The news that today is being celebrated as National Album Day has inspired me to post the following text on Nina Simone’s 1969 masterpiece Nina Simone and Piano! It’s a text that’s being lying dormant for a few years and now seems a good time to do something with it.
The concept shouldn’t have been so surprising. Hadn’t it always been Nina Simone and piano? Hadn’t the piano always been the black freighter on which Pirate Nina had delivered her righteous anger, her vengeance? Hadn’t the instrument been her constant companion as she conquered the supper club set, attached herself to the civil rights movement, and became part of the counterculture? At the heart of all her triumphs, and not a few of her defeats, there had always been Nina Simone and piano. Sitting down at the instrument in late 1968, in the wake of the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, that longevity must have been palpable. And memory too: the memory of her teacher Miss Mazzy, of her parents’ nurturing of her early talent, of her shame and outrage when they were asked to move from the front row of her first recital to make room for a white couple, of the support of the citizens of Tryon, North Carolina, of her time at Juilliard, of the rejection by Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute.
The time she spent as a nightclub pianist; the lessons she gave to make a living; the night she was told she had to sing if she wanted to keep her job; the finding of a voice; the bliss of mixing Bach, boogie and blues: all of these and more were laid out before her in September 1968, like the keys of her life, like the notes of a tune for a show still being written. Then there was the voice she had found in the wake of coming through, of being blasted by the reality of America then and there and always, a tool that soon became a weapon. Who’d have known how powerful that ‘little voice’ would turn out to be? Who’d have thought it would become the thing she was known for, not piano, not classical music, not jazz music, not fleet-fingered dexterity, but voice, the voice of those she’d come to refer to as ‘my people’, though people and voice and politics had been the furthest from her mind when she’d been working on her Bach and Czerny as a girl in North Carolina. Voice and word as holy weapons, the channelled power of gospel reinvented as the Church of Nina, that history-sent incentive to turn the stage into a site for the converting of souls, a place where she and they could finally come through. A voice and another weapon – piano! – that could be hauled through the tumult of the sixties to witness, at the decade’s weary close, a point where so many hopes lay burned, tattered, and scattered to the wind, so many dreams deferred, a point where the mountain top seemed as far away as ever.
To have come within sight of a possible future and to have come only to this silence of defeat. And in that silence to sit down, without a band, without those musicians of whom she’d say ‘they are an extension of me or they don’t play with me’, to sit down without them, in RCA’s Studio B in New York, alone again naturally. To reach out one hand, and then another, to engage with the keyboard and then, as was now expected, to add voice, to proclaim the words of others and make them her own. It shouldn’t have been surprising but it was. This was something she hadn’t been given a chance to do before, to let out into the world a set of songs delivered by just Nina Simone and piano. No wonder that, in that era of gushing LP liner notes, disc jockey Tom Reed would claim that here, as if for the first time, record buyers could consume ‘pure Nina’.
Maybe this wasn’t so much pure Nina as secret Nina, the one who placed herself ‘between the keys of a piano’ and admitted that ‘my secret self is between these worlds’. The piano keyboard has frequently been used as a metaphor for race relations, for spatial proximity, a fuller picture of the dialectic of sharp and flat, of the possibility and necessity for harmony. In the 1930s it inspired the League of Coloured Peoples to name its official journal The Keys, while half a century later, in 1982, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder took the metaphor to the top of many countries’ charts with the sentimental but resonant ‘Ebony and Ivory’. But beyond the temptingly metaphorical layout of its keyboard, the piano has acted in other ways as an integration machine. You could play Beethoven and the blues on the banjo if you wanted to – Pete Seeger did, much to the delight of his audience – but the piano allowed a way of moving between these musical worlds that was less forced, less about surprise for the sake of it and more about the ways in which musical languages had been honed at the keyboard and with the keyboard in mind. More pertinently, the piano was an instrument that existed in different public and private spheres and that could act as one of the few constants available to a young girl crossing the tracks from the black neighbourhoods to the white to take her lessons, or to a young woman moving from the salon to the saloon, or from the conservatoire to the concert hall. ‘I always had the piano’, Simone would tell Maya Angelou in a 1970 interview, ‘In either world. I began to understand something about what is called “classical music”. Its structure, its points of convergence. Its reason. And that was good.’
