Signs, Symphonies, Signifyin(g): African-American Cultural Topics as Analytical Approach to the Music of Black Composers

By Maxile, Horace J., Jr. | Black Music Research Journal, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Signs, Symphonies, Signifyin(g): African-American Cultural Topics as Analytical Approach to the Music of Black Composers


Maxile, Horace J., Jr., Black Music Research Journal


Considering the volume and strength of the recent work in black music scholarship, much work is still needed in many areas, particularly those of scholarly criticism, interpretation, and analysis of concert works by black composers. Certainly, turning our attention to more details of pitch, harmony, rhythm, and form will enlighten our interpretations of works by black composers and fortify the course of black music scholarship. Some illustrative readings may offer a glimpse at meaningful devices and vernacular emblems, but the endeavor of analysis calls for even deeper examinations of expressivity and musical structure. A general call for more analyses is suggested in Catherine Parson Smith's careful reading of the "Scherzo" in William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony in which she discusses key centers and superimposed pitch collections that speak to a certain "racial doubleness" (Smith 2000). Olly Wilson's concrete explanations of the "art song spirituals" and his own symphonic compositions similarly solicit more scholarly inquiries into the craftsmanship of black composers (Wilson 2006). The following essay focuses on expansions of recent theories and concepts toward the goal of addressing the analysis/ interpretation gap in the concert music of black composers. (1)

"It ain't what you do, it's how you do it." These are the words to the chorus of a blues song that was once very popular in my hometown. The notion of the importance of "how you do it" directly relates to core attributes of African-American culture and performance practices. Olly Wilson, an African-American composer, addresses a facet of this issue by proposing an approach to define black music traditions. To quote Wilson: "The substance of that approach is that the essence of the black musical tradition consists of shared conceptual approaches to music making, and hence is not basically quantitative but qualitative" (Wilson 1974, 20). He continues to explain that particular forms of black music are realizations of a conceptual framework that reflects the black experience and that the manifestations of this framework are infinite. He states that the common core of this framework "consists of the way of doing something, not simply that something is done" (1974, 20). Thus, the emphasis in many African-American musical manifestations is on the how and not the what.

So what do we do in the practice of musical analysis? How do we address the "how"? Yes, we may uncover how a composer generates or states a musical joke within a sonata form, (2) but what about a Mahalia Jackson rendition of a hymn where the principal tune is embedded with vernacular musical emblems or a symphonic piece that uses African-American musical subjects as source material? Aspects of the African-American "how" from musical and performance perspectives involve the actual practice of blue notes, pendular thirds, and a number of other documented musical emblems. They may also involve the practice of signifying, as subjects of African-American musical culture are employed or inferred. Some further questions arise, however. Would addressing the "how" hold enough analytical weight in a field where the traditional, objective methodologies so aptly fit our closely guarded Western canon? We do note the significant advances in jazz and popular music scholarship, but are musical emblems of African-American culture relegated solely to the subjective or the qualitative domains? If emblems of African-American musical culture are essentially qualitative, how do we treat them if the primary impulse of analysis, for some, is objectivity?

The concept of African-American cultural topics that this essay presents addresses these issues and uses as its foundation the work of two black scholars who have made significant, yet contrasting, contributions to the field of academic music. Samuel A. Floyd Jr. is an acclaimed historian of black music, and V. Kofi Agawu is a respected music theorist and musicologist, one of whose specializations is semiotics. …

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