Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Introduction

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Introduction

Article excerpt

I hear the violincello or man's hearts complaint, And hear the keyed comet or else the echo of sunset.

I hear the chorus.... it is a grand opera.... this indeed is music! (11. 597-99)

Walt Whitman "Song of Myself"

"In those days it was either live with music or die with noise," author Ralph Ellison remarked in a 1955 essay originally published for High Fidelity magazine, "and we chose rather desperately to live" (187). When Ellison, a trained musician, reflected on his 1949 choice to convert his New York apartment into an "audio booby trap" so that he could find the "calm" to write, he was still surrounded by an incredible mix of restaurant juke boxes, classical radio programs, howling cats and dogs, preaching drunks, rehearsing opera singers, jazz's legacy of Armstrong, Ellington, Goodman, and Holiday, jam sessions at Minton's, and the emerging bebop mythology of Parker, Gillespie, Blakey, and Monk. Despite a lifetime of musical devotion, Ellison could not continue his transition from the trumpet to the typewriter without entering the "new electronic world," buying, piece-by-piece, "a first-rate AM-FM tuner, a transcription turntable and a speaker cabinet" (193). This audio equipment enabled the aspiring artist to live with music, to hear what he wanted to hear--and what he wanted his neighbors to hear--when he wanted to hear it, and to write. At issue for Ellison was the distinction between noise and music; once he had control over the music, it was not noise, and he could live. Music's power, he explains, is in the ways it informs our cultural and historical cartographies: "One of the chief values of living with music lies in its power to give an orientation in time. In doing so, it gives significance to all those indefinable aspects of experience which nevertheless help to make us what we are. In the swift whirl of time music is a constant, reminding us of what we were and of that toward which we aspired" (197). And in America, where issues of what we were and what we aspire to be are always in question, music has played a particularly crucial role in orienting us to our time and providing a sense of definition.

Whether we choose to or not, we all live with music, perhaps more today than ever. With technological advances in the global economy of our postmodern world, it is almost too easy to locate, purchase, listen to, and perhaps sample any written musical reference from anywhere in the world. In an electronic culture in which theme songs and soundtracks often prove more memorable--and profitable--than the visual narratives they supposedly enhance, and music videos and multimedia concert screens circulate images more resonant than the trendy songs supposedly at their creative core, it is sometimes hard to know what a song actually is anymore. Perhaps we have never known; perhaps music, as Walter Pater romantically theorized in the 1870s, exists in a "condition which music alone completely realizes" (47). One could argue, to borrow from Krin Gabbard and Lawrence Grossberg's studies of music and representation, that as contemporary subjects we function as part of what Foucault would call an apparatus, a musical and extra-musical network of technological innovations (from the annoying jingle of a cell phone to the DVD of a Charles Mingus documentary), stylistic shifts in language and fashion (from the rhythmic discourse of hip-hop to the retro-chic of Jimi Hendrix), and corporate media practices (from radio ads to the audio clips of a music seller's Internet site). A cartographer of any sort would be hard-pressed to map a space in which music--music heard--is not a part of our "sound system." Indeed, with America's overcongested communities growing in direct correlation to an over-dependence on inferior building materials, an often overtly rude blurring of public and private discourse, and the automobile becoming more like a set of overgrown woofers on wheels, many citizens often can not find the dividing line between living with music and dying with noise. …

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