In that same interview she recalled, ‘I had my piano, my parents, my people, my church. The electricity of religion. I had my joys.’ These joys, this passion, would see her through dark times, such as the moment her dreams of being a classical concert pianist were shattered when Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute denied her the chance to study further. As she continued with her classical training, and as she turned increasingly towards the performance of popular music – first as a pianist and singer in a variety of night clubs in Philadelphia and New York, then as an increasingly successful recording artist, Simone’s constant companion was the piano. Following an ultimately unsuccessful contract with the independent Bethlehem label, she signed to Colpix and released a number of albums in quick succession. Moving to the Philips label in 1964, she recorded equally prolifically, releasing seven albums in three years. It was during this time, and her subsequent tenure with RCA, that she became strongly connected to the civil rights movement and to the revolutions taking place in art, music and social relationships. Although mainly known as an interpreter of others’ material, Simone contributed her own powerful compositions to the political song repertoire, songs like ‘Mississippi Goddam’, ‘Four Women’ and ‘Backlash Blues’, a collaboration with poet, mentor and friend Langston Hughes.
Despite releasing a number of standout albums in the 1960s – including In Concert, ’Nuff Said and Here Comes the Sun – Simone has never really been thought of as an album artist. We can think of various reasons why this is the case. Each album, and especially those from her classic period, the ‘long 1960s’, showcases the diversity of her work, splitting apart notions of coherence. Record companies might have tried to suggest unity with titles such as Folksy Nina, Pastel Blues and Silk & Soul, but the albums’ contents invariably belied such attempts to fix the sound stylistically. Another reason is that Simone’s classic period predates the time at which albums by black artists outside the jazz sphere were conceived as ‘works’ and at which albums by female artists were similarly conceived (save, perhaps, in folk music). This is partly to do with racial categorising as record companies marketed black performers as singles artists. That assumption would be challenged by the work of Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Funkadelic and other (predominantly male) artists of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but it still lingered due to predominant ideas of the culture industry and critics during the canonisation of popular music in the late 1960s, the same period that witnessed the ideology of the album as a ‘work’.
In 2013 I published a book about Nina Simone in which I wrote, ‘It seems difficult at this stage to imagine an extended study devoted to just one of Simone’s albums, as Ashley Kahn has done for Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme, as David Quantick has done for the Beatles’ “White Album”, or as Continuum’s 33 1/3 series has done for many rock, pop and soul albums.’ But if I were wanting to challenge that perception and embark on precisely such a task, Nina Simone and Piano! would offer the ideal candidate, distilling as it does the components that made Simone such a compelling performer and concentrating them into the pure or secret world of a solo artist engaged in the delicate art of interpretation. All the songs on the album are written by other people, providing us with an excellent showcase of Simone’s genius at reconstruction. Time and again she takes a familiar number and locates the unfamiliar in it, mining even such seeming frivolities as Jonathan King’s ‘Everyone’s Gone to the Moon’ for hidden qualities and unplumbed depths.
One thing the album doesn’t contain is any explicit engagement with race or gender, certainly when compared to the firebrand packages that preceded and succeeded it. But such topics are not exactly absent from the album, as Simone highlights African American histories by tapping into a range of established musical styles (gospel, blues, jazz) and even exploring relatively unknown black poetry of the nineteenth century via her adaptation of a text by Paul Laurence Dunbar. At the same time, when considering the personal nature of Simone’s piano project, it is worth asking why she might have been expected to be offering more outspoken commentary on the racial politics of the time. This seems a strange point to make, given that Simone is invariably associated with issues of civil rights, black pride and identity assertion, but it is always worth asking, even if just as a prompt to re-calibrate our assumptions. What are the cultural dynamics driving the ways in which certain individuals in the public eye – those referred to by Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison as ‘movement intellectuals’ – are first identified by their publics as representative spokespeople and then expected to always already be on message? What about down time, personal projects, work away from the spotlight? Such questions have been asked of figures such as Martin Luther King and it’s worth asking them of Nina Simone too. Why should she have to do what was expected of her? Wasn’t that a large part of the reason she felt so exhausted by the close of the decade, why she would say, in her 1991 memoir, that ‘on the one hand I loved being black and being a woman, and that on the other it was my colour and sex which had fucked me up in the first place’? Didn’t she sometimes want a break from having to address these feelings in her music? Or is it the case that these conflicted feelings are precisely what Nina Simone and Piano! is about?
While Simone’s vocal and keyboard skills are the main affective vehicles of Nina Simone and Piano!, the lyrics are also a vital ingredient and reward separate consideration. Although there is not a single ‘story’ told by the selected songs (which are drawn from a typically wide range of sources: Carolyn Franklin, Hoagy Carmichael, Leonard Bernstein, Randy Newman, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jacques Brel), the strong presence of desolation, abandonment, apocalypse and, more hopefully, renewal provide a certain conceptual cohesion. The narrative traced from the album opener ‘Seems I’m Never Tired of Lovin’ You’, with its strong sense of spiritual conviction and its resonant gospel imagery, to the almost unbearably downbeat finale ‘The Desperate Ones’ is one that models a dialectic of hope and despair that can be found throughout Simone’s career.
