seems helpful as I navigate the connecting points between these two fields.

However, I am beginning to think that the work of historians and critics shares more similarities than I realized. Today, David Hadju described music history as a kind of “deep criticism,” and listening to him describe the work of a good critic (depth of knowledge, explanatory potential, presenting new arguments rather than new products, unending imposter syndrome) is starting to make me think that we work from very similar toolkits. Hadju argued that good criticism is explanatory, it invites the public into viewing or listening to something within a larger context. Although it begins with the aesthetic quality, it does not end there. What’s more historical that that? Alternatively, the critic that only presents a judgment with no context seems equivalent to the historian who presents a patriotic narrative of the past with no critique: it flattens the topic at hand, diminishes its transformative potential, and ultimately reinforces the status quo.

I’ll take up more about form in my [Doing] post, but it seems to me that digital tools has expanded our shared toolkit in exciting ways. Writing about art in a purely textual form has the potential to erase the emotion, complexity, or aesthetic quality of it. The new tools at our disposal–podcasting, digital storytelling, audio annotating–provide opportunities to forge new connections with our audiences. Take, for example, the textual and audio versions of Wesley Morris’ argument about blackness in American music. While the textual version presents a more linear, more historical, perhaps even more serious, breakdown of popular culture from minstrelsy to Lil Nas X, the podcast does something more. It is not just additive, or complementary, but stands on its own as a piece of scholarship. On the podcast, Morris weaves a narration of his own discoveries and arguments with the songs that generated them. You can hear the emotion of his voice (a quality we’re not conditioned to hear in scholarship, back to that nagging question of objectivity) and the sonic quality of the piece invites you to connect to Morris through your own emotions that only sense-memory can conjure. It invites the audience into the process of criticism, or history; the feeling of discovery, and layering sources, and research, and pulling back the layers of what the public often doesn’t take the time to interrogate. This, to me, seems to be the point, or at least the potential, of both criticism and history in the digital age.

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