This dialectic tension is echoed in the ways words alternately work with and against their musical delivery throughout the album. This can be heard from the opening notes of ‘Seems I’m Never Tired of Lovin’ You’, where Simone is singing through the piano keyboard before she ever opens her mouth. Her vocal, when it comes, is thick with the church, hovering across Carolyn Franklin’s melody with rich vibrato, yearning vocal stretches and deep blues inflections. The imagery of Franklin’s gospel song becomes increasingly extreme as Simone pledges fidelity to her beloved. Voice and piano grow in stridency and discordancy as the images unfold, until it’s unclear whether Simone is singing a love song or preaching the Revelation. Later, as she approaches the end of Randy Newman’s ‘I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today’, she wrings all the metaphorical potential of the coming tempest, raising her voice to a shout. A similar development is used on ‘Everyone’s Gone to the Moon’, a whimsical song by Jonathan King given an increasingly dramatic reading by Simone. The childlike tone of wonder she adopts when she starts to describe the abandoned Earth gives way to a desperate plea at the song’s close. Throughout the album, she mixes whispers, shouts and screams into more conventional singing, mapping these sonic extremes with keyboard dynamics that range from the barely-there to the apocalyptic and from supple sweetness to bitter dissonance. Her reading of Brel’s ‘The Desperate Ones’ closes the album with a series of whispers, piano trills, overdubbed vocables, gasps and death rattles until the song gives way to silence and the fateful, fatal limbo of the run-out groove/grave.
To hear Simone perform Hoagy Carmichael’s desperately beautiful ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’ is to be initially stunned by her interpretation, but also to be reminded of Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra or many others singing the song, and to consider the particular grammars of longing and regret that these artists brought to their renditions, then to think again about what Simone brings to her version. In terms of style, genre and musical habitation, we might think of the songs on Piano! as portals to other worlds, other artists and other musical communities, and to the continuities and discontinuities foregrounded by musical comparison. To take another example, ‘Nobody’s Fault but Mine’ is an update of a song recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. Thinking about these artists together strengthens the case for Piano! as a concept album of sorts; religious redemption, refuge and revelation can be heard in Simone’s version through both musical style and posthumous connection to Johnson, a man who passed through the modern world just long enough to be fixed in the techno-memorial amber: one photograph, some family reminiscences passed on to eager blues scholars and thirty thrilling, terrifying, God-fearing gospel blues recordings.
In her later years, Simone was increasingly presented as a ‘difficult’ personality, a classic example of diva behaviour. In his brilliant and moving obituary for the singer in 2003, Ian Penman caricatured the way in which Simone was written about by journalists seemingly more drawn to the promotion of freakish spectacle than to empathetic understanding: ‘funny Nina, wonky Nina, obstreperous Nina, Nina with the outsize dreams’. As has often been noted, the word ‘diva’ does a lot of contradictory work and it’s worth digging for both positive and negative connotations. Although Simone had been quick to apply the term to herself from at least the late 1960s – part of her self-alignment with Maria Callas and no doubt also a pointed reminder to her critics of her abilities as a classical artist – the application of the word by others could be read in more negative ways. In recent years, however, the figure of the diva has been given new and more positive meanings, not least in queer identifications with performers such as Barbra Streisand, Cher, Shirley Bassey and Celine Dion. Simone can be placed amongst such performers not only by the way in which she exhibited ‘typical’ diva behaviour, but by her channelling of sentiment in her song interpretations. In my book on Simone, I wrote of the mourning and melancholy that characterised much of her work and that lay in tension with her angrier or more assertive songs of protest and black female pride. Here I want to highlight instead the dialectic of sentimentalism and subversion that finds its outlet as much on Piano! as on any of Simone’s subsequent works. Divas tend to model other ways in which sentimentalism itself can be seen and heard as subversive and the becoming-diva Simone of Piano! offers a fascinating study of this process.
In closing, I’ll touch on a provocation that I hope to expand on at another time: that Nina Simone be heard as an Afrofuturist. The provocation comes from the observation that theorists of Afrofuturism as it relates to music have tended to focus on male artists who have explicitly connected advances in music technology and style with science fiction narratives. Sun Ra, Lee Perry and George Clinton are the typically repeated holy trinity of such theories, but there have been other more recent examples: Goldie, Tricky and, in a rare opening up of the theory to female musicians, Grace Jones and Janelle Monáe. For all the fascinating insights that Afrofuturist theory has brought, one of its major problems is that it does not always allow for additional alternative ways of thinking about the future. Having decided on a particular branch of vanguardist techno-musical innovations that it wishes to celebrate, it lumps other musical strategies in with the ‘natural’ and ‘traditional’ that Afronauts such as Ra, Perry and Clinton were understood to be navigating away from.
To a large extent, theoretical models suggest their own musical examples and vice versa. No doubt the types of music valorised by theorists of posthumanism and Afrofuturism respond to a common-sense association between technologically innovative art and technologically altered and/or virtualised physical and mental states. To attempt to exemplify such theories via reference to Nina Simone, who operated in the ‘traditional’ genres of jazz, blues, gospel and folk, or, conversely, to look to explain Simone’s art via reference to such technocentric conceptual models, might seem a step too far. And yet there is something in Simone’s work that calls out for a reading that goes beyond the ‘human’ and beyond the theological. For a start, her ‘traditional’ genres are hardly removed from the techno-virtual issues explored by posthumanism. A striking feature of gospel music, for example, has been the way in which it has consistently incorporated new technologies into its textual and performative arena. The gurus of Afrofuturism, meanwhile, are seen to be continuing a quest set in motion by early twentieth century bluesmen (though notably not blues women). More than this, however, Simone’s dismantling of generic and stylistic boundaries is a model of mutation, mutability and flow, all key tropes of posthumanist discourse.
Examples which link Simone to some of the key Afrofuturist case studies include her frequent allusions to Egyptian myth, her references to being a ‘robot’ and her mention of other planets, planes and spheres. But even without these parallels, I would argue that there is a sense of futurism, apocalypse and reterritorialisation prevalent throughout her mature work that is anything but ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’. In Simone’s hands and voice, the ‘black freighter’ of ‘Pirate Jenny’ is as much an Afrofuturist prediction as the liberatory ‘arks’ of Ra and Perry or Clinton’s ‘mothership’. Of course, it might be argued that, no matter what the lyrical content of her songs was, the music Simone was making was not as future-oriented as those other ‘Afronauts’. Against this, however, we could posit Simone’s famous defiance of categorisation as her particular future-directed impulse. Her black classical music articulated a space of hope and refusal just as her fellow blacks were hoping and being refused the possibility of equal treatment under the eyes of the law. And at the heart of this journey was the piano, her own black freighter, the vehicle for her lifelong dreams and ambitions and a musical technology whose complexity and versatility could straddle centuries.
I’ve contributed a chapter to the newly published Routledge Companion to Popular Music History and Heritage, edited by Sarah Baker, Catherine Strong, Lauren Istvandity and Zelmarie Cantillon. My chapter is entitled ‘Sounding Out Popular Music HIstory: A Musicological Approach’.
SUMMARY: While the relationship between musicology and history has shifted considerably over time, the importance of each discipline to the other remains vital. This chapter argues for a way of doing popular music history that proceeds from and reflects on musical objects, specifically sound recordings. Recordings, it is argued, afford unique insights into the popular past while constantly posing questions relevant to the present. As objects with particular roots and multiple routes, recordings encourage critical reflection on time and distance in the mediation and remediation of musics from other places and eras. In order to illustrate this, the chapter presents three strands of historical practice related to popular music and sound recording. One strand examines recordings of the past as ways of illustrating broader scholarly concerns such as nation, empire and postcolonial struggle. A second engages with phonography, posing questions about fidelity, authenticity and representation. The creative practice of those involved with phonographic archaeology – crate diggers, collectors, DJs, producers, compilers and reissue labels – constitutes a third strand, which may welcome or reject historical musicology yet which still offers a way of doing history sonically. After discussing these strands, I reflect on the role of storytelling in musicological work.
Fifty years ago today, Nina Simone and her band performed at Westbury Music Fair in New York. Three days had passed since the murder of Martin Luther King and Simone used her concert to stage an act of collective mourning and outrage. Below is a re-post of a 2013 entry from my blog So Transported: Listening to Nina Simone, in which I reflect on three of the songs performed that day.
‘Why? (The King of Love is Dead’, Nina Simone’s haunting tribute to Martin Luther King, was one of a suite of songs performed by Simone and her band at the Westbury Music Fair in New York on Sunday 7th April 1968, shortly after King’s murder. Simone begins introduces ‘Sunday in Savannah’, the first song in what subsequently came to be known as “The Martin Luther King Suite”, by expressing surprise that her audience have turned up to the concert hall given the tragic events of recent days. “Happily surprised” that they have, however, she expresses hope that the evening’s performance can act as some sort of healing ritual, or working-through of the mourning process. An elegiac note is struck with the languid ‘Sunday in Savannah’, a song which bears no direct reference to King or his murder but rather imagines a peaceful continuation of everyday life in a religious community, a practice, it implies, which King should have been able to pursue instead of having to take up the fight against an unnecessary evil. The longing here is not for what was but for what might have been had historical circumstances been different, had humankind been more tolerant, or had the dream that King foretold come to pass into reality. The sense of harmonious continuity is emphasized in the musical accompaniment by the organ (played by Simone’s brother, Sam Waymon) and by the lightest of touches from piano, guitar and drums. Only at the song’s culmination do voice and piano become discordant and harsh, as Simone substitutes “Atlanta” for “Savannah”, invoking King’s home town and pointing out “it’s the same thing, same State, same feeling”.
‘Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)’ was a song written by Simone’s bassist Gene Taylor in response to King’s assassination. As Simone says at the outset, the band had had just one day to learn it and the performance subsequently seems to veer between the rehearsed and the improvised. ‘Why?’ has made various appearances on record and CD, initially appearing in edited form on the RCA album ‘Nuff Said (1968) and later being partially restored to its original version as part of the “Martin Luther King Suite” on the compilations Saga of the Good Life and Hard Times and Sugar in My Bowl. The full, unedited version can be heard on the compilation Forever Young, Gifted & Black (2006) and begins in a quietly elegiac tone as Simone introduces the song. Taylor’s suitably epic opening – “Once upon this planet Earth” – sets the tone for a reverential account of King’s life, work and dreams. To begin with, Simone stays clear of militancy as she emphasizes King’s Christian message, the tragic sacrifice he was forced to pay and the possibility that he might have died in vain. Lateness is the song’s keynote: King’s lateness, Simone’s growing sense of lateness (which would transform itself into a perpetual process of mourning) and a general sense of lateness and loss for the civil rights movement. In one of the many unanswered questions of the song, Taylor and Simone ask “is it too late for us all?”
‘Why?’ can be heard as a motivated act of remembering, wondering and yearning. As remembrance the narrative is not inaccurate but, as with many elegies, accuracy is less important than the act of recalling a person’s life and its meaning for a wider congregation. ‘Why?’ acts as a song of wonder and yearning simply through its positing of childishly simple, yet difficult-to-answer, questions. Why does it have to be this way? Why can’t things be different? The black female voice, which Farah Jasmine Griffin describes as one of the “founding sounds” of the USA, has often been called upon to provide solace in moments of historical rupture. It is also a voice that “expresses a quality of longing: longing for home, for love, for connection with God, for heaven, for freedom … a conduit between what and where we are and what and where we want to be”. As with the musical role models amd social movment spokespeople discussed by Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison, it is clear that Simone needed to offer a response to the tragedy of April 4 and that those affected by the tragedy needed to hear from an artist of her stature, ability and socio-political position.
But ‘Why?’ does not consist solely of questions. To be sure, it manifests one of the commonly understood phases of mourning in its bewildered and uncomprehending ‘whys’, in its pain and numbness. But it also enacts another phase of mourning by showing anger and a refusal to accept what has happened. After seven minutes of Taylor’s elegiac gospel song (closer, perhaps, to the kind of “sorrow songs” discussed by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk), Simone and the band start to raise the volume and the singer’s voice takes on a harder edge as she poses a new question: what will happen in the cities now that “our people are rising”? Utilizing some of the stop-start drama of her reading of ‘Pirate Jenny‘, Simone brings the searchlight of her voice to flash on “that moment that you know what life is”, a moment of decision – an event – where the attainment of a new, more meaningful subjectivity is recognized, a commitment and fidelity that can survive even death. To a dramatically rolling piano accompaniment, Simone testifies that “you know what freedom is, for one moment of your life”. As she returns to Taylor’s lyric – “what’s gonna happen / now that the King of Love is dead?” – the song takes on a new, less fatalistic, more assertive dimension, no longer a question raised to a cruel God, but rather a threat and prediction of “the fire next time“.
During the song, Simone also takes the time to reflect on the loss of other role models and cultural beacons: “Lorraine Hansberry left us … and then Langston Hughes left us, Coltrane left us, Otis Redding left us. Who can go on? Do you realize how many we have lost? … We can’t afford any more losses. … They’re shooting us down one by one.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Simone also used ‘Mississippi Goddam‘ in her Westbury concert to comment on King’s murder and to connect it to other incidents, not least the church bombing that had inspired the writing of the song. At one point she replaces “Tennessee” with “Memphis”, a reference to the city where King was shot; later, calling upon the audience to join her in song, Simone shouts “the time is too late now … the King is dead!” As if it were not clear that ‘Mississippi Goddam’ is delivering on the threats hinted at in ‘Why?’, Simone declares “I ain’t about to be nonviolent honey!” Unlike the version of the song immortalized on the In Concert album, here it is Simone who is laughing. Her laughter seems as strange and out of place as that of the audience in the earlier version but we should probably hear it as an illogical response to an illogical and impossible situation.
I’ll be presenting my current research at the Rethinking Sound conference in Seoul later this week. My current project explores the materiality of song and the relationship between songs and objects. As this is a sound studies conference, I’m using this paper to think about how my project intersects wtih the theories of Pierre Schaeffer and those influenced by his work on acousmatic listening, sound objects and the ‘thingness of sound‘.
The second half of the paper is taken up by a discussion of Björk and the ways her music gets connected to objects of various kinds: natural, technologcal, human, nonhuman, viral, meteorological. I’d already been planning to include references to the work of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Jlin, so I was delighted to learn last week about the new remix that Jlin has made of Björk’s ‘Arisen My Senses’. I love the way she makes it almost unrecognisable (as a Björk song, that is: it’s very recognisable as a Jlin song) while still retaining important aspects of the original vocal timbre. Jlin’s remix is the second on the Spotify playlist below; the original can be heard on last year’s Utopia.
My absract for the conference:
Recent years have witnessed an intense interest in the roles played by objects in the world, with many approaches recognising the vital interdependence of human and non-human actors. My current research aims to establish the importance of music (and sound more broadly) in this new terrain of scholarship by analysing how songs represent objects, how songs themselves become meaningful objects and how songs rely on a wide range of ever-changing objects to assure their survival. Using the connecting thread of materiality, I propose an approach to musical analysis that both connects with recent object-centred scholarship and overcomes existing musicological distinctions between music as thing and music as process.
This paper presents an analysis of the ‘song object’, a concept crucial to my research and which has connections to earlier theories of lyric substance as well as to Pierre Schaeffer’s objet sonore (sound object). What constitutes the song object? What kind of object is it? How do songs themselves comment on their construction, their parts, their physicality? I argue that songs are a particular kind of technology for ordering information and that they deploy particular technologies of object orientation in ways distinct from, but comparable to, those of paintings, sculptures, poems and books. Part of my analysis therefore consists of exploring material descriptors and metaphors connected to song, incorporating the artificial (hooks, bridges, etc.) and the natural (cells, viruses, weather systems). I’m interested in what these terms – and their application to song objects – can tell us about the materiality of sound.
A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a journalist who had seen that I’d written a book about Nina Simone and wanted to get some thoughts from me about Simone’s October 1969 live recording of ‘Ain’t Got No / I Got Life’, the one that ended up on the 1970 album Black Gold. I sent some thoughts, which were received warmly and which I assumed would be quoted, at least in part, in the published piece. In the end, none of my words were used, so I’m posting them here. In the absence of any explanation, I’m assuming that the piece took a different direction from the original plan, or that there was some kind of editorial intervention. Not wishing to waste the effort, I’ve pasted what I wrote below, along with a playlist.
For me, ‘Ain’t Got No / I Got Life’ is about ownership and possession in two senses: the assertion of bodily presence and identity in the lyrics and Simone’s performance of other people’s material. The first type of ownership is laid out explicitly in the lyrics of the song through the first section detailing what the singer hasn’t got and the second section confidently and hopefully asserting what she has. That Simone conflates what were two songs in the musical Hair into essentially one song is evidence of the second type of ownership: she makes this combination hers. In doing so, she connects the ‘got no / I got’ lyrics to a long tradition of black American vernacular song, a lineage that can be traced back to the classic blues queens of the 1920s (especially Bessie Smith, one of Simone’s great influences) and forward to the body-conscious identity-affirming music of contemporary artists such as Solange Knowles.
Bessie Smith, ‘St Louis Blues’ (1929)
Solange, ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ (2016)
This story can be traced back further, of course, to spirituals and songs of slavery (songs about bodies whose ownership was in contest), but I generally hear Simone’s more physical songs (‘Be My Husband’, ‘Chauffeur’, ‘I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl’, ‘Four Women’, ‘Backlash Blues’) as being part of a twentieth century tradition inaugurated by Bessie Smith and her contemporaries. Simone would complement the self-objectifying, explicitly physical lyrics of Smith and others with a performance style that emphasised physicality, often jumping up from the piano to dance, sway, clap, click fingers and shout. She would talk about how people in the black churches she attended as a child would get ‘possessed’ and ‘transported’ and this dynamic of being alternately in charge of and out of control of one’s body is manifested throughout Simone’s performing career. In capturing that essential dynamic in her captivating performance of a song written and performed by other people in another cultural context, Simone made ‘Ain’t Got No / I Got Life’ an assertion of her philosophy of life and music.
I’ll be launching my book The Sound of Nonsense at Blackwell’s in Newcastle upon Tyne on Wednesday 7 February. It’s free but needs booking via https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/richard-elliott-the-sound-of-nonsense-tickets-42589627723.
Following the audio trailer I posted for my new book The Sound of Nonsense, I’ve now made a video trailer too. This uses different examples from the audio taster but with the same aim of bringing together sources from literature, sound poetry, nonsense writing and pop music.
My new book is called The Sound of Nonsense and it’s published by Bloomsbury Academic today. To mark the publication, I’m posting an illustrated version of the book’s introduction below.
‘Watch the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves’; so says the Duchess in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.[i] But can we be so sure of this? The Duchess, like her creator Lewis Carroll, seems to put more emphasis on the sound of words than their sense. This aspect of her character that has been much remarked upon, not least by those interested in the role that sound plays in creating meaning and nonsense.[ii] As some of Carroll’s readers would have known, he himself was playing with sound when he placed these words in the Duchess’s mouth; her ‘moral’ is based on the English proverb ‘take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves’. It is only one of many instances in Carroll’s work where the work of nonsense – what Marnie Parsons has called ‘nonsense strategies’ – relies on sound to do its business.[iii] This book responds to that reliance by highlighting the importance of sound in understanding the nonsense of writers such as Carroll and Edward Lear, as well as James Joyce, before connecting this noisy writing to works which engage more directly with sound, including sound poetry, experimental music and pop. By emphasising sonic factors, I try to amplify the connections between a wide range of artistic examples and to build a case for the importance of sound in creating, maintaining and disrupting meaning.
Nonsense literature, particularly that associated with the English tradition made famous by Carroll and Lear, has generated a rich and varied body of study in a variety of disciplines, including literature, linguistics, art history, philosophy and psychology. Much of this exegesis has focussed on questions of meaning and the ‘logic of sense’ or on questions of normality and abnormality. Invariably focussed on words and sentences as they appear on the page, few studies of nonsense take sound as their primary analytical perspective. I take this gap as my starting point and, while engaging with many of the other things that have been said about my chosen examples, I hinge my study on the sonic dimensions of nonsense. The first chapter offers an overview of some of the ways in which nonsense has been approached, noting the difficulties in defining terms and agreeing on boundaries. By way of my own definitions I suggest types of nonsense that bind the diverse examples to be found through the rest of the book. I also start to offer observations on the role of sound in creating, maintaining and disrupting sense.
The second chapter is focussed on the resonance of the page and, in addition to nonsense literature, includes discussion of modernist literature. More work has been done in recent years on the role of sound in modernist writing – particularly James Joyce – and my aim here is to highlight sounds which are pertinent to a discussion of nonsense and to set up connections with music, for example by considering how the work of writers such as Carroll and Joyce has been auralised or musicalised.
Having established the importance of sound on the written page, the book moves to work that more directly challenged the written dimension of literature by engaging with sound as a primary text; examples include artists and theorists associated with a variety of European art ‘movements’ (futurism, Dada, surrealism), sound poets such as Hugo Ball, Henri Chopin and Bob Cobbing, and the audiovisual cut-up experiments of Brion Gysin and William Burroughs. Here I’m interested in sonic challenges, be they chopped audio or sonic palimpsests, and the efforts required to get at meaning.
One of the aims of the book is to show connections between modernist, avant-garde or experimental artists and those more associated with popular culture, so, in keeping with a starting point of Carroll and Lear, the project also investigates the importance of nonsense sounds in popular music. Chapter 4 – the longest – is devoted to popular music and the importance of nonsense in popular song, taking in scat singing, vocalese, doo wop, early rock ’n’ roll, yodelling, hip hop, singer-songwriters and artists who have created their own languages in which to sing. The relationships between words, sense and music are important here. One suggestion is that the shift from words to music is – from a linguistic perspective – often accompanied by a shift to nonsense, but that this linguistic nonsense becomes subject to another kind of musicalised sense-making. The process can also be witnessed in reverse; vocal sounds used to emulate musical instruments (e.g. in scat, doo wop or other mouth music) can be heard as proto-words and the point at which they are heard as such is what I call the nonsense moment. Nonsense functions in these instances as the overlapping territory between non-semantic vocables and clearly understood, meaningful words.
In tracing this trajectory, I am interested in how written, spoken and sung linguistic elements – predominantly words, parts of words and elements of phrases – create nonsense moments that rely on sound in one form or another. To make the kind of connections I am making between written and sonic texts requires an acceptance of the interrelationships between what Don Ihde calls ‘the word as soundful’ and ‘sounds as meaningful’:
The philosopher, concerned with comprehensiveness, must eventually call for attention to the word as soundful. On the other side, the sciences that attend to the soundful, from phonetics to acoustics, do so as if the sound were bare and empty of significance in a physics of the soundful. And the philosopher, concerned with the roots of reflection in human experience, must eventually also listen to the sounds as meaningful.[iv]
Like Ihde, I am interested in sound as it is experienced phenomenologically, although I mix this approach with awareness of intertextuality and intermediality. For me, the knowledge of a text’s precursors – and this includes one’s lack of, or partial, knowledge of them – are part of the phenomena available to the perceiving subject. This awareness, which I see as a grasping after meaning by a sometimes bewildered subject, is also what makes up the nonsense moment. This is the moment in perception when one is beyond, between or ahead of the moment of ascertaining sense. It is a glitch moment, a temporary period of blurring, the point in the process of code-switching where the codes are muddled.
Hopefully, the examples provided throughout the book will help clarify what I mean by this. I flag it up here, however, to anticipate some potential issues that readers may have regarding my definitions of nonsense, the ambitious scope of this short book, and the connections I am making between my various examples. I approach the issue of definitions and typologies of nonsense more fully in the next chapter. For now, it’s important to note that this is a book about nonsense, not solely about nonsense literature, though nonsense literature is a recurring presence. When it comes to nonsense and music, some may well take exception to scat, doo-wop or vocalese being referred to as nonsense because these vocal techniques have been categorised for musicology as musical, not verbal practices. My response here is to challenge such absolutist definitions of these musical processes and to ask instead why so many other people before me have made similar connections to mine. Were such listeners ‘wrong’ to do so? There is no hard and fast boundary between nonsense syllables used for musical effect and those same syllables used as words in a lyric. When Gene Vincent sings ‘Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby’, or when The Edsels sing ‘I got a girl named Rama Lama, Rama Lama Ding Dong’, how can we know if they are imitating instruments or referring to nicknames? The syntax of such utterances hangs in the balance.
Having given several spoken presentations on this project, I have been heartened by not only my audiences’ willingness to recognise many of the connections I am trying to make, but also the enthusiasm with which further examples have been offered. Given that I have had to severely edit the mass of examples I had already collected, it has been difficult to make space for many of these additions, but their existence reassures me that the concepts with which I’m dealing have resonance for others. If my selection of nonsense writers, sound poets and pop musicians is necessarily restricted to particular eras and genres, I trust that the points I am making can be applied by readers to other examples. I hope too that, just because there are many other examples from the history of literature and music that could be defined as nonsense according to my usage, my omission of them does not weaken my arguments.
When considering the scope of my project and the wide net I am casting, I have attempted to stay true to the objectives of the series in which it appears. One of these is to use a single concept to illustrate the interdisciplinary nature of sound studies. In my case, that single concept is nonsense but the perspectives and examples through which I approach the concept are designed to encourage interdisciplinarity. Another way of putting this is to say that I have attempted to make the book short but provocative, not seeking to answer all the questions it poses nor to lock down discussion of any of the areas it touches on. This is not a license to vagueness or lack of rigour, but rather a recognition that this book series sets out to offer something different to longer, specialist monographs.
I have wanted to respond to the vitality of nonsense and to revel in connections. Again, this may suggest a potential lack of historical or other contextual specificity to the examples cited. It may be felt, for example, that I enjoy listening for similarities at the expense of adequately exploring differences. I must admit to an enjoyment of staging my own Mad Hatters party, perhaps sitting Edward Lear next to Little Richard, Hugo Ball next to David Byrne, and Lewis Carroll next to Bob Cobbing and Ivor Cutler. But while I wish to at least imply a levelling process regarding the cultural provenance of my examples, I am never suggesting outright equivalency. As with many comparative methods, it is more about asking what light can be cast – what sound can be projected – by placing together the products of seemingly disparate cultural worlds. The artist Christian Marclay, responding to a question about the equivalence of objects placed together in some of his projects even when those objects have little relation to each other, makes the following observation:
But the reason they are together is to offer a third reading, totally disconnected from their initial usage. They tell a beautiful story together. Like if you’re writing poetry, you put together two words that rhyme or off-rhyme, and even though they may be unrelated, that rhyme is going to give the phrase a different weight. It kind of forces them together.[v]
Similar notions have been expressed through some of the other artistic processes I discuss in this book, such as the cut-ups of Brion Gysin and William Burroughs, the plunderphonics of John Oswald, and the ‘rhyming’ of doo-wop, country music and sound poetry undertaken by Paul Dutton. The idea is there, too, in the practices carried out by a whole host of DJs and other composers whose mixings, matchings and mismatchings provide the ideal soundtrack to mad tea parties.
[i] Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass, Definitive Edition, illus. John Tenniel, ed. Martin Gardner (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), 92.
[ii] Mladen Dolar notes that the Duchess’s words seem to be inverted, for her pronouncements, like many proverbs, ‘make more sound than sense’; Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006), 147. Marnie Parsons begins her exploration of ‘nonsense and sound’ by quoting the Duchess and suggesting she ‘was wrong, or partly wrong’; Marnie Parsons, Touch Monkeys: Nonsense Strategies for Reading Twentieth-Century Poetry (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), 120.
[iii] Parsons, Touch Monkeys.
[iv] Don Ihde, Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound, second edn (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), 4.
[v] Christian Marclay, ‘Music I’ve Seen: In Conversation with Frances Richard’, in On & By Christian Marclay, edited by Jean-Pierre Criqui (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2014) 85.
Here is an audio taster of my new book The Sound of Nonsense, published on 28 December.